Florida lawmakers are accustomed to grassroots groups pushing for education reform and healthcare. Frequently the groups are led by women.
This month, a collection of Miami-Dade dads descended on Tallahassee on a similar mission. It raised eyebrows.
“I think it was the first time they had ever seen a contingent of men show up to advocate for fatherhood issues,” said Phillip Tavernier, 42, a delegation member.
Three years ago, Tavernier and Holly Zwerling, a licensed marriage and family therapist, started the Fatherhood Task Force of South Florida (ftfsf.org) after running into each other repeatedly in local activist circles.
“Holly and I would end up at the same meetings together, advocating certain issues,” Tavernier said. “She knew my life as a father of six children, a husband and a young man involved with a number of community organizations. And from that we forged the relationship. She asked me if I wanted to be on the board, and we just started working together. ”
The group, which scored funding from the taxpayer-supported Children’s Trust, has organized a series of fatherhood forums at the University of Miami and dispatched father reading squads to local schools. They claim to have involved at least 1,000 men in their efforts.
But this was their first foray into Tallahassee.
One of the more sensitive gender-based issues in Tallahassee this year has been alimony reform, with men pushing for an end to permanent alimony. That measure was approved by lawmakers and will go to Gov. Rick Scott.
This is a different group of guys.
They (and Zwerling, who is the group’s president) believe that even when men aren’t present in the household, they should be engaged in their children’s lives, plugged into the PTA, and active in advocating political issues that impact their children’s lives.
During their three-day stay in Tallahassee, they pushed for adequate funding for early childhood education and for the Florida KidCare health program, which ensures that more children from families with modest income have access to health insurance.
“One of the problems today is that kids don’t have access to vaccinations. They get sick and they miss out on school,” Zwerling said.
“We also stressed the value of father participation in the political/legislative process,” she said. “We showed our support for affordable, quality, voluntary pre-kindergarten as a fundamental educational component.”
David Williams Jr., a commissioner in Miami Gardens who knows a lot of lawmakers, was part of the delegation and was instrumental in opening doors.
“He helped us maneuver around the capital,” Zwerling said. “Everyone greeted us with open arms. One of the representatives said ‘For the two years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen fathers like I’ve seen today.’ ”
The legislators, who are mostly men, were receptive. “And out of that group of men, I would say most of them are fathers — at least 50 percent — but I don’t think they make decisions based on being fathers,” Tavernier said.
If they did, Florida would probably rank higher in areas that show a concern for kids, things like dollars spent per student. (Florida ranks 40th, according to Education Week magazine.)
Zwerling admits that some people “kind of scratch their head” when they learn that a woman is president of the Fatherhood Task Force.
But the group’s zeal, and hers, is real.
“A woman has been the driving force behind a lot of what men do,” Tavernier said.