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Man Up: Expanding Our Definition of Masculinity

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So far, Bicking finds the scouts rise to whatever situation they're in, irrespective of their genders. As scoutmaster, he sees that the awkward boy-girl relationships that happen in the teen years don't have to be the norm. The broader pop culture influences send messages of inequality that are subtle and indirect, but Bicking finds examples of equal opportunity are also more apparent and less abstract. "There's a lot to talk about in terms of the role that we play in society for the gender we project and identify with. The responsibility becomes to uphold the way we treat each other." Bicking feels that nature is the great equalizer. "It doesn't distinguish. It's inspirational and everyone can find something in it to relate to. There are lots of challenges: physical, tactile, skills based," he says. "We're all here on equal footing with the same interest in fulfilling the mission of the scouting program."

Hypermasculinity

Think about the world in terms of a middle school fight. Generally, there are combatants, sometimes reluctantly thrown in the middle, and a circle of bystanders around them, often screaming for blood. "For 5,000 years, we've had a construct created from a patriarchal structure. And that patriarchal structure allowed for a number of things that basically confused masculinity and what the rights of masculinity were," explains Dan Lebowitz, executive director for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society (CSSS) at Northeastern University. Through partnerships with sports-based youth development organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs, schools, corporations, and global sports leagues, CSSS creates and supports curricula that encourage people to understand their responsibility and accountability.

One such series, the Mentors in Violence Prevention program (abbreviated MVP—a play on the sports acronym Most Valuable Player), turns the world dynamic into a creative one. It's credited as the first bystander approach to social justice. "We give people a tool kit for conflict resolution, as an empowered bystander–not encouraging the combatants to fight, but changing the dynamic so they can walk away with dignity."

Leading small group discussions, various courses tackle issues of race, gender, violence, and bullying. CSSS has worked with Major League Baseball, the South African World Cup, every major college athletic conference, and within branches of the military. In schools, it's a trickle-down model. They train health, gym, and classroom teachers who incorporate the curriculum into their classes in a sustainable way, and students who start clubs and organizations within their schools and go into younger classrooms to do peer training.

While violence and control are the pillars of the conversation around masculinity, Lebowitz says the ability to dominate should not make the man. Growing up disabled, Lebowitz says he lived a childhood of disenfranchisement. As the father of a multiracial family of six, he sees the institutionalized and sustained trauma that African Americans live under. In their Don't Hate the Player program, CSSS encourages participants to write a narrative where people take the lead or the back seat depending on their identifiers—reversing the roles of historic alienation. It acknowledges that the African American narrative in this country hasn't been written by African Americans, and raises awareness of privilege and empowerment. "People are defined a lot by the narrative created around their journey," Lebowitz says. "When they understand that they have the power to change things or write their own narrative, they move beyond the trauma-scape and learn how to change self-awareness into betterment."

The telling piece is that CSSS trainings are predominantly led by athletes. "At CSSS, we build everything off the platform of sport," Lebowitz explains. CSSS sees sport as a common denominator. People have different opinions around politics, religion, but they all support a favorite team that's often made up of different types. It's an access point for reaching everyone on issues of social justice. "People view sport, particularly male sport, as hypermasculine. So when those men stand up and say that the construct is warped, that the construct of masculinity needs to include kindness, compassion, humanity, respect for women, et cetera, if that's coming from the mouth of a former fighter or a former football player, then the males in the room suddenly aren't dismissing it. You've engaged them on a level where you've grasped how they've been acculturated in that hypermasculinity, and how to move them beyond that."

Connection & Interdependence

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