Louisvillian of the Year

Shawn Gardner grew up without a dad. Now he’s dedicated his life to promoting the importance of fatherhood

Shawn Gardner was only 10 years old when his mother died from brain cancer. Given he had never even met his father, he spent the remainder of his youth bouncing from one housing project to the next, living with various relatives.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Gardner moved in with an aunt at the former Cotter Homes housing complex. The grief-stricken child would sometimes cry uncontrollably, a habit his aunt broke him of by paying neighborhood kids $5 to hit him in the jaw, an exercise intended to toughen him up.

She lost $25 before Gardner finally decided to fight back.

From then on, he believed a show of force was the best way to deal with most situations

“The problem with that whole ideology is once you have that rage, you fight at the drop of a hat. You move from neighborhood to neighborhood having to re-assert yourself,” he says. “The worst thing about being raised like that, though, was it’s hard to turn that off.”

Because Gardner jumped from one relative to the next, he was often forced to switch schools. Although he managed to maintain an honor roll grade point average, he lied to friends about those good grades to save face. By the time he entered Stuart Middle School in Valley Station, he was a tough guy on the streets, and being a bookworm didn’t mix well with that reputation. Eventually, a persona developed — he was nicknamed Majestyk by his clique of friends for being the thinker in the group. By then he was carrying a handgun with him around the neighborhood.

While in high school, Gardner and two friends broke into a pawnshop and stole a stash of jewelry and guns. The boys initially got away with the crime, and Majestyk became a neighborhood legend — that is until someone snitched. At age 17, Gardner was arrested and ended up behind bars. It’s a mistake Gardner says haunts him to this day, but one that served as a turning point in his life.

Before he could move beyond his past troubles, however, Gardner realized he would have to come to terms with his difficult childhood and, particularly, how not having a father affected him. It’s a process that would take years.

After being released from jail, Gardner moved in with an aunt in Radcliff, Ky. At night he worked the graveyard shift installing guardrails and beams on state highways. During the day he attended classes and earned his GED, eventually getting into the University of Louisville, where he majored in English. It’s also where he met his future wife, Nikki.

While Gardner never knew his father and his mother died when he was only 10, Nikki grew up in a two-parent home in east Louisville and attended private schools. Despite their vastly different upbringings, the pair made it work. Nikki soon became pregnant, and the two eventually married. Ultimately, they had four daughters, which Gardner calls his greatest accomplishment. Fatherhood soon became his most important role in life.

“If I had to guess, it is because of how he was raised, and (Shawn) wanted to raise a child totally differently,” Nikki says, referring to Gardner’s dedication to being a dad. Although the couple separated three years ago, Nikki says they have maintained a good relationship and that Gardner sees the girls daily.

The same year Gardner and his wife separated, he launched a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the importance of fatherhood. Called 2NOT1, the group has three main goals: encourage absent dads to reconnect with their kids, help men who are present be better fathers, and advocate for single fathers who want to be more active but who face legal hurdles and other obstacles preventing them from reconciling with their children.

“A situation I always point out is when mothers say they’re the mama and the daddy. I say, well you can’t be both. I understand what you’re saying and that it means you’re doing all the work by yourself, but you can’t be both,” says 35-year-old Gardner, a resident of the Russell neighborhood in west Louisville. “These conversations are important to have all the time because it carves out space for men to know that their role as fathers is an important one. It let’s them know they have to be there, too.”

The man Gardner believes is his father came around the house a handful of times before his mother died, but the two exchanged words only twice.

The first real meeting occurred when Gardner was a teenager living with his grandmother in the Beecher Terrace housing complex. One day, while walking home from the Galleria, he encountered the man, whom he had not seen since his mother’s funeral years earlier. The man pulled up beside Gardner and asked if he needed anything.

“I told him I needed a pair of tennis shoes,” Gardner recalls. “So he gave me $10 and dropped me off at Dan’s Pawn Shop.”

Their second meeting would take place behind bars.

While serving a 6-month stint for robbing the pawnshop as a teenager, Gardner again encountered the man he thinks is his estranged father. He, too, was serving time in jail. The two recognized one another and chatted only briefly while watching television.

That was their last encounter.

Like many men who grew up without a father, Gardner has struggled to learn what it means to be an adult with responsibilities. For him, having children changed everything, which is one of the reasons Gardner has made it his mission to campaign for fathers and families.

Though the absence of his father is undeniably an engine behind Gardner’s attentiveness to his children and the 2NOT1 campaign, he has never felt inclined to pursue a relationship with him. One of his daughters recently asked about her grandfather to complete a homework assignment requiring her to draw a family tree. Gardner was candid, saying he didn’t know him at all.

