But it was between the crowded aisles at the football field-sized trade show and the standing-room only education sessions at the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Meeting & Exposition in Atlanta a month ago when the culture shock became completely apparent.
It wasn’t the multitude of cultures represented or the intimidating, high-level association executives who direct national and international organizations that made me uneasy. In fact, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t discomfort at all.
I think it was engagement.
I’ve had the great opportunity to work with very talented and committed advocates throughout the ten years I’ve dedicated to the family violence movement. I’ve found commonalities and bonded with women who ended up being vital to my growth as a professional and as a man. They have been mentors, confidants, colleagues, friends, and there are a select few who I am privileged enough to call part of my family.
But working in the movement isn’t easy. And if you’re a man, it can periodically turn into a complex struggle to find your place. I have no doubt it was easier for me because I am gay.
Easier, not easy.
There were plenty of situations—some more pronounced than others—when the movement pushed me aside. In many instances, I chose to look past this behavior because I understand the movement’s framework, and I support its foundation.
Throughout my career, some male colleagues approached me about the discomfort they felt at conferences and among some advocates. I was able to relate. I had some similar experiences, but I was rarely able to convince any of them to grin through it until they earned their stripes.
My ASAE experience couldn’t have been any more different.
For one, there were men at the conference. It became apparent when I had to wait in a restroom line.
Then, people wanted to connect, despite me being a man. They were curious about what I did for my program and wanted to learn from me. They cared about my perspective. But more importantly, I didn’t feel an obligatory impulse to justify why I did this work. I didn’t have to refer to my own history of abuse or give obvious hints to my status as a gay man to appear less threatening. At ASAE, I just had to smile and say hello.
When I returned home, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of being part of something bigger and eventually, it made me think of marbles.
In her book, Daring Greatly, researcher Brene Brown used a bowl of marbles as a metaphor for how we usually learn to trust. We start with a marble-lined bowl. As people support us with kind acts, marbles are added to the bowl. As people behave in a ways that fracture our confidence, we remove marbles from the bowl. Trust is built one marble at a time.
The metaphor begins with a bowl lined with marbles. No one needs to do something for the bowl to exist or throw in the first few marbles. They are already in there—call it goodwill. And like Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Family violence advocates continue attempts to engage men to prevent intimate partner violence. Successful campaigns like Coaching Boys to Men, The White Ribbon Campaign, A Call to Men among many others have existed that have taken different approaches.
At times, advocates are frustrated by the dormancy of male participation. They poke ad prod for various innovative ways to engage, support and increase participation. And at the same time they struggle with trusting men to work as overnight shelter workers, advocates or even hesitate in acknowledging male victims.
They come to the conversation without a marble-lined bowl. Skeptical. Doubtful. Nothing is more disillusioning to a man committed to ending intimate partner violence than feeling superfluous. Want to know how to engage men? Start from within. Hire them. Bring men to the conversation. Encourage your staff to learn from one another and to work side by side productively. Then repeat. And repeat.
Engagement isn’t about fancy marketing campaigns or the latest trend. Engagement is about relationships. Building them. Strengthening them. People get involved in a cause if they care enough.
If men who care enough about ending violence against women come to the movement, but find no trust, camaraderie and supportive environments—or find only suspicion, scrutiny and barriers—advocates will continue limit opportunities for rich conversation with allies who only want to help make a difference.