On the fourth floor of the Health District Building in downtown Richmond, Donald Stern's office is beginning to resemble a library with an unusual collection. On his desk, next to new editions of the World Health Report and Control of Communicable Diseases, are Race Matters by philosopher Cornel West, Was Bill Cosby Right? by Michael Eric Dyson, and the Moynihan Report, a controversial 1965 federal document that detailed crumbling relations in the African American family. Nearly 50 years after its publication, Stern says, it has proven "prophetic" in the former seat of the Confederacy.
Stern became Richmond's public health director after his boss urgently called him there in December 2006. He had spent the previous 25 years in some capacity in Virginia public health, tracking infection rates, administering flu shots, inspecting nursing homes—"I've done about every job a physician could do in Virginia public health," says Stern, an affable, mustached doctor trained in maternal and child health. But all that, he says, "was God's means of preparing me for my most challenging role," centered in Richmond.
"Here's some light reading for you," Stern says as he hands me Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America , historian John McWhorter's landmark study on the effects of welfare reform since the 1960s. "Forty years of public policy around poverty and the war on drugs have, in McWhorter's words, sent the black community to hell."
That hell was clear to Stern when he, like any good doctor with a new patient, examined Richmond's vital signs. "Every health status indicator was worse than the state average. Then we looked at the indicators that were twice as high as the Virginia average: teen pregnancy, infant mortality, out-of-wedlock births, std infections, and lead poisoning. The first four are all a function of relationships between men and women."
The numbers led Stern to the same "inescapable conclusion" made by scores of sociologists, pastors, and pundits observing the post-Jim Crow black family: "There is a crisis in gender relations in the African American community. This is a painful reality."
Should a public health department—perceived as a government monolith unqualified to counsel individual men and women—try to change citizens' gender relations, encouraging fidelity, responsibility, and stable two-parent families?
When it costs a city $205 million every year in taxpayer dollars, say Stern and a number of Christians in Richmond, the answer is clear.
Nuclear Family by the Numbers
With a bottom-line, preventive approach, Richmond has since 2009 hosted one of the few U.S. public health programs whose mantra is "create a community culture connecting fathers to their families." Unlike most city governments, which respond to father absence by increasing aid to single women, the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative (RFFI) uses ad campaigns, legislation, and partnerships with Richmond's sizable Christian community to reach its goal: Decrease the nonmarital birthrate, reconnect fathers to their children, and foster strong two-parent families—all for the future health of Richmond.
All 13 of RFFI's founders are committed Christians, including Brian Gullins, a black pastor who arrived in Richmond to plant a church in 2008. When Gullins needed a second job, Ron Clark, director of the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, encouraged him to apply to become coordinator for "Man Up Richmond," a then-new program with the health district. After a series of interviews, Gullins met with Stern for lunch.