An Interview with Dr. Jocelyn Lehrer, Founder of the Men’s Story Project
By David Michael Newstead
Dr. Jocelyn (Josie) Lehrer may have been ahead of her time when she watched the first performance of her brainchild, the Men’s Story Project (MSP), in Berkeley, California, in 2008. Ten years later, the project is positioned to fill an important role as society begins to seriously confront destructive expressions of masculinity as well as the challenges, struggles and joys of being a man today. The project was a cover story in Voice Male in 2010 and has grown considerably in the years since. To take a new look at MSP, writer David Newstead recently spoke with Josie Lehrer about what’s ahead as she works to create dialogue between and among men, and to develop a muchneeded forum on masculinities in communities across the globe.
David Newstead: How did the idea for the Men’s Story Project (MSP) first come about? What was going on at the time?
Dr. Jocelyn Lehrer: My background is in public health. I had been working for some years doing research related to adolescent sexual health, mental health, dating violence, and sexual assault. I also spent eight and a half years co-facilitating an HIV support group, mostly with young gay men and trans women who were living with HIV in San Francisco. I spent some time after college working with a gang risk intervention program in public schools in San Francisco, and I also spent time working with San Francisco Women Against Rape, which is San Francisco’s largest and oldest rape crisis center.
And when you work in these areas of gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, LGBT issues, violence between men, and sexual health, all the roads start pointing to the topic of masculinity, where if we could shift social notions of masculinity toward healthier notions, it would help to prevent a lot of unneeded suffering for people of all genders. And yet, where’s the public dialogue? This was 2008. So I started the MSP with a hope of helping to foster more public dialogue on these topics, but through men’s own stories so it wouldn’t be like a soapbox.
DN: Describe how the project works.
JL: Each live event has between five and 15 men sharing personal stories with a live audience on topics that relate to the nexus of masculinities, health and social justice (e.g., men’s violence, homophobia, gender equality). The events include a facilitated audience-presenter dialogue, and a resource fair, where people can connect with local resources for personal support and activism. The events are filmed to create locally relevant films, social media, and accompanying curriculum. After the events, the project teams are also encouraged to consider forming an ongoing masculinities or gender justice group on the campus or in the community, if there isn’t one already, to continue building the community that has formed around the project, and so more folks can join.
DN: From the early events to now, can you describe some stories that stuck out to you that were especially powerful or memorable?
JL: Sure. There was a young man who shared a story of having been physically abused by his father and also being taught by his father to fight with other boys. His father would tell him, “You never let someone get back up! How could you lose? Didn’t I teach you never to lose?” Then this young man also talked about how he perpetrated violence against a female partner of his, and his journey of personal change. He was also abusing substances and harming himself, and he got to a point where he realized his life had to change or it was going to end. So he sought help. He started going to support groups and talking with other men and allowing himself to feel. He talked about the people who helped him along the way. And he closes the piece by saying, “It’s time for men to share their stories, because there is no need for this pain and this legacy must not continue. I am my brother and he is me.”
DN: Are there others?
JL: Other men have also spoken about their own journeys of change. For example, there’s a man who shared a story at St. Louis University recently about how he used to tell sexist jokes at work and how he commits to not doing that anymore, and realizes that he has work to do on the journey to becoming more of an ally to women. There’s another guy who shared a story about realizing that he’s learned things from his father that he doesn’t want to perpetuate, so he has more unlearning to do around verbal abuse. He was also bullied as a kid, and he shared a commitment to letting his kids be who they are and not trying to censor them and their expression.
There have been stories of self-assertion and pride in the face of homophobia and transphobia. In Chile, the first person to legally change sex from female to male shared their story. It was a story of basically going from isolation and despair to being a father in a loving family and starting a major activist organization for trans rights. There’s another man who shared a powerful poem called “What’s Really Scary,” asserting that even though some people view him as scary and tell him so, he is a loving individual and what’s really scary is people’s prejudice and fear.
The key themes of the Men’s Story Project are “celebrating” and “challenging.” The celebrating is about giving thanks for sources of strength and beauty and joy and love in your life. And the challenging is to challenge the rigid, stale notions of manhood that foster harm for men themselves and the people of all genders around them. Let’s also challenge the stereotypes and various forms of oppression that exist, like homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, and classism. Let’s challenge the stereotypes that exist, for example, of black men or men of Arab descent. Let’s challenge xenophobia. I describe the MSP as an intersectional, feminist, anti-racist project about men and masculinity. It’s aiming to foster a dialogue on healthy masculinities in a holistic way, through people’s own stories.
