Originally published in February 2007
In the trade I ply—encouraging men to explore options outside the constraining box of conventional masculinity—there’s certainly no shortage of bad news. Men’s violence against women (and other men) remains at catastrophic levels; there’s little chance the Men’s Resource Center for Change is going to be short of problems to address anytime soon. Nevertheless, my family and friends will tell you I’m a glass-half-full person—upbeat, optimistic. Even in the face of gloom and doom—the senseless, tragic war in Iraq, the criminal neglect plaguing the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, the indifference to the suffering in Darfur—I always seem to look for ways to connect the dots of possibility, the signs of hope trumping despair. So where is the good news?
Let me cite three examples.
Not long ago, I talked into the night around a fire pit in New Orleans with young men volunteering to help with the city’s renewal, shared Chinese food with an inspiring group of male college students challenging sexism and violence on an elite New England campus, and met in a classroom after school with male high school juniors and seniors, all members of a “women’s rights club.”
It was hard to retain my glass-half-full demeanor after spending time in New Orleans before the holidays. My wife and I came to visit one of our daughters, part of the legion of twenty-somethings who have moved to town to help with the relief effort. The mix of women and men, many volunteering with the Common Ground Collective (www.commongroundrelief.org), represents some of the best our troubled, creative country has to offer. Since Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods overwhelmed the region, thousands of volunteers have passed through Common Ground, headquartered in a three-story brick school where floodwaters peaked above the second floor.
Sitting around a fire pit in the backyard of a funky, colorful house in the Seventh Ward, I talked one night with male volunteers. I saw in their faces and heard in their words a sensitivity to, and awareness of, the class and racial issues plaguing the city (issues predating Katrina) that stirred in me a sense of hope. We talked for a while, then played some music (guitar, banjo, harmonica)—it was N’awlins after all—then resumed wrestling with how to reconcile the enormity of the calamity with the limitations of volunteer, underfunded grassroots efforts. Their compassion caught my attention—soft, understated, not an attribute necessarily associated with men. I think the scope of the devastation and the shameful neglect, plain for all to see, helped crack open their hearts. On the plane home, I thought about that night and my eyes welled up. I had been witness to a quiet, powerful expression of men’s courage. Despite the struggle New Orleans faces, these young men filled my glass with more than just dregs of hope.
Back home, I went to dinner with most of the members of The Men’s Project of Amherst College and filmmaker Byron Hurt (his important new film, Beyond Beats and Rhymes is scheduled to air nationally on PBS on Tuesday evening, February 20 and is the subject of a cover story in our magazine, Voice Male,) The college men’s group was founded on principles similar to those of the Men’s Resource Center for Change, adapted to a college community. Their goal is to sustain a male-initiated, profeminist, antiviolence/anti-sexual assault presence at Amherst College, even when prevailing attitudes objectify women and pressure men to strike a tough guise.
They’d invited filmmaker Hurt to screen his new film. At dinner, one young man asked Byron how he had gotten involved in “men’s work.” Byron responded by asking each of us to answer, too. As we passed around steaming platters of food, one by one we shared the spark—a teacher, parent, sister, friend, girlfriend, a training, becoming a father—a cascading series of experiences that had resulted in each of us reaching a similar conclusion: there’s a better way to be a man. As we headed over to see the film, I could feel my glass of hope filling up.
A few days later, in a classroom at Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School, I met with the male members of the Women’s Rights Club, a 60-member group, a quarter of whom are guys, 16 to 18. With little prompting, they shared why they’d joined: becoming aware of the sexual harassment female students experience; wanting to support an upcoming Vagina Monologues performance; not wanting to have to pretend they were a “certain kind of (tough, strong and silent) guy.” A starting member of a varsity sports team told how, at a team meeting, he’d announced he had to leave early to attend the Women’s Rights Club meeting. He was met with a string of derisive comments, all questioning his manhood. His response? “I don’t care what you say. Being in this group is important to me.” Other group members then shared how their male friends had teased them, too. But they had all withstood the criticism. It was an hour after school had ended, and there they all were, a young men’s group. Their voices may not be as deep as those of the men around the fire in New Orleans; their mission not yet as broad as the Amherst College students’. Nevertheless they, too, had connected the dots clearly enough to know that there are other ways for men to be, possibilities much richer and more personally fulfilling than the old “tough, strong and silent” model. For someone who likes to see his glass half full, I left the high school that day with my cup overflowing.