Men’s Voices, Men as Allies
Defining Moments: Visiting a Men of Strength Club
by Pat McGann, Communications Director of Men Can Stop Rape.
BACK TO MEN'S VOICES, MEN AS ALLIES MAIN PAGE
Once upon a time I taught in School Without Walls Senior High School (SWW), where Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) has its longest-standing Men of Strength (MOST) Club and where members share in the commitment to create a nonviolent lifestyle. Situated on The George Washington University (GW) campus, the high school and university have a symbiotic relationship – SWW students enroll in GW classes and GW professors teach in SWW’s classrooms at the end of the high school day. Although SWW is a magnet school, drawing students from all over the city who excel at scholastics, it is still in many ways a DC school, especially in terms of its physical condition. Founded in 1971 in an older building, the classrooms have a run-down quality. A few years ago, when I was still an academic and taught a fall GW composition course in a SWW classroom devoted to science during the school day, we used a strange mechanical contraption to cool the room during hot, humid September afternoons. It stood inside the room, with a tube like a dryer vent extending about five feet to the window, where it would suck in fresh air, mix in coolant, and blow the air out. Unfortunately the motor was so loud that students sitting close to it could barely hear; on the other hand, they were the only ones who were comfortably cool since the air conditioner’s impact was limited to a five feet radius.
This December I returned to SWW. Normally in my responsibilities as MCSR’s director of outreach, I don’t spend much time around the young men in our programs, but I had an audio training coming up in late January that I wanted to base on MOST Clubs, so I took time away from my desk to reacquaint myself with our work in DC-area high schools. We pull into the SWW parking lot with the car full of pizza and sodas. Some of the members are hanging around outside and after they help unload it all, we park. As Neil, Kedrick, and I walk past the security person stationed at the desk in the entry way, through groups of lingering students, down the steps leading to the basement and into the room normally devoted to health classes but now a space for the MOST Club meeting, I can see everyone enjoys being here. The security person greets Neil and Kedrick, a lot of the students say hi, and the teachers smile.
The rooms still look about the same as when I was a professor at GW. When we’re settling into the basement room, I hang my coat on the arm of a large weight machine that’s dusty and off to one side. After the young men arrange the desks in a circle, I look around and notice the two windows at ground level so cloudy with grime you can hardly see out them, the glaring fluorescent lights that draw attention to the peeling paint on the brick walls, the stacks of cardboard boxes almost to the ceiling at the back of the room, and the exposed pipes that weave their way from one end of the ceiling to the other. Posters hang from the walls, focusing on different health issues: The Ways Drugs/Alcohol Affect Families, Reasons Why People Do Ecstasy, Reasons Not to Do Ecstasy, and Reasons Why People Drink Alcohol.
Now that I’m more closely connected to the school through the MOST Club, the room and school feel differently. I’m starting to sense that SWW and the Club are special places to be, regardless of the building’s physical condition. The name itself, School Without Walls, implies a boundless education, learning extending into all the corners and crevices of the city, and that is exactly the principle underlying the practice – the “city as a classroom” is the description on SWW’s web site. Men Can Stop Rape describes its work as challenging the boundaries of traditional masculinity, moving beyond the usual trappings of what it means to be a man, or what the organization calls the dominant stories of masculinity, and into counterstories, or stories that don’t fit into the stereotypical masculine mold. And while you might think that you have to go to extremes to come up with examples that run counter to masculine norms, MCSR claims otherwise. In fact, every single male on the planet earth can talk about a time when for one reason or another he finds himself living a counterstory. Maybe sometimes you have to reach back into boyhood, but most likely not. I’m thinking, for example, of the first time I visited my father in the hospital, or the time he rose up early from bed on Valentine’s Day and placed outside each of my sisters’ bedroom doors, and next to my mother’s side of the bed, heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates. These counterstories become the basis for redefining strength and developing healthier, non-violent lifestyles. So Men of Strength isn’t about kicking somebody’s butt or putting somebody down or committing violence against women and girls. It’s about the strength it takes to express your heart, it’s about the courage to stand up for what you know is right, and it’s about the commitment it takes to create a better world for everyone.