“The only reason I’d be looking for him is for family medical history for (my daughters),” says Gardner. “At this point in my life, how can I miss something I never had?”

That being said, he acknowledges it is something that deeply affected him, which is why he was determined to be a different type of father. Not only would he be present, but active and loving as well.

Frustrated with being told he was “babysitting” and playing “Mr. Mom” while watching his own children, and believing that most fathers really do want to be involved in their children’s lives, Gardner started 2NOT1 to help men be better dads.

Even though much of 2NOT1’s work focuses on helping fathers who want to be more active, Gardner also is dedicated to debunking false impressions about “deadbeat dads.” At the same time, he fully acknowledges there are men out there who are not making an effort.

In recounting a recent conversation with a father who was complaining about paying too much child support, Gardner says he abruptly interrupted and asked how often the man sees his child. The father admitted it had been over a year and attempted to blame the situation on the child’s mother.

“You’ve got to see your child,” he recalls telling him. “You’ve missed a year of your child’s life. How do you justify that?”

Of course there are fathers who are both absent from the lives of their children and negligent in providing for them financially. The state’s Child Support Enforcement Program reports that there currently is about $1.3 billion in unpaid child support in Kentucky. The state does not break down those financial obligations by gender, but anecdotally it is well known that fathers are responsible for the majority of child support paid into the system.

Of the men 2NOT1 is aimed at helping, it is absentee fathers who are the most difficult to reach. Such men either do not understand their role as a father, Gardner says, or they don’t see the need to be there.

The second group 2NOT1 seeks to assist is fathers who want to be there for their children but are dealing with barriers in the court system and personal relationships. These are the fathers who often call Gardner pleading for help to obtain expanded visitation rights. It’s an expansive group that includes men ranging from convicted felons to middle-class dads trying to further their education and provide more for their family.

In divorce cases and paternity disputes, judges typically award custody to the mother. The same trend is generally followed when a child is born out of wedlock, sometimes making it difficult for fathers to be as involved as they would like.

“Deadbeat dads is not a term we use and it’s not really fair to categorize most men in that situation,” says Steve Veno, deputy commissioner of the Department for Income Support, the state agency charged with overseeing child support. And although Veno acknowledges that many men purposefully avoid meeting financial obligations to their children, he says the scenarios are often more complicated than they seem.

“You do have a percentage of fathers who are making an effort, but are lacking a skill,” Veno says. “It’s not that they don’t want to pay (child) support, they just don’t have the means by which to do it.”

The final group Gardner’s campaign addresses includes men like himself, who are striving to be the best fathers they can be and are consistent and present in the lives of their children, despite any setbacks in their own upbringing. These men often grew up without a father and, as a result, are still trying to figure out what that role means. They benefit mostly from the organization’s learning sessions, workshops and conferences, and are also crucial when it comes to encouraging other fathers to get more involved.

Regardless of what group a father might fall into, the message is the same, says Antoine Greene, 36, a 2NOT1 member who attends the group’s meetings and workshops. The purpose is to learn to be a better father, and men from many different walks of life can benefit from that message.

“It may be a situation of helping a father going to the county attorney’s office with his child support. It might be helping a father further his education. Whatever their previous situation may have been, it’s about helping end that cycle,” says Greene, who is married with a child and has a daughter from a previous relationship. “It’s helping fathers get back on track.”

Currently, 2NOT1 works with parents, community groups, city agencies and the courts to encourage both parents to participate in the lives of their children. In the community, for instance, they hold regular workshops as part of a Fatherhood Leadership Academy, which reaches out to expectant and absentee fathers offering life skills and parenting training. Outside of those sessions, Gardner makes himself readily available for fathers, whether to simply listen to their frustrations or offer advice. It’s a campaign that can be a 24/7 job.

“Shawn Gardner and his team of associates are all doing this for a real good cause. It’s very, very important because it starts at the home,” Greene says. “2NOT1 really stresses the point that mothers, grandmothers and aunts have been strong for years. But with that father figure in the home, it means everything for our children to be successful, especially in the low-income areas. And Shawn’s real big about getting us back in the home so we can quit this cycle.”

When he’s not counseling dads or conducting workshops, Gardner spends much of his time helping fathers navigate the legal system. In particular, he helps single fathers make contact with social workers in an effort to re-establish contact with their children.

Although 2NOT1 is still a relatively new organization, officials with the judicial system acknowledge Gardner’s efforts are already making a difference.

“These types of fatherhood groups are all over the state and country,” says Jim Birmingham, a Jefferson County Family Court administrator who has connected Gardner with case specialists and social workers. “In the city of Louisville, Shawn — as far as I can tell — seems to be the most active.”

