“What does it mean to be a man?” Joel Oppenheimer’s voice boomed across the room. He had a kind face and a lean stature; nothing about him was particularly “macho.” He re-tucked his denim shirt as he waited for a response. Attendees of the Positive Masculinity Workshop at the New York State University of New Paltz campus shifted their glance to the floor. Eyes darted to one another: Do you know what it means to be a man? No one answered the question.
But as the senior counselor at the university, Oppenheimer isn’t easily discouraged. “That’s alright, that’s why we’re here!” He said lightheartedly. “Let’s get this thing started.” And thus began an evening where a group of strangers — from all walks of life — became a community.
That was the initial goal of the Positive Masculinity Workshop at SUNY New Paltz — to be a “Coordinated Community Response,” or CCR, for the young men and women on campus. Oppenheimer has been the chief facilitator for the project and continues to be a moving force in shifting masculinity culture at New Paltz.
“If we want to change the world, we have to address masculinity,” said Oppenheimer. His inspiration for starting the Positive Masculinity Program came after he attended a conference put on by the SUNY commerce in Albany. The conference featured a panel of indigenous people from Drawdown, an organization dedicated to reversing global warming. It was there that he was struck by the urgency of addressing masculinity, something that not only is affecting people all over the country but our planet as well. “What these indigenous folks were saying is that we’ve been through the same struggles, we share the same blood and we share the same water. How can we look at our unique abilities, backgrounds, and stories to unite us all? How can we do this together in a way that’s positive for ourselves, our communities and the Earth?” Sachem Hawkstorm, chief of the Schaghticoke First Nations, might have some ideas.
Joel Oppenheimer and Chief Hawkstorm met at the Drawdown conference and have been a power duo ever since. Oppenheimer invited him to join the masculinity workshop because, as chief of an indigenous tribe, Hawkstorm’s ideologies have been largely omitted from history.
“We need to decolonize our way of thinking,” Hawkstorm explained, and sat back in his seat at the Positive Masculinity Workshop. He had a feather in his hair, a half-shaven head, and tattoos around his ears where some dangly earrings hung. “We need to go back to living as a community. You have to embrace both sides of who you are. We all carry the masculine, we all carry the feminine. Without the balance of the masculine and the feminine, it can wreak havoc on leadership,” he said. And embracing “who you are” meant sharing your story, something that the workshop had volunteer after volunteer do.
Like Joe, for example, who confidently stepped to the center of the circle from the back of the room. “My father never spoke,” he said. “I don’t know if he ever told me he loved me.” Joe was a student at SUNY New Paltz and heard about the workshop through a friend. “I thought I had to be silent too. I thought I had to white knuckle it and go through life like my dad did. But one day, I couldn’t be silent anymore. I came home from college, broke down, and cried. I needed help.” Nods of understanding swept through the seated audience. There was emotional space for everyone’s story, one of Oppenheimer’s primary goals. Like Gordon, a tall, thin man with long blond hair, whose father was a stone cold World War II vet. He didn’t even know about his father’s PTSD until after his memoir was released. “It took me a long time to actually get the courage to read it,” he said shakily.
Or “Z,” a Muslim student from West Africa who had three tests on the day of the New Zealand terrorist mass shooting and didn’t know where to turn. As men, young and old, opened up to a room full of people, the walls of masculinity slowly disintegrated. “What I’ve learned about being a man,” a cop with sunglasses and a gun holster named Jason added, “is that you have to find the good parts of all the men you meet, and become your own man.” He began to choke up, and the room was completely still as he opened up about his gay brother and sister and his father, who was a marine. “Can I stand next to you?” Oppenheimer asked. He put his arm around Jason, but it felt like he put his arm around the entire room.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything revolutionary,” Oppenheimer admitted. “But it’s resonating right now with a lot of people.” The workshop’s resonance may have to do with the sign of the times. “People are still saying things like ‘Men are men,’ and I sort of thought after ‘Me Too,’ people were going to stop saying that,” he said. Oppenheimer works at the counseling center on the SUNY New Paltz campus, and it was through working with victims of sexual assault that he saw the need for his masculinity program. He reached out to Robert Hancock, an advisor for the Educational Opportunity Program. Hancock already had some experience with developing a program on campus dedicated to helping the male student population.
“We started MVP in 2012 because we saw a real lack of engagement and pursuing leadership positions,” Hancock recalled. MVP stands for Men Valuing Professionalism, and its goal is to be a “cohesive supportive network founded on topics relevant to male student development, including leadership, civic engagement and active citizenship in higher education and beyond,” according to its page on the SUNY New Paltz site. “In EOP, we have about 500 students, and it’s about 35 percent male. We had a year or two where we had no male applicants for any leadership positions. Zero applicants—that’s saying something.” So Hancock took it upon himself to check out programs at other universities to see what he could implicate at New Paltz.
