How community organizers are engaging men and boys in the fight for gender equality
Around the world, advances in gender equality have reached a standstill. During the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders drastically increased incidents of intimate partner violence. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has emboldened anti-abortion movements both domestically and globally. Whether one looks to the nation’s highest courts or to their own family relations, one likely finds the perpetuation of gender inequality. This is, in part, due to patriarchal constructions of masculinity: cultural beliefs associated with being a man often involve male domination over women.
Yet these beliefs are not unshakeable. In the last three decades, more attention has been paid to the role of men in building gender equality. To some feminists, engaging men in feminism is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one. Madelyn Amos, a program associate with the Feminist Majority, notes that men can play a unique role in effecting change. “Men have so much institutional power and so much control,” says Amos.
But in addition to advancing the feminist cause, many organizers also highlight the ways that men themselves stand to benefit from gender equality. In the U.S., over 70 percent of fathers take limited parental leave, returning to work less than two weeks after the birth of a child. Despite the vast majority of men expressing that they value quality family time, many fathers do not take on childcare work in fears of social stigmatization or job penalties. Even more gravely, men die by suicide at a rate four times higher than women yet are considerably less likely to seek treatment, largely due to gendered mental health stigma. Feminist organizers are acutely aware that men’s wellbeing depends heavily on deconstructing patriarchal systems of inequality. Accordingly, several gender equality groups have dedicated their work to helping men develop healthier concepts of masculinity.
In 1982, a group of men from Massachusetts founded the Men’s Resource Center (MRC), one of the first pro-feminist men’s centers in North America. The MRC emerged in response to the growth of anti-feminist men’s rights organizations in the 1970s. These organizations, including the Society for the Emancipation of American Men (SEAM) and the American Divorce Association for Men (ADAM), believed that men were oppressed by women who sought divorce and “lied about rape.” To counter the momentum of men’s rights activists, the MRC spearheaded an initiative to promote positive masculinity and anti-violent relationships. By partnering with women activists, the Center sparked crucial conversations about gender in male-dominated spaces.
Over time, the MRC became an international model for healthy masculinity projects. In November of 1991, a coalition of feminist men created the White Ribbons Campaign, a movement that mobilizes men against gender violence and misogyny. Similar to the MRC, White Ribbons hosted community education sessions and public demonstrations to encourage men to reassess their roles in gender oppression. Two decades later, the United Nations launched HeForShe, a solidarity campaign that aims to involve men and boys in gender equality efforts. Over the last eight years, HeForShe has mobilized hundreds of thousands of men around the world and gained international popularity from their celebrity spokespeople, such as Emma Watson and Anne Hathaway. Taken together, HeForShe and White Ribbons now have active chapters in over 60 countries.
Yet despite the growing presence of men in feminist spaces, the majority of men still view feminism as polarizing and outdated. In fact, only around 40 percent of men living in the U.S. self-identify as feminists. Of this group, nearly one-third expressed that contemporary feminist goals would come at the expense of their own rights — an eerily similar claim to those made by early men’s rights activists. Many proponents of gender equality are, therefore, now shifting from large-scale campaign strategies to community-based interventions in order to appeal to men. According to Michael Flood, a sociology professor at the Queensland University of Technology School of Justice, investing in close relationships with men is often the most meaningful way to reimagine masculinity. “One metric of effectiveness is in the number of people reached,” says Flood. “Another metric is in personal change and consciousness raising and, certainly for me, those were profoundly transformative.”
Community-oriented initiatives that focus on masculinity are, however, vastly understudied in the broader realm of feminist scholarship. As Flood points out, the number of men involved in pro-feminist advocacy and academia are low. “In Australia, there are probably thirty men who are active on a regular basis in a country of 25 million people,” Flood says. Given that patriarchy socializes men in different ways than women, community work that aims to engage men for gender equality demands its own strategic framework. By gathering insights from activists and researchers working with men, feminists will be better equipped for future advocacy.
Modeling Healthy Masculinity
Social justice organizers who work with men and boys are typically invested in their work on a personal level. This personal attachment not only energizes their work but also enhances their ability to connect with the communities that they serve. Tayamni Goodshield, a program manager at Boys To Men in Tucson, Arizona, spoke candidly about how his earliest experiences with men were characterized by violence. Goodshield emphasizes the importance of positive male role models, as they were crucial in setting him on a “path to healing.” To Goodshield, community organizers should always model healthy masculinity to the boys that they are attempting to engage with, and this requires one to continually resist the socialization of patriarchal masculinity. “Doing this type of work, we’re constantly swimming against the current,” says Goodshield. “The moment I stop pursuing healing and pursuing learning, the current is going to take me.”
In addition to holding themselves accountable, organizers model healthy behavior to create the conditions for others to be emotionally vulnerable. At Boys To Men, Goodshield facilitates weekly discussion circles with teenage boys to discuss perceptions of masculinity and healthy relationships. When discussing strategies for cultivating a comfortable discussion space, Goodshield said, “I would start by being vulnerable — sharing my stories, sharing my pain, and sharing the things that I need to be accountable for in my life.” Goodshield acknowledges that being emotionally open and sharing personal experiences can be challenging, even for long-time organizers. He explains, however, that people often need role models to guide them to a point of authenticity. Thus, although mentoring involves consistent self-evaluation, doing so helps ensure that boys feel safe and understood.
