Craig McGruder tilts his head to hear a plea for help in the heart of Watts.
"I've got trouble," says a guy who used to run with the Grape Street Crips. "Been thinking about doing some dirt. Thinking about robbing so I can get my kids the school supplies they need."
McGruder understands trouble. He'd grown up with most of the men meeting in this white-walled community center on a midsummer night. Some had been dealers who'd sold him crack when he was at his lowest, skulking around Jordan Downs, where he'd been born in 1962 and never much left.
"You can't do it," McGruder says, surprising himself because he's always tended to be quiet. "You got too much to lose. If you get caught and locked up, how can you be there for your kids?"
The ex-gangster gets an earful, from McGruder and the others, their words splitting the air like an ax. "Don't let us down." He lowers his head and agrees.
About two dozen men come every Wednesday night to these gatherings; many have lived lives full of terrible choices. They know they've brought pain to their community, one of the nation's toughest housing projects.
"This is no group of guys who've been choirboys," says one of their leaders, Mike Cummings, known simply as "Big Mike." "They take responsibility for it. And they're trying to make things right."
These men have formed a street-level support group, raw and uncensored. Their goal? Becoming what most of them didn't have while growing up: good fathers.
Their meetings, off-limits to outsiders without group approval, can feel staid at times. Then, in a flash, everything changes. Men raised to mask all feeling crack with emotion. They worry about losing their kids to violence or angry mothers or foster care. They wonder how to safeguard daughters or teach boys to become men. They talk about their mothers, and some of them cry.
McGruder stands out. Fifty, gray-haired, his round face framing a gentle smile, the men have voted him Father of the Year. He lives for these gatherings, which are led by a trio of former Crips and the only white person — and only woman — in the room, a professor of social work at UCLA whom the men have come to see as a confidant.
Each week McGruder's twin 17-year-olds, Victor and Vincent, sit shyly next to him in folding chairs. He makes them come. They need to learn.
His boys are about to have children of their own.
It started in 2009 on a patch of grass outside the Jordan Downs gym. A group of ex-Crips gave haircuts and grilled hamburgers, hoping families and fathers would show up, relax and begin to talk.
"Growing up the way we did, during the time we did, a lot of the dads might as well have been in some other world," says Andre "Low Down" Christian, one of the leaders. "It's a big reason why things ended up as rough as they did here."
He tells of getting into a fight and tracking down his father for advice. His father gave him brass knuckles and a sawed-off shotgun.
"There had to be a better way of looking at being a dad," he says. "That's what we wanted people to think about."
Those initial weeks in front of the gym, five people came. The local fire station donated steaks and a barbecue. Time passed. Twenty arrived. Then 25.
John King, the Los Angeles Housing Authority official who oversees the community center, was already trying to change the culture in Jordan Downs as preparations were made to rebuild the 700-unit apartment complex. He offered his support and told the men to use his conference room.
By the summer of 2011, backed by a $50,000 grant from the nonprofit Children's Institute, the loose amalgamation of men became something more formal. Now they had a name, Project Fatherhood, and were part of a regional network of meetings the institute sponsored, focusing on men and their kids.
The Watts group has the feel of an urban barbershop: full of jokes and jealousy, grace and anger. Early on, two street toughs entered the room as the men spoke. Wearing trench coats, not saying a word, they walked around the oval of tables, suspiciously checking out the scene.
"They were wondering what exactly was going on with these older dudes," says the UCLA professor, Jorja Leap, who, assuming the toughs were carrying shotguns, followed the fathers' lead and didn't say a word. "They had to see for themselves what this meeting was about. Was it a threat to them? When they found out what we were doing, they gave their OK."
Project Fatherhood became part of the fabric of Jordan Downs. As the Wednesdays piled up, the men grew comfortable talking about their problems. They "were carrying deep troubles, questions and fears about being dads," Leap says. "Problem was, they didn't have many examples of good fathering, so they were coming up with answers from scratch."