So it seems like there should be a good fit between SWW and the MOST Club – both transgress conventional limitations. In men’s anti-violence speak, both step outside the box. Or at least that’s what I’m thinking as everybody settles in. I’m still not quite sure what to expect, though. Kedrick and I have finished connecting the DVD player we brought with us to the TV on the metal stand with wheels. Neil plans to show “City of God,” a Brazilian movie about a young man who manages to escape the slums and gangs of Rio de Jainero through photography. The guys wander in at different times dressed like you would expect, large tennis shoes, baggy jeans, T-shirts. The racial makeup of the student body is 64.9% African American, 8% Hispanic, 7.4% Asian/Pacific Islanders, .3% Native American, and 19.5% White, but these percentages don’t reflect the members who show up. Of the eleven, ten are African American and one is White. It might be easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping the ten as thugs, rappers, and gang members, except one of them who’s lugging an overweight backpack starts pulling book after book out of it while explaining to Neil how a microwave changes the composition of breast milk – something he’s learned from one of the books. I’m a little confused for a minute because all I hear is “breast milk.” Eventually, though, I figure out that everything he’s said relates to his studies. On the basis of the microwave and breast milk comment, it might be easy to tilt in the other direction – assuming that all SWW MOST Club members thrive in a school and home communities where there are no distractions from scholastic achievement. But the story a Club member tells a few meetings later about someone being shot on New Year’s Day at the Safeway grocery store in his neighborhood while he and his father are there complicates that stereotype. It turns out that there are no easy resting places when it comes to assumptions, which is as it should be.
Neil is a fairly tall, well-built (even though he complains about getting fat) African American man of 39, who has a moustache, long dreads usually tied behind his head, and chiseled cheek bones. He is strikingly attractive and commands attention, so when he says let’s check-in, all the guys at the School Without Walls Men of Strength Club meeting starts to quiet down. Before anyone begins talking though, he realizes that the pizza and drinks are still sitting on the teacher’s desk outside the circle and tells the young men closest to the desk to start passing them around.
Check-ins are basically a go-around where every member takes a minute or two to tell where he's at – how he's feeling, what's going on in his life, how school's going, and so on. They have become a regular part of our work life at MCSR apart from MOST Clubs. Because we didn’t want to become so enmeshed in our job responsibilities that we would lose touch with each other’s personal and emotional lives, we instituted check-ins early on in the history of the organization. Now, they serve to open the weekly staff meetings. Sometimes check-ins are perfunctory, and sometimes they extend into questions and discussion when the topic deserves extended attention. This is also the case during MOST Club meetings.
This is the third year we have had a club at School Without Walls, and so members know what to expect and are comfortable with the check-in. During the last five or six years, we at MCSR have realized the importance of clubs’ sustainability, that we need to have both multi-sessions over a school year, as well as multi-year clubs if we are going to have a lasting impact. Now we have veteran members who welcome new members and set the tone for meetings. They are usually the students who begin the check-in. So once everyone has grabbed a soda and piled their paper plates with as many pizza slices as they can justify, given the depth of appetite, number of pizzas, and number of people who actually came to the meeting, some of the veteran members start the go-around.
At first they talk about the usual topics – trouble with teachers who seem to have it out for them; an upcoming basketball game, the last of the season; how they did on a test or a paper. Neil takes time to respond to each one of them, asking a question, making a comment, inviting other responses, especially to the member who has teacher problems. One student has written what he calls his “Yearly Racism-Conspiracy, Rap Music, and All Around Black Life Report/Debriefing,” and reads aloud a feature focusing on the New England Patriots:
“For the past two years I have said that the Super Bowl’s have been flukes. Why? The evidence is there people! 9-11, terrorism, flags on every lapel, the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, and the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Each one leads to the next. The Patriots games are just pep rallies for the never-ending game being played in Iraq. The Patriots’ quarterback was even seen at Bush’s State of the Union Address. Open your eyes people! Now the Patriots are 12-1 (I apologize if the record changes by the time you get this). If the Patriots lose the Super Bowl this year, I have just wasted some of your life and I apologize, but until then, prove me wrong NFL, prove me wrong!”