Even for organizers who are not masculine-identifying, presenting healthy male role models in workshops and community events is critical. According to Amos, who previously worked with Becky’s Fund, the high school boys she taught were most responsive to nonviolent communication education if their role models exemplified “healthy manhood.” Amos recalls spending hours before workshops researching professional male athletes who explicitly support gender equality. These athletes would then serve as guiding examples of successful men who exhibit positive masculinity. “A lot of these boys were most likely going to play football in college,” Amos notes. “They were very receptive to this because they loved talking about the athletes that they looked up to.”
Regardless of their background, all organizers prioritize anti-sexism in their own lives to help others reimagine a healthier version of masculinity. To Amos, this means using her skills and privileges to expose people to the benefits of feminist thinking. To Goodshield, this requires him to embark on a constant process of unlearning patriarchal masculinity. Without first looking inwards, it is impossible to show men and boys what healthy manhood and non-violent relationships look like.
Creating Safe Spaces
In a more ideal world, men would mass mobilize alongside women for the feminist cause, taking to the streets to protest and engaging in political advocacy. But under the current state of affairs, most men are still on the journey of learning how patriarchy negatively impacts their lives. Since many men do not bring their emotional lives into male-dominated spaces, the next step is to provide space for people to express themselves. Creating spaces of learning and sharing is a strategy first developed by radical feminists in the 1960s. Through a community practice called consciousness-raising, feminists collectively worked to uncover the impact of patriarchy. Participants of consciousness-raising groups shared their personal experiences that relate to being a woman, and then identified common patterns of their oppression. From this analysis, feminists developed strategies to address the most pressing issues. Today, gender equality organizations continue to use consciousness-raising as a tactic to create physical and emotional spaces for men to discuss the harms they experience under the patriarchy.
At Boys to Men Mentoring (B2M), group facilitators in Spring Valley, California hold discussion sessions with teenage boys that incorporate the basic components of consciousness-raising. B2M partners with local middle and high schools to offer consistent support, meeting at least once a week for one hour. Every discussion session begins with a check-in, where mentors share their own experience on that week’s topic and listen to the boys’ responses. The mentors invite participants to share the challenges that they face and how they may begin taking responsibility for their choices. Topics include questions such as, “How does peer pressure affect you?” and “What kind of man do you want to be?” By keeping questions open to different interpretations, the mentors give all boys the opportunity to articulate their feelings.
Listening, and not judging, is a critical component of successful discussion spaces. According to Albert Reed, a group facilitator for B2M, the goal is “not to fix or rescue young boys, but to hold space and listen to them.” Reed encourages boys to think critically about positive relationships on an individual level. Rather than offering boys immediate answers to their problems, Reed believes that each person already has the solutions within them. To Reed, the B2M spaces help provide a forum for boys to practice and hone their skills with healthy, non-violent masculinity.
But merely holding space for men to discuss their personal experiences is not enough; organizers must also incentivize men to participate. Katherine Pizarro, a senior research officer at Equimundo, explains that men’s limited time is a major obstacle to research and programming. Pizarro is currently working on a program that aims to promote healthier versions of masculinity and fatherhood for Colombian men. She has observed, however, that many men do not have the time or energy to participate in Equimundo’s discussion groups. “The men are working long hours in low wage jobs, and they need the flexibility of not having to show up every week,” says Pizarro. “It doesn’t matter how great the program is if they don’t show up.”
To encourage participation, Pizarro highlights the broader impact that meeting spaces can have on men. In addition to promoting men’s wellbeing, Equimundo’s programming gives fathers tools to engage with their family and community. For instance, the organization developed a training manual called “Program P,” which equips men with concrete strategies for active caregiving. Through this program, men can learn best practices on maternal and child health, and preventing violence against women. By also framing their program goals around parenting and community leadership, Equimundo demonstrates that discussions on gender can be not only interesting to men but also useful in their day-to-day lives.
For both B2M and Equimundo, holding space that is accessible is essential for men and boys to think critically about gender norms. While Reed uses methods of attentive listening and encouragement to incentivize program buy-in, Pizarro helps create programs that adapt to Colombian men’s busy schedules and wide-ranging needs. The common strategy is to get men and boys talking: gender equality cannot be realized until people become aware that inequality exists.
Centering Joy and Community
Consciousness-raising is a necessary first step for engaging men in activism, but it can also be the most difficult. After all, becoming aware of one’s own oppression, or participation in another’s oppression, is a painful process. Since any space that challenges a system of inequality will produce discomfort, many community organizers find it important to continually center joy in their work. For organizers who work with teenage boys, centering joy can simply involve adding leisure activities to programming. In addition to hosting B2M discussion circles, Reed takes the boys in his group on surfing and fishing trips. During these activities, the boys develop healthy friendships with one another while learning from positive role models. To Reed, leisure events show the boys that practicing healthy masculinity can be fulfilling, and offer another outlet for boys to cultivate positive relational skills.
