Lessons from the Men’s Story Project
Founded in San Francisco in 2008, the Men’s Story Project (MSP) is an innovative movement-building project promoting healthy masculinities and intersectional gender justice. Rooted in interdisciplinary research, the project helps campus and nonprofit groups to create and film live productions where diverse men publicly share personal stories examining ideas about masculinity to promote health and equality for people of all genders. The Men’s Story Project is rooted in a feminist, anti-racist, intersectional framework.
As gender justice practitioners, we know that social ideas about masculinity a) are socially constructed and changeable, and b) foster many preventable health and social justice problems for people of all genders. It’s notable that despite these facts, critical public dialogue on masculinities is still in nascent stages in many contexts. People often don’t realize that when it comes to how boys and men are socialized to be “men,” there’s much to discuss and much that can be changed.
I founded the Men’s Story Project to address this need. In each MSP production, diverse men and folks who identify with masculinity share candid, personal stories with a live audience (online or in person) about their experiences with a range of issues: family and romantic relationships, gender-based violence (e.g., witnessing, perpetrating, intervening, and surviving), HIV/AIDS, bullying, LGBTQ+ issues, mental health, journeys of personal change, and intersections with race and other aspects of identity.
They share their stories in prose, poetry, music, dance and visual art, followed by facilitated audience dialogue. The events are filmed to create locally relevant films, social media and discussion guides. The MSP presenters vary in age (from 12 to 74 so far!), identities and backgrounds, and have included students, artists, athletes, coaches, fathers, veterans, and celebrities, among others. More than 30 MSP productions have been presented to date in the U.S., Canada, Chile, Gaza and the West Bank, in collaboration with universities and organizations including UN Women, Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, University of Oregon and MenHealing.
To prepare for these unusual moments of public truth-sharing, the presenters go through six to eight weekly workshops where they learn together via group activities, exchange feedback on their draft pieces, challenge each other (the MSP places great value on “productive discomfort”), and build community. The workshops are supplemented both by individual story coaching and a buddy system. Over the years, the presenters’ stories have featured the core themes of celebrating, challenging, and resisting. Celebrating is about giving thanks for sources of love and beauty in their lives, such as their relationships with their partners and children. Challenging is about confronting harmful notions of masculinity by discussing the costs of these norms in their own lives and sharing their stories of personal change (such as how they finally sought help for depression or porn addiction, or received support to end their perpetration of intimate partner violence). Resisting is about working to end intersecting oppressive ideologies/systems that they’ve either espoused or been subjected to, by sharing their stories of unlearning or self-assertion, respectively.
Examples of resistance include stories of how they came to a place of pride in their GBTQ+ identity even in, say, rural Texas, or while living as a Catholic monk in Chile. Or by asserting that they, as Black men in Oakland or Providence, are “loving and compassionate men”—in contrast to the racist stereotypes often applied to them by white people (which, as one presenter noted, are “what’s truly scary”). The presenters’ stories are intersectional, as are people’s lives, and provide ample fodder for reflection and dialogue among audience members—many of whom have told us in evaluations about how they subsequently discussed the productions with family members, friends, partners, dorm mates, bosses, mentees, even the person standing next to them in a line.
We’ve found that for audience members and presenters, the Men’s Story Project fosters diverse impacts including a reevaluation of personal prejudices, and an expanded worldview and sense of life possibility. They have credited this widened field of vision to the uncommon opportunity the MSP gave them to directly hear the deeply personal stories of (and for presenters, to also build deep relationships with) diverse men, often of backgrounds very different from their own. Excerpts of audience feedback include: “I laughed, cried and rethought my own prejudices… It was life-altering”; and “I gained a new perspective of masculinity from hearing these stories—specifically a desire to change some of the aspects of my own behavior”; and “Opened my eyes to the healing process and allowed me to see the steps others have taken towards healing.”
Accountability is central to the MSP. It offers presenters an opportunity to publicly take responsibility for their past harmful beliefs and behaviors; describe how they pursued journeys of change; discuss benefits they’re experiencing from the changes they made; and share their goals and commitments for the future. For example, an Emory University student told a live audience of 280 about how he had cheated on his prior girlfriends, and declared: “I want to learn how to love better.” In an MSP ensemble piece entitled “I Remember, I Commit,” a St. Louis University graduate told an audience of 350 bearing witness: “I remember hearing and telling sexist jokes at work. I commit to interrupting sexism and creating a work environment where everyone feels safe.” And a 69-year-old former Black Panther told an audience in San Francisco about how he unlearned homophobia and was now “willing to fight for all people’s rights,” declaring, “All power to all the people!”
Building an intentional space for presenters through group agreements that facilitate safety, bravery and creativity is key to fostering a growth-supporting workshop experience. For example, Texas presenter Rocky Lane posted on Facebook: “The people I met in this process displayed so much vulnerability that I was instantly at ease to share the details about my life that I sometimes would rather forget. This group gave me a safe space to share. They encouraged me in ways that enriched my spirit. I sat with uncomfortable emotions around the toxicity I have contributed to the world. I cried tears of relief to hear words of encouragement from wonderful humans. The story I tell [in] these performances is a scary one to share, but I am so proud of what they helped me create.”
We are also learning that men’s public expressions of accountability can have long-term reverberations in their lives. Ten years after his participation in San Francisco, a presenter who shared his journey of change after perpetrating intimate partner violence wrote: “The sense of community I felt with the other men was very nurturing, and I no longer felt socially isolated… I was able to publicly hold myself accountable for things I had done… Essentially, telling my story of violence publicly was a turning point in my life, because I was inviting the community to hold me accountable for breaking the cycle of abuse in my life and to also see the hope I had for my own healing.”
Based on program feedback and ongoing learning, the Men’s Story Project’s training resources evolve each year; they include a 70-page, step-by-step training guide, webinars, and coaching sessions, among other resources. The MSP’s work must be trauma-informed, guided by trained facilitators, and importantly, include structured attention to preventing potential harms—such as perpetuation of oppressive ideas on public stages, or public identification of victims of violence without their consent. It is also key for the work to have an explicit intersectional social justice frame. We have also found that after the live events, the filmed stories are powerful teaching tools unto themselves.
To help advance gender equality, health and social justice around the world, I believe we need critical masses of men— everywhere, and of all walks of life—to step forward and share their own, personal stories that counter harmful masculinity narratives and intersecting oppressive ideologies. I believe this kind of public storytelling work should become mainstream and widely implemented, and always be accompanied by rigorous evaluation. Whether stand-alone or integrated with other gender-transformative programs, the Men’s Story Project framework is adaptable for local contexts and purposes. Above all, I find it deeply compelling that men’s true, transformative stories are often just beneath the surface—waiting to be told.
Jocelyn Lehrer, Sc.D., is founder and director of the Men’s Story Project.
To learn more, visit www.mensstoryproject.org.