Joe Jones once sold and used drugs, was in and out of jail and not a very good father to the son he had out of wedlock. But all of this was a very long time ago. Today, Jones, a native of Baltimore, is in and out of the White House, working passionately to change life for African-American men and their families.
He is founder and president of Center for Urban Families (CFUF), an organization that cannot be introduced without its tag line, “Helping fathers and families work,” Jones insists.
His own life sparked the creation of CFUF.
He spent his early years in a high rise project in east Baltimore. “I had two loving parents. They had crazy schedules, but they tag-teamed raising me,” he said. “My father became an educator; my mom became a nurse.”
But when Jones was about nine years old his parents separated. He remembers looking out the living room window and seeing his father get into the car with a bag.
“That was the last time we lived together. He was not completely out of my life, but it was not the same relationship again,” said Jones.
His mom moved the two of them to the west side of Baltimore. Suddenly, Jones had a lot of alone time and he made new friends.
“My new friends were doing things I only heard about,” he said. “The first time I did drugs I was 13. I had never had sex or smoked marijuana. I went from being a naive kid who lived in the projects to a kid shooting heroin.”
After a while he was also selling drugs. He kept his lifestyle away from his parents, though they heard rumors. They got proof when Jones and some friends were caught shooting up heroin in a laundry room and were arrested. While his buddies got out of jail immediately, his mom decided to leave him in jail the weekend to teach him a lesson. She and Jones were surprised when the judge sent Jones away for 30 days to get “additional help.” It was his first time being incarcerated. It was also the first time he realized he was an addict.
“My father came to see me and gave me a book, Manchild in the Promised Land,” recalled Jones, who said he couldn’t put down Claude Brown’s autobiography of growing up poor amidst violence in Harlem. For Jones, the book was evidence you could change your life. He promised himself he’d never return to jail. Yet he did.
He was still enrolled in school but in 1975 he earned his G.E.D. and got a job as a clerk for the federal government. He sold cocaine and heroin to his coworkers until one day when he and 18 other employees were arrested during a sting operation on the job.
“I had drugs, hypodermic needles and a gun sewn into my coat,” said Jones. “All of a sudden a guy gets on stage and says ‘DEA! Don’t move!’”
He was embarrassed for his mother and grandmother who worked at the federal agency with him. In court, he received probation. In 1980 he left the government and got a job with the railroad.
“I worked six months and made about $50,000,” said Jones. “I spent at least $48,000 on drugs.”
Finally, a year after he left the railroad he was facing drug charges and figured the only way to escape a prison sentence this time was to enter a drug treatment facility. The judge sentenced him to five years, suspended if he stayed in the program. Jones completed the program and tried to make amends with the son he fathered at age 22, but the broken relationship would take years to heal.
He got an associate’s degree in accounting only to realize no company was going to let him touch their money. He landed a job with the Baltimore City Health Department as case manager to a group of pregnant women recovering from substance abuse.
”The reality was they were pregnant by guys in the community who were not getting any services, yet they influenced the behavior of these women,” said Jones. “I said we need to address the issues of these guys too.”
In 1989 there were very few programs that addressed the issues of fathers. Jones started a pilot program that was successful. By 1994, the issue of absentee fathers had caught the attention of more people. Jones was invited to the White House to forums held by the Clinton administration and later to a family conference organized by then Vice President, Al Gore, and his wife, Tipper.
Jones remembers being nervous about his first White House visit.
“I expected to be grabbed by the collar,” he said. But generally, going to the White House hasn’t been a problem, though his record occasionally comes up during security checks. Still, he’s always allowed to enter.
“I can’t run away from that history, but I can determine my life going forward so no one can question my integrity,” he said.
Jones created the Center for Urban Families in 1999, remembering his experiences as a son and a father. He doesn’t namedrop, just acknowledges almost with disbelief, some well known people who have helped him. In addition to former Vice President Al Gore, Jones said Kirk Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, has introduced him to many influential people, including Hillary Clinton.
“It helped facilitate a professional trajectory that would have been difficult under other circumstances,” Jones said.
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, pushed him to return to college. In 2005, Jones graduated from the university with honors, earning an undergraduate degree in social work.
“Joe has a reputation for actually making a difference, and I’ve seen it in action, for some of the most broken people in our city,” said CFUF board member Scott Sherman, a vice president at T. Rowe Price Investment Services, Inc. in Baltimore. “Everyone has a chance when they walk through our doors. Joe, by his own admission, was one of those broken people and he has achieved.”
Wayne Cooper, now ex-offender coordinator at CFUF, was Jones’s counselor at the drug treatment program where Jones spent that year to avoid a five-year sentence.
“You could tell he was bright, but not focused,” said Cooper. “He was manipulative, self- centered. But you knew he had a lot of ability.”
Cooper says the relationship of respect they’ve maintained for years began one day when he ordered Jones to empty a five gallon bucket of water using a teaspoon.
“I told him if he dropped an ounce I would put him out (of the program),” Cooper said. “It was designed to get him to focus and think about the transgressions he had committed against himself and society.”
It took Jones an entire day but after that, Cooper said, Jones “made some significant changes in his approach to life.”
Now the counselor works for the former drug addict—and loves every minute of it.
Said Cooper, “You can’t be around him and not see his sincerity. He is an exceptional human being.”