Other community mentors intentionally shape their programming around light-hearted activities. Jake Stika, the co-founder and executive director of Next Gen Men (NGM), is passionate about adapting program methods to the needs and desires of the youth. In 2020, NGM started a Discord server for boys and nonbinary youth to play online games, connect, and check-in with each other. The youth were particularly excited about playing Minecraft, often discussing their experiences with pandemic life and struggles with school work during the game. While NGM did not pursue any formal programming for the boys online, Stika explains that many of the youth who were experiencing mental health issues just needed a community of trusted peers. “It’s about looking at the conversations that we’re trying to have and adapting to what’s going on in people’s worlds now,” says Stika.
Around the world, organizers are now coupling their educational programming with activities that spark joy in community members. A Call to Men, a U.S.-based national violence prevention organization, hosts community brunches across the country to celebrate male leaders who are promoting healthy manhood in their cities. The global chapter of HeForShe organizes a yearly summit that brings together gender equality activists for a day of learning and community bonding. While committing to anti-sexism requires unlearning oppressive gender norms, the process should also enhance men’s and boys’ lives. Returning to a place of joy both incentivizes participation in a social cause and demonstrates that gender equality can benefit everyone.
No One-Size-Fits-All Strategy
Across countries and communities, activists have exchanged strategies for mobilizing men and boys in the name of gender equality. But although most community-based organizations share the same basic principles, it remains difficult to isolate one particular strategy that is most effective in reaching men. This dilemma stems from the reality that men and boys do not make up a monolithic group. Even within a single American neighborhood, one can find men of different socioeconomic, racial and ethnic, and religious backgrounds. The different identities that men have produce a wide-range of perspectives on masculinity, each requiring different kinds of interventions. Just as the current feminist movement is fragmented by historical disparities and ideological differences, the effort to engage men in gender equality seems to lack a universal strategic framework.
Organizers like Flood call for an intersectional approach to activism, urging community actors to be “responsive to the very different circumstances of men’s lives, and not merely the fact of diversity but the fact of inequality.” Flood acknowledges that many men of marginalized identities experience their own forms of oppression that can complicate their relationship with masculinity. As an example, Flood points to the Torres Strait Islanders, an indigenous Australian group. In these communities, men and boys are disproportionately subject to police force and imprisonment from the state. The systems of power that act against Torres Strait Islanders alter men’s relationships with their communities and families in ways that white Australian men, for instance, can not understand. Thus, when implementing programs that attempt to foster healthy masculinity, one must first acknowledge the intersectional relations of privilege that exist in a target region.
Operating through an intersectional lens, researchers like Pizarro are adamant about employing flexible programs that can be adapted to different cultural contexts. Although Equimundo has core programs designed to be implemented across the world, such as Program P, the organization conducts extensive research on local conditions before implementing any program. Additionally, to avoid imposing any personal beliefs, Equimundo researchers always work closely with local partners to adapt their programs. Pizarro recognizes that continually re-adapting programs takes time and may contrast the work of other multinational organizations. “There’s a trade-off between doing something that is the most amazing fit for one small group versus something that can be implemented at scale,” Pizarro says. “It’s definitely an ongoing challenge that we face.”
Still, all of the organizers believe that much work can be done at both the local and global scale. Flood recommends that larger, national-level organizing focus more on developing educational materials and forming cross-cultural solidarity bonds between activist groups. “It’s desirable to have national-level social marketing campaigns promoting sexual consent, for example, or promoting gender equality in relationships,” says Flood. “I think they could complement more tailored and local efforts.” To Flood, organizing strategies will differ based on cultural contexts and scale-of-implementation, but mobilizing on all levels is essential.
To other community activists, the harms of patriarchy exist in nearly every culture and country, thus helping to unify organizers against one common enemy. At NGM, Stika encourages members of his community to reflect on the kinds of cultural narratives they inherited about masculinity. According to Stika, everyone suffers under patriarchal gender norms but each person has slightly different experiences. Stika urges people to be sensitive to various cultural backgrounds but cautions against cultural relativist arguments that dissuade organizers from working on a large scale.
An Invitation to Men
Despite the various approaches to mobilizing men, it is crucial that all feminists continue to strengthen engagement from men and boys. At a time when women’s rights are caught in political battles, building a more gender-diverse feminist movement can protect the lives of the most marginalized gender minorities. To resist anti-feminist influences, organizers must employ a range of strategies to demonstrate that men and boys, too, have a personal stake in the struggle for gender equality. From modeling healthy masculinity to centering community joy, bringing men into feminist spaces is a collective effort. By learning from the work of past and current organizers, feminists everywhere can begin fostering healthy masculinity in their own communities.
It is time that men join the feminist movement not merely on behalf of the women that they love but also for the sake of their sons, brothers, and fathers. Gender equality is key to cultivating healthy relationships and to helping men return to places of authenticity. Community organizers everywhere are extending invitations to men who want a more equitable world. The time to accept is now.
This research is made possible by the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University.