Although Gardner has always been a proud father, there was a time after splitting up with his wife that even he felt disposable. Perhaps it was seeing how easily his aunts dispatched boyfriends from their homes over the years.

“I still deal with depression. And I hope I say these words right: One of the biggest things (men) wrestle with now is confidence. Believing in what I’m doing, as a man,” Gardner says. “If I’m 35 dealing with this, then I can only imagine what (other men and young boys) are dealing with … Dealing with it is hard.”

After separating, the Gardners agreed to share custody of their four children. Given the horror stories of ugly family disputes he hears about daily, Gardner is thankful he and his ex could work together for the sake of their children.

These days, Gardner — who for years worked odd jobs — spends the bulk of his time either with his children or working to ensure 2NOT1 is a success. Still in its early stages of development, the organization operates on a shoestring budget of grants and donations.

At this point, 2NOT1 still is nomadic, floating between the Plymouth Community Center in the Russell neighborhood and the community development building of Bates Memorial Baptist Church in Shelby Park, where Gardner hosts fatherhood discussions and an annual Father’s Day picnic.

There are financial struggles to get the nonprofit group running at a pace that keeps up with a growing vision, and though it’s difficult without a suitable headquarters that will allow 2NOT1 organizers to stitch administrative work, city officials have noticed Gardner’s advocacy.

Last year, the organization received a grant from the Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness Center for Health Equity to work with fathers and families on issues of healthy relationships and mental wellness for its second annual fatherhood conference. The conference hosted over 200 men at the Kentucky International Convention Center, bringing together fathers for workshops that delved into topics like understanding the court system and the meaning of masculinity in the home.

Gardner believes such workshops speak to men who feel unappreciated, while helping others learn to overcome systemic barriers. And though they’ve gotten positive feedback in the community, Gardner says there still is too much focus on the negative.

“There’s an overwhelming emphasis on fathers who don’t want to be there. You really don’t hear the other side of the story about the fathers wanting to be there, but who are dealing with crap,” says Gardner. “That conversation falls by the wayside and it’s forgotten for a number of reasons… It’s time for a different approach and a different look at the way we look at single fathers.”

Among the group’s supporters who’ve taken a particular interest in Gardner’s campaign is mayoral candidate and Metro Councilman David Tandy, D-4, who contributed $5,000 of his district’s discretionary funding toward 2NOT1’s fatherhood conference. The two met at a community forum in west Louisville, and Tandy was impressed with Gardner’s leadership. Being a father of three young children himself, Tandy’s personal understanding of that role has deepened. Before entering the mayoral race, he openly discussed how he weighed the decision to run against his responsibilities at home.

The Democratic mayoral candidate represents some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city where single parent homes are prevalent. It made the decision to lend support to Gardner’s efforts easier, he says, because promoting male role models and families where both the mother and father are engaged is critical for building better communities.

“I think for a generation, the presence of responsible and dedicated men in the household has been absent,” says Tandy. “While many children haven’t gotten the support and encouragement from fathers at home that they need, (2NOT1) is trying to turn that trend around. We have to support them to be the absolute best fathers they can be to break the cycle that has been prevalent for too long.”

Though city agencies have provided a small amount of financial support, Tandy says Metro government should continue to find other ways to enhance organizations like 2NOT1.

It’s welcome news in an ambitious year for Gardner. The fatherhood advocate plans on finding a facility for 2NOT1 and developing a better relationship with family court. He wants to fashion their programming and services around local issues that are specific to the needs of fathers in the city. The organization has already begun brainstorming with Jefferson County Public Schools officials about direct strategies to get fathers more involved with their children’s schooling.

There is also a set of personal goals Gardner wants to meet to help move the organization forward. He completed a master’s degree in conflict resolution at Sullivan University last December and has only a few hours of state training left to get on the list of court-appointed mediators. Ultimately, he hopes to develop a more community-based arbitration system between mothers and fathers, which he says is the front line of the battle.

“Any time you separate from somebody, the majority of the time you don’t do it on great terms. Obviously, something didn’t work out right, and it’s no different when you have a child,” Gardner says. “Everyone wants to say it’s about the child. Yeah, but it’s not always that simple. When you have a disagreement, a lot of times we men practice avoidance. I have to tell my fathers, you have to go above and beyond.”

In their monthly support group meetings at community centers and churches, Gardner challenges fathers to do better. It’s where he witnesses a number of men shed their anger over being told they’re absent fathers.

“We’re still getting started, but man I’m excited about this because I know if we can get fathers here, it will be truly unique to get the voice of fathers who want to be there out to the public,” Gardner says. “I truly believe fathers want to be there for their children. I really believe that, by nature, we want to be there.”