In the second of a series of guest posts on Higher Unlearning, Tuval Dinner from the White Ribbon Campaign shares an experience connecting with young men.
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the #respect conference for high school students in Hamilton, Ontario put on by the local YWCA. I’ve been working with the YWCA there on a project called Be the One which aims to engage young people in conversations and action to end violence against women. The conference is a culmination of two years of work and brought together 80 students of all genders to explore issues like healthy relationships, homophobia and transphobia, leadership and masculinity.
I gave a keynote address and then was asked to facilitate a workshop for 12 young men. We had an hour and a half together and spent the time talking about privilege, gender expectations for men, how violence and traditional masculinity are connected, how homophobia and sexism are connected and what we can all do to end violence against women.
The young men self-identified as non-participators but they all engaged in the conversation and gave honest input and answers. As we moved into the last 15 minutes of the session I was wrapping up a discussion and decided to try to squeeze in one more activity. My colleague Jeff Perera recently introduced me to an exercise called $100 bill but I hadn’t had a chance to try it out. I went for it.
The activity is extremely simple. I asked for a volunteer to talk through a basic outline of an average day in their life. The young man described a day involving biking to school, walking through the hallways at school, hanging out with the peer support team, spending the day at school, biking home after picking up some groceries and eating dinner.
Then I asked him to put a fake $100 bill on his shirt and invited the group to go over the day he had just described but imagine that he was wearing the money on his shirt. They described him getting funny looks and comments while he biked, being joked about and grabbed while he walked down the hallway, his friends asking him why he had dressed that way and people being friendly to him in the hopes of getting their hands on the money.
Then I asked them what the activity was about. Even after doing a whole session on gender and violence they weren’t sure. After they made a few guesses I told them that the goal of the activity was for them to imagine what it might be like to look like a women for a day. Not that this represents the full experience but it may give some insight.
A few guys said “whoa” and the guy wearing the $100 bill made the “mind blown” hand gesture and said “boom!”
That’s never happened to me in a workshop. There was a palpable energy in the air, an air of empathy, openness and potential. The potential for connection and transformation, for understanding and healing; a little door was opened for these young men to start to walk through.
I don’t take credit for that moment. That moment can be created in many ways by people who play a role in the lives of young men and boys. It involves having critical conversations about issues that affect them in ways that value their voices but challenge them to see beyond their own experiences and connect their own feelings with those of people unlike themselves.
When I reflect back on that group of young men I wonder what lies on the other side of that door? What happens if we all walk through?
Tuval Dinner is a Community and Youth Engagement Manager for the White Ribbon Campaign. He has over 10 years of experience working with youth and educators, mainly focusing on program development and facilitation around issues of gender, masculinity, and healthy relationships with young men. He talks with over 6000 students a year promoting a new vision of relationships and manhood.