This past Tuesday I begun what will be an 8-week after-school mentorship program sponsored and organized by the YWCA of Vancouver. The program, called “Boys 4 Real”, is targeted at grade 7 students who are preparing to make the transition to high school. I heard about the program through a friend, and immediately leapt at the opportunity.
I am near-absolutely sure that I don’t want to have children, but I still believe deeply that adults should be involved in the raising of children – or, more accurately, that children are a part of our society and should be integrated rather than segregated. My father grew up with multiple ‘parents’ – people who were not his biological relations but who nevertheless took responsibility for his upbringing and well-being. I spent my middle childhood on a street with lots of children my age, meaning that their parents were often acting as my surrogate parents. I think it makes more sense than a ‘nuclear’ and closed-off model where children are essentially the property of their two guardians rather than participants in the world as adults are. I think kids do better when they have rich social networks with lots of points of contact and perspectives on life, and I think it’s better for all of us, regardless of age to remain connected to our most vulnerable selves.
In that vein, the YWCA program offered me an opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice.
The other major motivation for my participation is that I am a male feminist, and I believe strongly that the messages that we send young men about masculinity are deeply problematic. The program explicitly invites reflection and critique of these ideas. I have spent the better part of 3 years trying to craft and shape my beliefs on gender and equality on this blog; this was an opportunity to put some of these beliefs into practice. Of course, the danger that I am all too well-aware of is that I do not want to ‘indoctrinate’ anyone. I don’t want to foist my own conclusions and my own ideas onto them as ‘the right way’. If I can get them to start asking themselves and each other the right kinds of questions – what does it mean to be ‘tough’ or ‘strong’? what does ‘equality’ look like? what kinds of messages and role models do we see in popular media and are they good for us? – just asking those questions is progress toward more empathy and understanding. If I have ‘a goal’, getting them even curious about those questions will be a ‘win’.
The participants in the program are divided into three categories: high school mentors, who as the name would suggest are high school students; facilitators, who are (primarily) university students who are responsible for ‘running’ the program, and ‘Wisdom Champions’ who are adults with jobs and the whole “adult” shebang. I was offered an opportunity to join this last group in a local school, and I took it.
I am going to keep a series of journals on my experience in the program. Partially because I am a writer and that’s what I do, and partially because I think I will learn quite a bit in the process of being involved with these kids. I hope that these reflections will be instructive to others, but that is not their primary purpose. They will also be a lot shorter than this one, because I’m already 400 words into this first one, and I haven’t even started yet.
I will confess that I was quite nervous and even a bit anxious about my first day. While the course, delivered as a series of 8 three-hour workshops after school, is well-structured with lots of activities and documentation, I haven’t worked closely with kids since I was in graduate school and participated in a “reading buddies” program. I also knew that one of our facilitators hadn’t made it to the training session and was coming in even more green than I was.
My chief concern was that there would be one or more students who were ‘defiant’, meaning that they would actively try to derail the program and act out. I am not a teacher, I don’t really know how to appropriately discipline a defiant 12 year-old, and while I was not necessarily worried about being liked, I was worried that losing their respect on the first day would be getting off to a bad start.
There are 13 guys (more on this term in a second) in our group, most of whom already knew each other before the beginning of the program. The first thing I was struck by is the fact that they were totally willing to do as I asked when it came to putting their stuff away, sitting in a circle, etc. Given the stereotypes I have about ‘rambunctious pre-teens’, I was expecting something closer to the opening scenes from Kindergarten Cop – absolute mayhem. Instead, they were attentive, engaged, and compliant (with the caveat that they are still 12 years old and very energetic – joking around, laughing, talking, etc.). They listened, they participated, they were actually pretty great.
One of the first things we did, after explaining the program itself in broad strokes, was establish a code of conduct – some basic ‘Do’ and ‘Don’t’ rules for everyone, including the program leads, to follow. What I thought was interesting is that their chief concern was confidentiality (which they contextualized as “no snitching”) – out of respect for their wishes I will try to keep these reflections focused on myself and not on them as individuals. There were a number of things I wanted to make sure went on that list, but of particular concern was the need to establish consent as a prerequisite for all kinds of physical touch. It’s going to be relevant to some of the other things we’re going to talk about later, and I wanted to make the concept explicit and clear from the outset.
Attached to this code of conduct was an idea I developed as a result of discussions with some of the other leaders during training (and conversations I’ve had with my trans* associates). I invited them to reflect on what language they would prefer we (as program leaders) use to address them (as program participants). The program is called “Boys 4 Real”, but they might not like being called “boys”. “Young men” is arch, and “fellas” is goofy. I asked them to share how they preferred to be identified. I also felt this was an opportunity to establish a safe space for anyone who might not identify as “guy” to know that there are options aside from gender binary terms of reference.
Despite the mostly-silly early attempts to get me to refer to them as “Pokemon” (which I would have been happy to do if that had been the group decision), they eventually agreed that “guys” was okay. I tried to make it as clear as possible that if there was a need to modify that term later on, we could discuss that (and that if they wanted to talk privately about it, we were available).
We ran through the activities planned for the day: played some games, discussed some stuff about high school, ate a snack. Everything went smoothly, far smoother than I initially expected (thanks in part to Alex, one of the YWCA staff who was there to supervise on our first day).
There is an equivalent group for girls called “Welcome to my Life” (I will refer to them hereafter as WtmLs, for reasons I will explain in a second), and the two groups intermingle in the second half of the day to work on a community service project. There was some initial “oooh” and “aaah” about working with the WtmLs, but for the most part the mixing was natural and uneventful.
I repeated the same exercise with the WtmLs, asking them what group noun they preferred to be referred to as. Interestingly (and perhaps a bit predictably), they actually came up with an entirely new non-English word for themselves. The specific word is theirs, so there’s really no reason for me to reproduce it here, but suffice it to say it is long, a bit goofy, and completely non-gendered (as in there’s nothing particularly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ about it). As I promised, that is how we referred to them for the rest of the day. It was a little annoying that I had to keep using this weird polysyllabic word, but it’s theirs, they chose it, and that’s the rules. I think it will be a good exercise for the guys to have to learn to use it rather than “girls”, which I’m sure is their go-to preference.
All in all I was really happy with how Week 1 went. I have a good team, I’m looking forward to getting to know them better and to do more work with the guys.