U.Va. Men Teaching Local Boys: M is for Many Ways of Being Masculine

Sept. 17, 2007-- “My father, brother, grandfather and uncles taught me culture, pride, a sense of moral conduct.”

“My father taught me a man can fill most any role and do it in his own style."

“Violence has a negative impact on men’s lives, as well as women’s.”

These comments come from members of a new men’s group formed at the University of Virginia, the Men’s Leadership Project. It's mission: to pair undergraduates with local fifth-grade boys and offer them a different kind of mentoring based upon openness about what it means to be a man. Its chief goal is to reduce violent behavior toward women.

Men who are activists for preventing violence against women say the problem needs to be addressed on several different levels of society and culture, said Claire Kaplan, director of the U.Va. Women’s Center’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Services, where the program is housed.

The Men’s Leadership Project is a program just for guys. Christopher Wilcox Elliott, who works part-time in the Dean of Students Office in Fraternity and Sorority Life, is leading the new effort to offer alternative role models to the ones displayed in the media and other places.

“We don’t say we have answers,” Wilcox Elliott said, “but we show there is a wide range of ways to be a man.” He wants to build upon the success of other kinds of mentoring programs by adding social change to the importance of community.

The program, which also includes a for-credit course, will give young males a chance to talk about what it means to be a boy or man and to be themselves as individuals, how and where they learn about being male and how that relates to how they feel and act. The program will give the college men an opportunity to take leadership roles and show the boys how to focus on gender awareness and how to be comfortable about it around other males.

“Gender identity refers to how you perceive and express yourself in masculine and feminine terms," Wilcox Elliot said.

“Boys and men rarely get to talk about gender,” Kaplan said.

“Why is violence considered normative for men? It has a negative impact on men’s lives, as well as women’s,” added Wilcox Elliott, who joined his first men’s group in college, working on sexual assault and violence prevention.

The program won't be focusing on sexual violence prevention in the context of dating relationships — the fifth-graders aren't old enough to talk about that, Kaplan noted. But they are old enough to think critically.

“Crime and violence are gendered. They’re all about claiming power and status by aggressive means,” Wilcox Elliott said. Furthermore, the idea of what it means to be a man so often looks like a twisted depiction of hyper-masculinity these days, he said.

Wilcox Elliott, a doctoral student in the Curry School of Education’s social foundations program, said the program will explore more of the positive aspects of masculinity, including ideas about being a good friend, a good partner, being responsible for your actions, supporting and valuing family, and other ways of earning respect.

Education professor Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist in the Curry School who specializes in working with teenagers, said, “Being a young adolescent boy can be very difficult. Many boys lack appropriate models for how to interact with the world around them. … It is in the nature of their developmental agendas, however, that they need not just models, but support as well. This project can provide [that] support and also teach older adolescents and young adults how to mentor and lead in their world.

“I hope these sorts of mentoring and support approaches become contagious in our society," said Sheras, the author of several books, including “Your Child: Bully or Victim?”

With the help of the Michael Mason, a guidance counselor at Walker Upper Elementary School, the project has also received the support of parents, who will meet with the group several times this year.

The first cohort of 13 undergraduates in the Men’s Leadership Project went through a semester-long training last spring. Elliott said he watched them become more open, honest and critical over their time together.

“Learning about the variety of other influences on our identity and how to incorporate those into a sense of self has been challenging and hugely rewarding,” said one of the students, Patrick Cronin, who lives on the Lawn and is president of One in Four, a college men’s group focused on preventing and responding to sexual assault.

Third-year student Carlos Oronce said one of the most significant things he has learned about being a man is that gender is omnipresent and requires constant consideration.

“That is, we should be respectful, be polite, and take care of the ones whom we care about, but that does not entitle us (men) to assume a general sense of ignorant benevolence or feelings of superiority, whether or not they are intended,” said Oronce, a biochemistry major and president of the Asian Student Union.

Being part of a large extended family has provided Oronce with several role models, he said.

“My male identity was shaped significantly by my father, brother, grandfather and uncles. They all provided me fundamental lessons on the numerous relationships we have — father and son, uncle and nephew, or brother and older brother — how to act in these relationships and how to interact with others. They taught me culture, pride, a sense of moral conduct.”

Cronin, a fourth-year double major in economics and African-American and African Studies, had a different experience. During his high school years, his father retired and stayed home to take care of the household and three boys while his mother worked in the traditionally male occupation of financial services.

“His example for those years left an indelible mark on how I define manhood,” said Cronin.

At the same time, he said he learned being a man is to challenge oneself.

“My father taught me not to fear failure, but to fear not trying. … Understanding that a man can fill most any role and do it in his own style was important for me as a teenager,” Cronin said. “It is a lesson I hope my little brother learns over the course of his life, and I want to be a part of that learning.”

The U.Va. mentors are not just founding members of the Men’s Leadership Project. They are students in Wilcox Elliott’s class, “Leadership Development and Mentoring with Adolescent Boys,” an education course with a service-learning component. In the University’s tradition of student self-governance, students contribute to the course content and facilitate group sessions. They are conducting pre- and post surveys with the boys. Together with Wilcox Elliott, they evaluate how the program is going week by week.

If the program is successful and expands, they hope to open it to all boys, Kaplan said, “because all boys are at risk for violence whether they are privileged or not.”

Ten years ago, the Women’s Center created a similar program for girls, the Young Women Leaders Program, that has been highly successful,.