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Being just a guy who breaks the silence

The fourth annual Men’s Summit brought more than 60 men together to change the conversation around violence against women

Photo by Richard Asinof

Deborah DeBare, executive director of the R.I. Coalition of Domestic Violence, photobombs a photo of students who attended the fourth annual Men's Summit: Breaking The Silence, on Nov. 9.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/13/17
The fourth annual Men’s Summit: Breaking The Silence brought more than 60 male Rhode Islanders together to discuss how best to raise up the issue of violence against women and generate positive action to end it.
As the revelations about sexual harassment and sexual assault continue to reverberate in the workplace and on the political front, how will men in Rhode Islander respond? Will they see themselves as playing a distinct role? What political talk show will invite members of the Ten Men Project to be guests to talk about men’s role in violence against women? Has anyone analyzed the data between the connection of domestic violence against women and gun violence in Rhode Island? How can restorative justice training techniques help to build a different way to resolve differences? What is the connection between childhood lead poisoning and violence in Rhode Island? Which male reporter or editor in Rhode Island will be the first to join a Ten Men cohort?
One of the observations raised by two different police officers at the Men’s Summit had to do with the level of social breakdown and the lack of economic opportunity that weighed heavily upon many of the young people they encountered, echoing the findings of sociologist Shannon Monnat and her research into the landscapes of despair.
When they heard about her research findings that 60 percent of all deaths for young white adults, male and female, between the ages of 25 and 34 from 2010-2014 in Rhode Island were from alcohol, drugs and suicide, they both said, in union: “Wow.”

PROVIDENCE – On the evening of Nov. 9, more than 60 men of all shapes, sizes, professions, ages, colors and commitments attended the fourth annual summit of The Ten Men Project, an initiative of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

There were pediatricians, high school students, college students, college professors, police offers, retired police officers, coaches, editors, agency directors, and social workers, among others.

The goal of “The Men’s Summit: Breaking The Silence” was to “raise up the issue of violence against women and generate positive action to end it,” according to the promotional materials.

The subtext of the gathering was that by identifying and recognizing that domestic violence was not something that happened to women in isolation, and by talking about and owning the role that men play, it would change the equation.

Stepping outside the man box
Divided randomly into groups at tables following dinner, the participants viewed two brief videotapes to jumpstart the discussion. One focused on what was described as The Man Box, the way in which men are often forced to be boxed in by cultural assumptions of what it means to be a man that does not allow them to express vulnerability or compassion, in a way that separates women and does not acknowledge them as equals.

A second video, from the voice of a women talking to her dad, from the perspective of a baby girl about to be born, framed the issue around all the difficult things that a woman would encounter in her life: from being raped, from being beaten, from being called a whore, from having to fight off sexual advances, from being devalued in the workplace.

The conversations
With facilitators at each table to help guide the discussion, much of the initial conversation focused on the difficulties encountered in stepping outside the boundaries of the man box, and the consequences of doing so.

A high school student from a charter school talked about how it was easier for him to show his emotions at school, but out on the street, doing so was more dangerous. A police officer talked about encountering the levels of violence expressed when stopping a vehicle with two guys and two women in the backseat, attempting to change the conversation. A retired police officer spoke about the threat of violence against himself if he did not join in with “gay bashing” on the job.

The evening closed with remarks from a participant, Mitch, 25 years old, who voiced surprise that he was asked to speak; even his wife had expressed surprise that he had been chosen to deliver closing remarks.

Mitch’s response was that he was “just a guy.” He talked about growing up in a small Midwestern community where he said he had been blissfully unaware of the issues of domestic violence. As far as he knew, it didn’t exist.

It was only in recent years that he had realized, in retrospect, that it had existed, that the likelihood that a quarter of the women in the community had experienced some kind of sexual assault. Worse, he realized, that the perpetrators were many of the men in the community he knew.

Mitch closed by urging the participants to recognize that they, too, were “just a guy” – but they could find another man like themselves to be “just a guy who is willing to break the silence.”

National context
On the day of the men’s summit, The Washington Post revealed that four women had come forward to say that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, had dated them when they were teenagers, including one woman who said that when she was 14 years old in 1979, Moore had pursued an unwanted sexual relationship with her.

In response, Moore and many of his supporters attempted to challenge the women and their allegations, denying the charges and blaming the news media for promoting fake news.

It was, in many ways, a perfect drama in which the man box was being drawn – and a great opportunity for men to step outside the boundaries, if they chose to do so.


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