His given name is Dondrae Lamont Fair Sr. But anyone who knows him also knows not to use it. Instead, they call him Choo, or Choo Fair, to be exact. It stands for “caring and helping out others.”
And that’s because everyone who knows Choo also knows something else: It’s a perfectly suited nickname for the 47-year-old husband, father and grandfather who’s beloved in his Northeast Portland community for his mentorship and counseling, and who’s well-known for his muscle car, ever-ready smile and strong stature.
“I’m not just a father to my kids,” Fair said. ‘I’m a father to the kids in my community. I volunteer my time and help coaches with football. You have to be a ‘role model’ for the youth. When I played football growing up, I didn’t have a father to push me and my mom did what she could.”
Fair’s coaching extends far beyond the field, though. His resume includes community activism, mentorship and case management. He’s also a corrections counselor who teaches H.E.A.T. — or Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability, Therapy — a curriculum tailored for African American men involved in the justice system.
He teaches the nine-month course to a group of eight — on topics ranging from the historical strengths of African Americans to healthy relationships.
While discussions in H.E.A.T. classes have always broached issues of race and inequities in the justice system, lately those discussions have come with hope for lasting change. Not just in Portland, where scores of protestors — from activists to celebrities to everyday moms and dads — have for 50 days decried inequities experienced by Black people in the justice system, but across the country.
“The whole world watched him take his last breath,” Fair says of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Viral video of Floyd’s death, among others, helped spur the current protests in support of Black lives and against systemic racism and police violence.
“What happened to him was tragic,” Fair says. “We have talked about the pandemic, but worse are the murders we face as young African American men.”
“If we wear a hat or a hoodie, it means you may be targeted,” he continues. “Just being Black and getting pulled over could mean your life.”
Born and raised in Northeast Portland, Choo Fair says he was “just like the guys” he works with today.
When the crack-cocaine epidemic hit the community, Fair’s mother didn’t make it.
“My mother was a great mom, but fell victim to the crack epidemic. My father wasn’t around,” he says. “It was hard and it was rough. I had to learn how to feed myself at a young age.”
Fair walked down some of the same paths as some of his clients, and attended one too many funerals. He brings that lived experience to his teaching, just as he brings the lived experience of what he’s accomplished since then.
“When I had my kids, I wanted to be different than that,” he says. “I met my wife at 23, and I’m 47 now. We’ve been together for 24 years, and married for 14 years. We have a family and built a house.”
For the past six years, Fair taught H.E.A.T. as a mentor for Volunteers of America. But recently, he started working for Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. He’s now one of four H.E.A.T. instructors helping men and women on parole and probation.
“My age group is between 18 to 29 years old. I tell them their brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25,” he says, “and so there’s so much in store for their future.”
Virtual classes are held Tuesdays and Thursdays, alongside phone calls and just talking with clients. On a recent Tuesday, Fair says, they started talking about Black manhood.
“We talked about street perspectives on what that is: Money, girls and cars.
And I asked, ‘How many of you guys had fathers? And what did that look like to you?,’” he says. “Ninety-five percent of them didn’t have fathers, so the street perspective was what they looked up to. And it’s the trap that gets you into a system that unfolds generation after generation.”
For communities of color, and specifically Black communities, disproportionate intersections with the justice system are well-documented, and have helped create the generational cycle Fair tells his students about. Those intersections with the justice system come alongside cycles of poverty, material hardship, health challenges, and toxic stress that can begin in utero.
“And then you start to get into the school-to-prison pipeline,” Fair says. “They put you in the box that can start as early as the third grade.”
“As a Black man,” Fair adds, “I was, and am still, profiled. I was pulled over with my kids. And I think the world is starting to catch on now that there's more video.”
Amid the outcry over George Floyd’s killing, Fair says, there’s been a substantial shift and demand for better support in job and educational opportunities for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. There’s also a push for more physical, emotional and financial support for Black communities — before there’s ever any intersection with law enforcement. For one, Fair talks about the need for more culturally-specific counseling in schools.
“But we need policy change,” Fair says. “We need to continue to dissect where disparities exist in the current system and support legislation and policy change aimed at dismantling it.
People are hurt across the country, and there’s a push to make things different. And hopefully things will be different. That’s the hope.”
For those currently caught in the justice system, men and women wondering what’s next once they’re out, Fair knows how essential it is to have someone on the other side who understands you.
“As Black men, we’re relationship people and nobody is going to just sit down and open up without knowing you,” he says.
Building truly, trusted relationships combined with foundational support such as a home, employment and more can help launch someone to the next stage in life.
“One of the guys I work with called me recently at 6:14 in the morning,” he recalls. “And instead of going off and doing something that might have jeopardized his future, he stayed on the phone and worked with me.
And that is because of the relationship.”
The next lesson on the syllabus is Fatherhood. The H.E.A.T. curriculum culminates in a graduation with friends, family members and other supporters.
“I base everything on fatherhood and grandfatherhood and being a loyal husband and being there in the community. It’s nine months of education, lesson plans and life,” said Fair.
“I’m trying to give my community hope.”