Project Humanities conference helps men to open up to each other

By

Marshall Terrill

Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Bill Cosby. Rob Porter.

Sexual harrassment and assault are all over the news these days, and many men want to understand more about what we all can do to enact positive change. So maybe it’s time they start talking to each other about their actions and behaviors.

That was the idea behind “Men2Men,” an intergenerational, interdenominational men’s conference co-hosted by Arizona State University’s Project Humanities and the Historic Tanner Chapel A.M.E Church's men's ministry March 3 in Phoenix.

“There’s something immediate and necessary that we need to discuss openly and critically — men and boys’ behaviors whether it’s the #MeToo movement, school shootings, bullying and ‘toxic masculinity,’” said Neal A. Lester, conference chair, founding director of Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English. “This conference allows men to talk to each other in a meaningful way and figure out what can be done about all of these issues so that we can be better than too many headlines present.”

Project Humanities is an award-winning initiative that brings together individuals and communities from across Arizona to instill knowledge in humanities study, research and humanist thought. Project Humanities aims to facilitate conversations across diverse communities to build understanding through talking, listening and connecting.

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ASU Professor Neal Lester speaks at the Men2Men event at the First Church UCC in Phoenix on Saturday. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Just over 100 individuals — mostly men and boys — participated in the event at the First Church UCC in downtown Phoenix, coming together to raise awareness of critical issues directly related to their lives and to arrive at strategic personal and collective goals for advancement and enrichment.

Lester said the conference aligned well with Project Humanities’ ambitious Humanity 101 efforts to get men and boys to think about, embrace and promote principles that manifest our shared and individual humanity — respect, integrity, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, empathy and self-reflection.

Lester also attends the Historic Tanner Chapel. He said he “couldn’t say no” to his pastor, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas Sr., when approached about a year ago to create the conference. The daylong event included guest speakers, workshops and participatory activities, discussing issues such as sexual harassment and male allies, race-based stress, personal health and wellness, men of color navigating the law and political and social engagement.

“Men have a problem opening up with other men and sharing and communicating,” Thomas said. “We internalize a lot of our hurt and frustration. It may hurt to engage in these conversations, but we as men can learn from them.”

The men learned plenty from Jacque Starks, who facilitated a workshop titled “Sexual Harassment and Male Allies.” Starks, who manages diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement for Maricopa Community Colleges, said the conference was perfectly timed for men to hear her message.

“I’ve been teaching this since the 1980s, but the #MeToo movement is making men realize they have a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on and not to be afraid to take action if they see anything wrong,” said Starks, who defined for her workshop what constitutes sexual harassment, what it looks like and how to be an effective ally to women.

Men also need to learn how to be an ally to themselves where it concerns their health, said facilitator Michelle Melton, a licensed clinical psychologist who led a workshop called “Men’s Race-Based Stress and Resiliency.” She said the more men experience racism and prejudice, the more they tend to internalize those feelings and begin to experience depression, anxiety and, sometimes, suicidal thoughts.

“If we’re going to make a social change or impact, we first have to learn how to take care of ourselves,” Melton said. “Otherwise, we’ll have more negative health outcomes.”

Men can feel better about themselves if they are grounded in spirituality and become more socially and politically active, said facilitator Earl Newton.

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ASU's Project Humanities facilitates conversations across diverse communities throughout Arizona. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

“Women seem to take the forefront on many issues surrounding community,” said Newton, founder and president of the Whole Truth Community Development Corporation. “But if we’re going to change generations behind us, men have to take their rightful place, and that’s being politically and socially engaged.”

The conference also presented opportunities to talk about the local and national political climate and registered attendees to vote.

That’s one of the reasons why Maurice Barnes Jr. brought his 16-year-old son, Maurice Barnes III, to the conference.

“It was a good opportunity to learn about the challenges of what it’s like for his generation to grow up in today’s society,” said Barnes Jr. “The challenges of his generation are much more different than my challenges when I was his age. It’s important that we learn these topics together and grow from it.”

A continuation of the conference will happen March 9 and 10 with a public film screening and discussion of the documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” about how society raises boys to subscribe to a destructive and self-destructive "toxic masculinity"; a homeless outreach effort with Project Humanities; and a youth-targeted workshop on bullying and self-harm.

Top photo: Participants engage in a workshop on sexual harrassment and male allies at the Men2Men conference at the First Church in Phoenix on Saturday. Organized by ASU Professor Neal Lester, Men2Men facilitates open conversation about critical issues affecting men today. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now