We Need Father-Daughter Dances in Prison


In one of the more interesting, and quietly radical, TED talks of recent memory, Angela Walker Patton, founder and executive director of the Richmond, Virginia-based organization Camp Diva, detailed her efforts to empower teen girls of African descent and, in particular, strengthen their relationships with their fathers.

When Angela asked the girls for suggestions about how to better connect with their fathers, they quickly responded that they would like to have a father-daughter dance. The first “Date with Dad” dance was a huge success, and the girls decided that it should become an annual event.

But when it came time to plan the second dance, a brave girl named Brianna* shared her dilemma.

“My dad can’t come to the dance. And this whole thing is making me sad,” she said. “[My dad] is in jail.”

The other girls offered a seemingly unlikely solution — why don’t we bring the dance into the jail? Angela contacted the local sheriff, and soon thereafter, the first father-daughter dance was held in a Richmond-area penitentiary.

Given the large and disproportionate rates of incarceration among African-American males, Brianna is just one of many girls of African descent with a father currently in prison. To support Brianna and girls like her to become empowered and healthy women — and to reinforce the family ties that can help prevent a man’s repeat stint in prison — the father-daughter bond must be strengthened

In her previous work as a case manager, nurse, and life coach with women in the Richmond area, Angela noticed a troubling pattern. As she told me in a recent telephone conversation, many of the women, some of whom were homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or survivors of domestic violence, “carried heavy wounds on their hearts from things that happened when they were teenagers … [These were] women who were 40 or 50 years old still carrying trauma in their hearts from when they were 13 or 14.”  

Angela also noted that many women are still “looking for validation from a father figure.” She continued, “I saw that to strive for girls’ empowerment, we need to not exclude the men, [to] not push the male figure out of the way. That healthy, positive relationship with the father figure is extremely important.”

Recognizing the dearth of resources available for teen girls in Richmond, Angela founded Camp Diva in 2004. Started as a summer camp for girls, Camp Diva now offers a variety of empowerment and enrichment programs for girls year-round.

Angela prefers to call her girls “at-promise,” rather than the stigmatizing term “at-risk.” As she told me, “People become what you call them. As soon you say that they’re poor, when they feel that in their spirit, they become that. They start to think of themselves that way. More than anything I want the girls to be their own heroes.”

So when the girls suggested the father-daughter dance in the local prison, Angela was quick to act. The dances, along with other parenting initiatives such as the National Fatherhood Initiative, provide opportunities and resources for families to reconnect and heal during and after a period of incarceration. As Angela stressed, “We want families to be happy for this second chance, to look forward to it.”

And what about Brianna, whose courageous words sparked the idea? Because Brianna’s father is incarcerated outside of Virginia, she was not able to experience the dance in prison with her dad. However, Brianna played a vital role in the dance’s planning, and she volunteered to give words of encouragement to other girls before a recent dance.

Brianna’s father will finally be released from prison after 12 years in late 2013. She and her dad both eagerly await the “Date with Dad” dance in Richmond a few months later.

Angela herself is in awe of her girls, Brianna in particular: “I told Brianna that she has changed the world through the words. She has changed people’s lives by speaking up.”

Click here to learn more about how to support Camp Diva. 

*Name has been changed.