Everyone laughs and asks him to read some more of his yearly report, so he shares a piece on the Warner Brothers’ Yule Log and another on Tower Records.
But then there is a shift when one of the last members to check in says he’s been feeling militant. Truthfully, as a white male in his late forties, I can’t claim I’m completely clear on what he means by this. He starts talking about Malcolm X, so I assume that it’s connected to not putting up with any white racist crap, to be hard edged about your resistance. The more I listen, though, I can’t help but wonder if it’s also about just generally feeling angry, that there is somehow a merging of the two. Neil’s “issue button” seems to go off because it’s clear that he wants to give this check-in some extra time. He says to the student who’s feeling militant that he wants to push him on the topic but wants to know if that’s okay. The student says yes. I’m impressed by Neil’s respect for the members, which clearly establishes a safe and comfortable space. It seems that even with a stranger in their midst – me – their behavior hasn’t changed in any significant way, largely because they trust Neil to monitor who attends meetings as a guest. And I’m impressed by Neil’s ability to support members while at the same time challenge them – a balancing act that some people might find incongruent or beyond their capacity to handle.
Perhaps I’m one of those people because I can’t begin to recall how Neil moves the member from talking about Malcolm X and feeling militant to talking about his mother. If I should have captured anything, it ought to have been this because it is from there that the discussion truly takes off, especially when the club member admits to becoming so angry he wants to hit her. I know Neil asks a series of questions, and I know that soon other members begin to join in, and I know that the talk takes on larger proportions, so that it is no longer just about the student who feels militant.
It’s also, for instance, about the student who wrote the “Yearly Racism-Conspiracy, Rap Music, and All Around Black Life Report/Debriefing,” who talks about sitting across from SWW in a building on the George Washington University campus minding his own business when another SWW student comes up with a group of people. She has something in her hand that he can’t really identify when she starts spraying him, but whatever is coming out of the container seems oily, and so he worries about it getting in his clothes and shoes and not washing out. He gets so angry that he cocks back his arm without even thinking about it, and then is shocked when he discovers his arm drawn back to hit her. After lowering his arm, he yells at her to stop it, which she does.
Neil loads up the club member with positive support for choosing not to hit the student, and then turns to everyone else and asks how they handle situations where they feel like being violent. For some it’s a matter of removing yourself from the person who makes you angry, which they believe works in the short and long term. For others it’s about willpower, your firm command over your emotions. And for still others it’s about finding ways to get rid of the anger, exercising, for example. Neil talks to them all about how hard it can be not to get violent sometimes, but stresses the importance of struggling to find a way out because that’s what we do as Men of Strength, that’s who we are, we always look for way nonviolent way to deal with the situation first.
All of the strategies they named can be effective in different places at different times but Neil and I know none of them is the final solution, and all of them together are probably too limiting, tied as closely as they are to the traditionally masculine ways of handling anger. They don’t include, for example, understanding the root causes of your anger or expressing it in healthy ways. But time is about to run out, and as Neil says, this work is a marathon, not a sprint, so those strategies will have to wait for another day, another meeting.
Written by Pat McGann. Pat McGann is the Communications Director of Men Can Stop Rape.
Provided by: Men Can Stop Rape
Men Can Stop Rape mobilizes male youth to prevent men's violence against women. We build young men's capacity to challenge harmful aspects of traditional masculinity, to value alternative visions of male strength, and to embrace their vital role as allies with women and girls in fostering healthy relationships and gender equity.
Visit Men Can Stop Rape at www.mencanstoprape.org
HONOR A MAN IN YOUR LIFE!
Strength speaks from the heart.
If there's a man in your life who represents a masculinity based on true respect, a sense of community and connection, and a commitment to gender equity, take a minute to publicly let him know just how much you value him. Write a sentence or two in his honor to appear in Men Can Stop Rape’s Profiles in Strength web site gallery.
And don't think Men Can Stop Rape is speaking just to women. Men, stand up and honor the male role models in your life who taught you there's a different, healthier way to be a man!
HONOR A BOY OR A MAN IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW