Before the pandemic, I had been eagerly anticipating traveling to Kigali, Rwanda in November 2020 for the third global MenEngage Alliance symposium. The guiding principle of the gathering is embodied in its name, Ubuntu, best described as an African philosophy that emphasizes self through others, or “I am because you are.”
Designed to bring together people from across regions, cultures, backgrounds, and languages, and “to help make men and masculinities work more effective and accountable for women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, racial justice, economic justice, climate justice, and other social justice issues”, the Alliance’s grand vision can only be approximated by such a description. (Our special symposium section begins on page 8).
MenEngage global gatherings are where activists from around the world chart next steps in advancing gender equality and achieving a feminist-informed approach to working with men and boys. But they are more than that. They give shape to what a global community could look like if it were based on principles of peace and justice and love. Think that vision too lofty? For the better part of two decades MenEngage has been making its vision real through scores of concrete programs that its members—more than 900 organizations, NGOs and individuals spanning 76 countries across five continents—have created and implemented. (Go to menengage.org to learn more.)
From promoting sexual health and rights and girls’ and women’s empowerment, to raising healthy boys and promoting active fathering, MenEngage is a powerful, highly respected—if underrecognized— global expert articulating a sweeping vision of an egalitarian society. At a dangerous moment when those promoting hate, division and darkness have a foothold in too many parts of the world, MenEngage is too valuable an organization not to be more widely known.
I was a delegate at the first two symposia, Rio (2009) and Delhi (2014), and was keenly looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and colleagues, and making new connections, in Kigali. For all of us, the personal relationships that developed among delegates from dozens of countries—450 people attended in Brazil and nearly 1200 in India—are among our most cherished memories. As provocative and informative as the plenaries and workshops were at the Delhi symposium, it was the lunchtime conversations in the courtyard bathed in sunlight while dahl simmered and puri baked that stay with me. Crackling with the electricity of a shared vision—across cultures, age, and ethnicities—we intuitively knew we were delegates at a united nations of possibilities.
When the pandemic made it clear there would be no traveling to Africa, I felt the loss deeply. I would not, for example, be able to go out to dinner with my birthday twin Julio from Mozambique, or talk politics with Lena from Sweden, or share an information booth with Tyrone from Grenada. No gathering of which I’ve ever been a part, no community I’ve ever helped to create, has come close to evoking in me the sense that we were living—for those four or five days—in a just, equitable world. As the Joni Mitchell anthem, “Woodstock” attests, at a MenEngage global gathering, “we are stardust, we are golden.”
When the lockdown went into effect and it became clear the format for the symposium would need to be transformed, MenEngage zoomed into action. Working with in country hosts, the Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre, the Rwanda MenEngage Network, and MenEngage Africa, MEA’s global secretariat (the coordinating body for the organization, headquartered in Washington, DC), transformed the symposium into an online event. Or, I should say, an ongoing series of events. (A few, following strict safety protocols, were held in person in Rwanda.)
The symposium had been reinvented. Instead of a few days in Kigali attended by hundreds, now, and in the ensuing months, it will be joined online by thousands. And, it’s still happening; the symposium continues through the middle of June.
When it opened last November, 2,877 people from 159 countries had registered. As of March more than 650 additional registrations have been recorded. Organizers say the symposium is a space for “listening, critical reflection, and commitment to action to transform masculinities and engage men and boys for gender equality and social justice.” The nine stories in our special section reflect that description and will introduce you to the Ubuntu symposium themes: Feminisms, Accountability, Transformation, Intersectionality, and Power-with. For a deeper dive, and a chance to participate in the “I am because you are” Ubuntu world MenEngage has created, go to youtube.com/user/MenEngage/videos, to find recordings of sessions since November. (Registration information for upcoming events is on the MEA website.)
Recently, expressing alarm over changing gender roles in its vast country, China has proposed “teaching” conventional masculinity to boys. Its ministry of education as well as political advisors have gone so far as to describe China as experiencing a “masculinity crisis” brought on because “Chinese boys have been spoiled by housewives and female teachers.” If that development doesn’t make clear the urgent need for an organization like MenEngage—and the vision articulated at the Ubuntu symposium—I don’t know what does. China is suffering from a virus of ignorance and MenEngage has the vaccine. In the days ahead, let’s work to deliver enough doses there and elsewhere around the world.
Rob Okun is the editor of Voice Male.