Canada’s Newest Gender Equality Leader
Next Gen Men was born of men’s experience of pain. More specifically, it was born from the grief of losing a younger brother to suicide, and the frustration of a life imagined disrupted by depression.
The mental health struggles that men and male-identifying individuals experience are unquantifiable because they are so vast, and so often not spoken about. One of the major measuring sticks comes in the form of harm; both to self and to others. The statistics are stark: men constitute three-quarters of all suicides in North America, are three times more likely to experience addiction and substance abuse, and the spectre of loneliness is one of the most frequent stressors in men’s lives. Men are the primary perpetrators of violence at a rate of four to one. It’s not just gender-based violence; men also harm other men.
Anyone seeing this lateral violence would understand that to take on men’s staggering problems requires a wider lens than solely looking at individual men and their experiences. The work has to be situated within men’s communities: their homes, offices, pubs and locker rooms, as well as the people in men’s lives—from partners and children, to friends and colleagues.
It was this understanding that was key to Next Gen Men’s vision of “a future where boys & men experience less pain, and cause less harm.”
We didn’t start with that awareness, though.
I first met Jermal Alleyne Jones in 2006 during frosh week of our first year at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. We met in a classic male way—on the basketball court. “You play ball?” “Yeah, you?” “Yeah.” From that moment on we were best friends.
An odd pair, me (then) 6’6 and, believe it or not, a still-growing 18-year-old first-year on the basketball team, a Czech immigrant from the prairie province of Alberta. Jermal, a 5’10 (wished he was growing) athletic phenom, an Afro-Caribbean from the outskirts of Toronto, studying literature.
I think what bonded us was how we showed up for each other in those early days when we hardly knew anybody else on campus. This pattern of our being so close only grew over the years as we took the knocks of coming of age together. Jermal had some trouble with his housing that required him to move. We both were navigating our relations to women on a campus where we were outnumbered three to one.
On the basketball team, I was riding the pine all season (sitting on the bench), and struggling with a course load so heavy I ended up academically ineligible to play ball my second year. I spiraled into a habit of binge drinking and acting aggressively (what I now see was my first bout with depression). Things came to a head in 2007 with the tragic news of Jermal’s 13-year-old brother taking his own life.
I still remember that day. We had been at a campus event and had taken a coach bus into the US to watch a Buffalo Bills football game. The day had been boozy and fun, but on the bus home, Jermal received a call from his family that immediately broke him. I held him as he cried, and leapt to protect him from a busload of intoxicated onlookers who didn’t understand what had happened.
I flunked out of school; Jermal almost did. But we held each other through our grief and depression. It was a rare male friendship, even among our other male friends. Over time, we both bounced back, eventually earning our undergraduate degrees in six years. We entered the adult world in that liminal headspace asking ourselves, “What do we want to be when we grow up?”
My early work life included a brief stint playing semi-pro basketball overseas, moving back to work as a business analyst in a male-dominant sector I loathed, and joining a startup where I was constantly in over my head.
Jermal took another path. Because he hadn’t been able to be there for his brother, he wanted to be there now for other youth. He became a caseworker for an organization serving at-risk youth.
My admiration for my best friend must have been in the back of my mind as I read an article by award-winning Canadian journalist Rachel Giese, author of the 2019 book, Boys: What It Means to Become a Man. In an article in The Walrus (Canada’s version of The Atlantic), she wrote about an innovative youth program called WiseGuyz. Based in Calgary, WiseGuyz is an adolescent boys’ sexual health ed program addressing consent, mental health, emotional intelligence, and healthy relationships—all through the lens of positive masculinities.
Maybe, I thought, we would have been slightly less knuckleheaded and saved ourselves a lot of grief if we had had a program like this when we were coming of age. I also thought that maybe Jermal’s brother would still be with us if he and his peers had had a program like this.
Coincidentally, at that time I’d been fundraising for the Movember Foundation, a leading NGO addressing men’s health, an issue close to my heart. The foundation’s core issues are men’s mental health and suicide prevention, and prostate and testicular cancer. To raise money for the organization’s work, every November, “brave and selfless men around the world,” their website proclaims, “grow a moustache, and women step up to support them, all to raise awareness and funds.” My involvement included growing an awful moustache and soliciting donations from friends and family, something I’d been doing for five years.
Since I was working at a startup and fancied myself entrepreneurial, I asked Jermal if he’d be interested in working with me to pitch the foundation to support a youth program directed at boys becoming men. Happily, he said yes. One result of our early, naïve efforts was producing an embarrassing video (forever locked in the archives) under an equally mortifying banner, “Boys 2 Men.” Despite our amateurish beginnings, somehow Movember found merit in two earnest young dudes wanting to do better. We made it through the first round of grant selection, but were told we needed to demonstrate more legitimacy should we be chosen as a finalist.
Enter Jason Tan de Bibiana, our third cofounder. Jason and I were acquaintances who had met in Montréal in 2007, back when you asked everyone, “Do you have Facebook?” (This was well before we be came aware how the platform was undermining democracy.)
As Jason was earning a master’s degree in public health at the University of British Columbia, he was writing posts that always made me think. He was concurrently working in sexual health education in Jamaica. It was Jason, I think, who put The Walrus article about the Wise- Guyz program on my radar. Call it serendipity.
In reflecting on our founding story, I can’t stress enough just how important to our success our complementary skills were. We’d learned about the Clifton StrengthsFinder, which identified our top five of a possible 34 strengths. With a founding team of three, we could cover a maximum of 15 out of the 34—which is exactly what we did. I brought scrappy startup smarts; Jermal added the heart, working with and connecting with youth; and Jason contributed rigor to our research and evaluation. Jake, Jermal, and Jason. The team that secured $150,000 over two years in late 2014 to start something they’d never done before. The triple-J founders of Next Gen Men.
In the early days, we studied and learned from those who had walked before us: the Centre for Sexuality’s WiseGuyz program; Promundo’s Program H; Paul Kivel’s Man Box, R.W. Connell’s Hierarchy of Masculinities, among others, to create something different for the next generation of men—something we had missed.
From a young age, boys are socialized in a patriarchal culture with media and familial narratives forming images of the powerful men they could be. But when you’re 12 years old and look around, you think, “Power? What power?! My mom and dad tell me what to do. My teacher tells me what to do, my coach tells me what to do. I don’t have any power!”
We knew that between ages 12 and 14 rates of homophobia, misogyny, racism and other bigoted attitudes spike. Our hypothesis was that because of the disconnect between the power they could hold, juxtaposed with the nominal power they do have, boys would start to exert power among themselves and their peers. And, they would do it predominantly through differentiation— race, gender, sexuality. The low-hanging fruit of delineation.
What emerged was a program built on the pillars of Self (love, acceptance, awareness, esteem), Health (mental, physical, emotional), and Others (diversity, inclusion, healthy relationships, empathy). By giving young men a strong sense of self, we sought to affirm the best in them, to allow them to believe in their own worth, without diminishing others to affirm themselves.
As noted boys’ research psychologist Michael Reichert says, “Never underestimate the power of listening to boys, knowing them, and standing by while they navigate the rough waters of boyhood. Behind every boy who avoids being swept away in the current is someone who holds him—and believes in his ability to hold his own.”
That’s what we aimed to do, be ones to both hold boys and believe in them. In order to achieve our vision, we needed to pivot from solely trying to scale out (impact greater numbers) to scale deep (impact cultural roots). Our plan was to build a community of people centered around our youth work. From this was born our Next Gen Men Circle initiative.
NGM Circle grew out of our vision to create publicly accessible discourses to talk about gender and masculinity. Too often conversations happen about men in academic or feminist circles, or only with men in men’s groups. We wanted a space to host a conversation for, with, and about men and make it open to people of all genders so we could learn and unlearn together.
Launching in Calgary and Toronto in 2016, growing to five cities across Canada pre-pandemic (and shifting online in response to it), NGM Circle has hosted more than 100 events with themes such as the Male Gaze, Raising Feminist Children, and Unpacking Patriarchy. These events have connected hundreds of people. Even if we were preaching to the choir at times, it reinforced the three components necessary to build a movement: 1) a cause (engaging boys and men around gender and equality), 2) leaders (NGM staff and volunteers), and 3) connecting people to each other in pursuit of the cause.
The community we’ve been supporting has in turn been supporting us. They are our monthly supporters, our social “shout-outers,” and now, our customers. In response to the pandemic, we’ve increasingly moved into being a problem-identifying/ problem-solving organization. That means listening to our constituents’ pain points and finding solutions for them.
For example, one thing we heard fathers say over the years was, “I don’t know where to begin to have these conversations with my son.” Our response was to design “Cards for Masculinity” with a cheeky nod to another card game. Even in the hands of “amateur” fathers or mentors, the cards could spark important conversations about a boy becoming a man. We see this approach as an important part of our future, enlisting and empowering people in their own transformation.
For too long, the philanthropic model has solely focused on and funded “at risk” groups. Who does that mean in our case? Black boys, Indigenous boys, 2SGBTQ+ boys, boys living in poverty. From our perspective, all boys are at risk of patriarchy, and, to be blunt, if we don’t intervene with white and privileged boys, chances are they will continue to perpetuate the status quo they inherited. Not to mention that this posture perpetuates the distorted view that underrepresented and marginalized groups are ‘‘the problem.’’ But when we create products and services where the benefactor and beneficiary are the same person or community, we’ve achieved having ‘‘skin in the game.’’ And, as a result, our work no longer becomes something patronizing that someone else wants for you, but rather a journey you embark on yourself.
While we continue to prove this hypothesis (with thousands of cards and dozens of courses sold), we need to sustain ourselves. (I’ve often joked that being a “nonprofit” is a shoddy business model, so we may as well leverage some of our social capital and skills to subsidize the rest of our work that, of course, never has had a profit motive.)
