It Takes a Village: Understanding Gender Bias and Shifting Masculine Culture

by Matt Renaud, Youth Advocate and Prevention Educator, AWARE

Over the past couple of months, the work I’ve been doing in some of the area schools has begun overlapping with some of the work I’ve been doing in other aspects of my job as  Youth Advocate & Prevention Educator.  In Hazen Union School in Hardwick, which is the combined middle and high school for Hardwick and surrounding towns, I’ve been collaborating with the school counselors to deliver a curriculum that we pieced together from a number of different sources.  We’re calling it “Understanding Gender Bias” and the goal is both prevention-oriented and also response-oriented, as the eighth grade in particular has been experiencing some gender stereotyping and sexual harassment issues.  A number of 8th grade boys have been wearing t-shirts that say either “Cool story babe, now go make me a sandwich” or “If you can read this, you should get back in the kitchen.”  Both of these shirts have been referenced in a previous blog post by Tori Nevel from Wise.  In addition to wearing these t-shirts, some of the same boys have started identifying as “meninists,” arguing that boys and men are oppressed in this society just as much as girls and women are.  As of yet, I have not been able to locate any empirically validated research supporting this argument.

The “Understanding Gender Bias” curriculum recently came to an end, as we had reached every 8th grade student and we are in the process of tailoring it more specifically to other grade levels for future use.  At the same time, I’ve been working closely with a group of students from Hazen Union who attended a UMatter Conference at the beginning of the school year.  The students were awarded a mini-grant of $500 to use in helping to educate their peers about suicide prevention and the students were asked to choose a specific type of harassment to focus their peer education on.  The Hazen students chose to explore the areas of gender equality, gender bias/stereotypes, gender identity, and sexual identity.  The group of students that attended the UMatter conference plan to ultimately work with Outright VT to host a school-wide assembly focusing on education around these topics.

Simultaneously, AWARE has been hosting a monthly meeting of our Community Allies, which is a group of people from all walks of life in the community that essentially volunteer their time to help make the community more aware of domestic and sexual violence and how people can get involved in both prevention and support efforts.  This group has specifically been addressing the question of how to get more men involved in this work over the past few months.  As someone who identifies as male, I’ve been working closely with the Community Allies on this effort.  It’s a great opportunity to get input from people from all different backgrounds, whether they are survivors, therapists, doctors, law enforcement officers, nurses, representatives of various faith communities, or parents.  The consensus that the group has gradually come to over the past couple of months is that the best way we can engage men in this work or, at least to prevent abusive behavior, is to connect with them at a young age and to be nothing more than a positive role model and a source of emotional support.  I say “nothing more than” with the complete understanding that this is no small task.  However, for people of good will, it doesn’t require you to do anything more than what you already do every day.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that many boys and young men who have abusive tendencies at an early age are lacking a positive male role model who can teach healthy emotional regulation techniques simply by being themselves.  Many times, it’s a positive male role model that these young men are lacking – a “guide for their masculine souls,” to borrow a term from Joe Ehrmann (retired NFL player and creator of Coach for America).

Whether it’s in school, at home, in the grocery store, or on the street, our words and actions are impacting and influencing every child, teen, and young adult we encounter –whether it’s a positive or a negative impact.  In this sense, the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” really does ring true.  The community of Hardwick really seems to be taking that idea to heart by engaging young people in discussions around gender stereotypes and sexual harassment.  This is one of the biggest rewards of living in a rural community like Hardwick and I know it’s the same for many of you reading this in other rural communities – when we really put our minds (and our hearts) to it, we can truly make a lasting positive impact.