He found what he was looking for at Eastern Connecticut State University, where their M.A.L.E.S. (Men Achieving Leadership, Excellence and Success) program just celebrated 20 years as a student organization this November. “We liked what we saw, added some of our own flavor to it. We came up with our own constitution, mission and goals.” Not only does the program focus on male development and leadership development but also on personal growth and male socialization. It’s to break down why the young men weren’t applying for positions on campus. Hancock believes it’s from fear of failure. “Part of male socialization is we’re told not to talk about these things. The idea behind this group is to create a space where guys can talk about their fears honestly, so we can start to work on those. They can finally start to see how these positive behaviors make a positive contribution to the community,” Hancock explained. “Joel’s vision is to take this a little bit bigger. It’s taking a bit of what we do in MVP and broadening it.”
Broadening the Positive Masculinity project meant opening its doors to all genders. The impact of masculinity, especially toxic masculinity, is not isolated to just males. It can affect many women as well, especially when toxic masculinity is in the workplace. In 2017, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission received 26,978 claims of workplace harassment. The workplace is a venue known to be male-dominated, and aggressive behavior can be viewed as a sign of worthy leadership. It is a place where empathy can be lost, but Sarah Beaulieu, an expert on “uncomfortable conversations,” is determined to take a stand for a safe, productive work environment.
“I think of this training as, ‘what’s the world I want to be living in?’ As opposed to what I want to stop,” she said. Beaulieu is the founder of The Uncomfortable Conversation YouTube channel and a frequent speaker about this topic. She provides assessments for companies looking for a new approach to sexual harassment training and focuses on skills not compliance. “It’s all about having open and candid conversations,” Beaulieu explained. “It’s through the skill of being able to have uncomfortable conversations where we can develop a deeper empathy for one another and cross perspectives.” She first defines the dissatisfaction within the organization, something that comes from Beaulieu’s foundation in business research on change management and behavioral science. “The change needs to be defined through the lens of everyone,” Beaulieu said. “That’s how to create a vision of where we’re going—a world of people of all genders going to work and feeling comfortable.” This culture of respect may sound utopian, but it’s possible. “Practicing deeper empathy builds stronger relationships. Everyone has access to intimacy and connection.”
Members of the New Paltz community had access to intimacy, possibly even for the first time, as the final circle formed at the Positive Masculinity workshop. Attendees gathered one last time to reflect on their time together. “I had never really thought about my relationship with my father,” a short guy in a slouched hoodie admitted. “But tonight really made me think about it.” The night brought up a lot of important topics for people to think about. Luckily, masculinity programs such as Oppenheimer’s workshop are popping up all over the state.
These programs include the Misogyny Lecture series at the State University of Buffalo. Carefully cultivated by the director of the Gender Institute, Carrie Tirado Bramen, speakers come to share their thoughts on misogyny and masculinity. Kate Manne was the first to conduct a lecture. “She explained how misogyny isn’t just a psychological state,” Bramen pointed out. “There are systems of power structured to legitimize certain forms of violence. A lot of the logic of misogyny is women being divided into groups.” In Manne’s book, Down Girl, she writes about how pitting the “good” girls against the “bad” feeds into misogyny. The next speaker in the series, Wazhmah Osman, looked at the contradiction of American feminism. According to her, in order for feminism to be international, hyper-masculinity and militarism need to be addressed. “Her family immigrated from Afghanistan,” Bramen clarified. Osman spoke about moving away from imperial feminism to reach an international solidarity of gender equality.
The Positive Masculinity Workshop and Misogyny Lecture Series were initiated on SUNY college campuses, but there are plenty of masculinity programs for schools nationwide. One of them is Men Can Stop Rape, a 22-year-old national organization that focused not only in higher education but at the middle and high school levels as well. “We look at gender, race, and violence through the lens of healthy masculinity,” said Jason Page, the Senior Director of National Programs. “There are a lot of schools who have primary prevention work. We work with anyone from freshmen just coming into the college scene, athletes, and fraternities. We try to put the work in front of the student, like bystander intervention.” Other universities have taken upon themselves to incorporate masculinity work into their curriculum. Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, created his own interdisciplinary scholarly journal called Men and Masculinities, and teaches multiple masculinity courses and workshops throughout the country.
“It’s about finding similarities as opposed to exclusion because of differences,” notes Quentin Thompson, a junior at New Paltz. “The workshop provided closure for me about how masculinity can be different for everybody. I never heard it spoken out loud.” Another young man stepped forward in the Positive Masculinity circle. “I never considered my relationship with my father or what it means to be a man until tonight, so thank you,” he said. “Thank you to everyone who shared their story.”
Originally published on https://allenm44.wixsite.com/maeve/blog/unteaching-toxic-masculinity
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