It was the need for funds to sustain ourselves that was the catalyst for launching Equity Leaders, Next Gen Men’s social enterprise initiative, aimed at male-dominant workplaces. Since 2017 (pre-#MeToo, believe it or not), we have engaged leaders in the oil and gas, tech, and finance sectors, among others, to champion both gender equity and broader diversity and inclusion initiatives. I’ll admit that when we first started this work it was easy describe ourselves as ‘’diversity and inclusion’’ practitioners. I’ve since come to realize that the solutions are as diverse as the problems themselves, and the sector benefits from the diversity of its practitioners applying their unique views and experiences to issues facing those companies in their communities.
As such, being a problem-identifying/problem-solving organization, we heard time and time again that those who were most stuck, problematic, and resistant to organizations championing change, were, well, male, pale, and stale—aka old white guys. The truth is, gender equality work traditionally has been done solely for the benefit of women and girls. Ultimately this strategy is too narrow, primarily winning over fathers of daughters and perpetuating benevolent sexism.
Worse , it foments a whataboutism in men, many of whom are struggling with a perceived loss of privilege as women gain more of a foothold in the workforce and elsewhere. The end of society’s centuries-long “affirmative action for men” has left many men feeling out in the cold.
If we continue to position gender equity work solely to benefit everyone but those who identify as males, we will continue to miss out on one of the most potent hooks for reaching boys and men: what’s in it for me. It may seem a selfish position, but, truth be told, humans are self-interested and slightly evolved apes—Homo sapiens with the capacity to plan beyond the day’s food in an increasingly complex world.
When we take a moment to outline how patriarchy not only harms women, girls, and people of other genders, but also boys and men, males’ ears perk up. It’s a new conversation, and really, it’s not hard to paint the picture of how competition and domination harms them. They’ve all experienced it firsthand.
Further, there is gender inequality among men. One of the most effective lines when working in male-dominant industries is saying, ‘‘men treat other men like shit.’’ The truth is that until we address that—men’s behavior toward other men—we will not be able to create inclusive and psychologically safe spaces for vulnerable others.
“Every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight. You learn this in elementary school and never forget it,” writer and cultural observer Phil Christman wrote in a 2018 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Man?” “No wonder,” he says, “that as we age, we ignore each other, let our friendships wither, cancel plans. No wonder there are recurring expressions of concern about a ‘male bonding crisis … . ”
[A]n American boyhood consists of little else but unorganized combat drills, unwanted invasions of personal territory. It’s all grabs, punches, towel flicks, fake homoerotic aggression, threats of unspecified but grim—and, as one ages—increasingly sexualized violence.”
Christman’s bleak characterization of manhood often results in a lightbulb moment as men begin to understand a simultaneous truth: they’ve been predominantly harmed by other men jostling for power, and they don’t want to be blamed for harms they’ve perpetrated against others. It is only when men can see themselves also as victims of patriarchy that they can take an antipatriarchal stance. A benefit of this approach is being able to enlist them as allies in promoting gender equity without using the ‘‘F’’ word—feminism.
Unfortunately, invoking feminism often is more of a hazard than an invitation to entrenched and defensive men. (Some men are not yet at a place where the word, which is simply a synonym for equality and fairness, can be used without being perceived as antimale.)
Next Gen Men’s approach has contributed to many organizations, businesses, and institutions encouraging men to take advantage of parental leave programs, avail themselves of mental health days, name and have conversations about problematic leadership styles, and more.
Among developments that I’m personally most excited about is seeing skeptics ease their masculine anxiety around gender equity and become more comfortable in other equality arenas, including racial diversity, LGBTQ+ issues, and other identity-based issues.
As I look forward to the next leg of Next Gen Men’s journey across the gender landscape, I know we will deepen our commitment to advancing the future of masculinity, a future where boys and men experience less pain, and cause less harm. And, hopefully, where they experience more joy and fulfillment. Join us.
Jake Stika is the executive director and a cofounder of Next Gen Men. He lives and works on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NGM’s Guiding Principles
Here are a few principles foundational to the work of Next Gen Men:
- Adaptability – Without this posture we could not be as innovative and responsive to the organizational challenges we face, or to the diverse needs of men and boys.
- Yes, and… – Adapted from the improv world, “Yes, and…” reminds us that multiple things can be true at the same time. Namely, women, girls, and gender diverse peoples face awful outcomes at the hands of patriarchy, and men and boys are not doing so hot right now, either.
- Enterprising – I know this isn’t a natural posture in the social service sector, but without thinking outside the box and cutting a new path to upend the status quo, we will be beholden to the status quo. It will not revolutionize itself. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
- Iteration – Risk is also not a concept we’re used to in the gender equity space, whether from funding, or harm caused. But in order to see the change we seek, we must be willing to brainstorm bad ideas in order to brainstorm good ideas. That’s how we can devise new ways of engaging men to achieve breakthroughs.
- Enrollment – To borrow from my muse, entrepeneur and author, Seth Godin: “It’s more productive to offer directions to someone who has already decided to go on the journey. ‘How do I get there?’ is a much easier transaction than, ‘you must go.”’