DN: You’ve heard many men’s experiences and perspectives. Is there something that stands out that you’ve learned over time? What have you taken away personally?
JL: One thing I’ve come to believe is that most men, if not all men, have probably, at some point in their lives, felt uncomfortable with some aspect of how they were being pressured or taught to be a “man.” The stereotypical notions of masculinity that pervade our society are socially constructed and changeable, and many are inhuman and costly.
That’s one. Another thing I’ve learned about is the power of permission. I’ve been really moved to see how willing presenters in this project have been to share their stories when they understand that we want to create a space, a forum, for sharing personal stories with unusual public candor. The invitation here is, “If you could really say it, what would it be?” And I’ve been moved by the power of that simple invitation in terms of men’s response and their willingness to bring the candor, the stories—their willingness to take the leap of faith to be part of that. I’ve learned it is high time for this kind of project.
DN: On that note, 2008 when you started and 2018 are worlds apart in a lot of ways. How do you see the Men’s Story Project adapting to our current landscape and challenges?
JL: I think the model for the project has a certain timelessness. It’s people sharing their stories on a public stage in front of their community—their campus community, their geographic community, however it’s defined. Right now, with the #MeToo movement and a lot of very salient examples of toxic masculinity (look no further than our president), people are asking the question all the more: “What about the men?” The number and scale of projects that address the topics of men and masculinity has been increasing in the past several years—the profeminist men’s movement began decades ago. So MSP is more accompanied now than it was in 2008 by a greater number of efforts that are helping people reflect. But I’d say it’s still quite uncommon and novel for people to be exposed to this kind of dialogue. In the general public, there’s still a strong, dire need. It’s hardly the case that the public is saturated with this kind of dialogue.
DN: There was no #MeToo movement when you started.
JL: Right. Given that the #MeToo movement is leading people to ask, “What about the men,” I think this is a really good moment to talk about men and masculinities in a holistic way—let’s talk about all the things that men do in the name of being “men.” So, in addition to discussing how male norms foster sexual assault and harassment, let’s talk about homophobia and transphobia and bullying and hazing. Let’s talk about the perpetuation of gender inequality across society: the workplace and policy and leadership. Let’s talk about men who don’t seek mental health care when they need it, which results in higher rates of men’s suicide and substance abuse compared to women. Let’s talk about how inequitable gender norms and relations foster the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. So, there’s a wide range of issues at this nexus of masculinities, health, and social justice. And with the #MeToo movement, it’s important to seize this moment to talk about masculinities writ large. Gloria Steinem said many years ago that women want a men’s movement, they literally are dying for it. And while the effort to engage boys and men has been going for decades, it is gaining more visibility now. It’s important to seize the moment to bring this work front and center and engage more people in it.
DN: What’s your ultimate vision for the Men’s Story Project?
JL: I’d like to see it happening on hundreds or thousands of college campuses around the world every year. I’d like to see it happening regularly in communities, through community groups and organizations. I’d like people from all parts of society to participate: students, activists, leaders, people who have never spoken publicly, celebrities. I’d also like for films, social media and curriculum to be created from each live production, and for that media to spread widely. People can also create curricula or discussion guides to accompany their films. I’d like for the project to really become so pervasive that it is a social phenomenon—I’m thinking about The Vagina Monologues or One Billion Rising. I’d like for the project to become an ongoing part of the local social landscape so people know there is a social option for men who want to engage and learn and be active allies for gender justice and social justice.
DN: What’s the next immediate step for you on that path?
JL: There are some exciting conversations under way. Several universities are planning new productions in the U.S. and abroad. There are conversations at hand with a major news outlet, with Hollywood, with some UN groups and national organizing groups. So I think the Men’s Story Project is approaching its tipping point. We just had two evaluation studies accepted for publication in leading peer-reviewed journals. With that taken care of, I feel like the project is ready to spread and scale up.
DN: How can people get involved?
JL: I’ve written a step-by-step MSP Training Guide and worked with lawyers to create a license for groups that want to create their own MSP productions. I provide groups with a set of resources that includes the training guide, the license, in-person training if they want it, and ongoing coaching as they create their work. Then, when their live production happens and they film it, we create a video playlist of their work on the Men Story Project YouTube channel and we also create a page for their work on the MSP website, to show far and wide this linked set of emerging initiatives of men who are taking a public stand for health and justice.
DN: How can people reach you?
JL: Folks can check out the website, mensstoryproject.org, and email me at jlehrer [at] mensstoryproject.org.