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About the Group - An Interview with Peter

Question 1

F: First, tell me a little bit about yourself and your group.

P: The group is called Men for Change. We started in 1989 after the Montreal massacre when 14 female engineering students were murdered in Montreal by a man who walked into their classroom and yelled *you're all a bunch of feminists* and starting shooting them with a 22 calibre rifle. This was an attack against women because before he started shooting he ordered all the men to leave the room. This tragic event opened many people's eyes, including my own, to the issue of violence against women in our society. I was quite angry, sad at that action and even ashamed of being a man. It was important to connect with that reality of the violent choices taht to many men make to solve their problems. I needed to reach out to other guys who were feeling the same way, and to do something about reclaiming masculinity and to reclaim what it was to be a man. And challenge these images of dominant and toxic masculine men that are always solving their problems with violence and death and hurting people, and what seems to be the primary expression of maleness. It gets into a whole bunch of issues around how the media portrays images of men and how we consciously and unconsciously actually participate in that portrayal of men in these very limited stereotype role. So for me, getting involved in the group was both a political agenda, from the point of view of wanting to end violence in society and also from a personal point of view I wanted to affirm a deeper kind of masculinity that was more connected with what I was feeling and experiencing in the world, and not this narrow and limited representation of a man as tough, macho, muscle bound, intellectually challenged jock type stereotype.

F: So it's an all men's group?

P: Yes, in the early days, we did have women come out, I called them the curious dozen. At our first meeting we had 90 men and about 10-12 curious women. And for about 6 months or so we had both men and women coming to the group's monthly meeting. We were just call men against violence against women and about a year later we came up with a name that seemed to make sense to us, Men for Change. We hosted monthly meetings on the first Monday of the month that had two parts. In hour one would focus on a particular topic or issues related to violence or sexism and have a guest speaker or a video. The second hour we'd get into small groups and there would be all men's small groups and there would be mixed small groups of 6-8 people. Thoise small group opportunities to share and reflect were so engaging for us that we decided meet the third Monday of the month as well. As it turned out the mixed groups lasted about 4 or 5 months and the all men's groups have lasted 7 + years. I think there's a reason for that the all men's groups have sustained energy and need over time. It's not particularly novel to talk with women about these issues, it is radical, novel is a soft word, but it's radical and novel for men to actually sit with each other and discuss things that have deep integral meaning to who they are as a human being and that special uniqueness has not worn off to this day. So for me a group for men who get together to talk about who they really are not sports and stock markets and these superficial things is a precious and genuine experience

F: Describe some things that you like about the group?

P: We started off having the third Monday meetings as an open group format where guys would just drop in and we would get different guys coming every month. It became a little frustrating at a certain point, because some of them couldn't make it one month and the next month. What we ended up doing was kind of retelling our stories to bring these guys up to speed on what was happening. We still host the open meetings the third Tuesday of the month but for guys that want to become more committed we have what we call the reflection groups. The reflection group I'm in meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. The same group of guys agree to meet for a fixed period of time, six months to a year. The reason I like that more than the open group is that you get to expereince each others progress thought life in a safer way. The guys in my group have gone with me through several relationships for example so they have a sense of who I am, my growth, they remember my challenges, they remember my weak spots, they also remember my strengths and my joys. So there's some history that is there that I think is valuable in terms of the stability and trust that needs to be built in any group.

F: On the other side, are there any things that you don't like about the group?

P: When we deal with really heavy personal issues, sometimes it's still very difficult even though we have a great deal of trust and a great deal of respect for each other, it still seems to be difficult to get into the pain. Only one guy has to crack a joke and that just keeps us up ligth and fluffy. And that joke can come from being uncomfortable with a topic or well, uncomfortable with the topic, that's the bottom line. So the joke comes from a place of insecurity. Instead of actually dealing with that insecurity that person jokes instead of descending into what men need to descend into, that is deeply into our inner selves. And so if I have any frustration with the group it's that sometimes the group doesn't always embrace that challenge of going deep. I may be in the mood to get into something that's a little bit more personal, maybe something I've never revealed to anyone before, and yet if there is any joviality going on I'm not going to feel invited to get into vulnerable territory.

Question 2

F: If I were to attend a meeting with you, what would it look like?

P: Ah yes, the old fly on the wall. You'd be surprised how many women would like to know what goes on in the hearts of men. Our partners are very interested in what goes on at meetings. They ask what do you talk about and we say that we talk about everything, about the only thing that really hasn't come up is sports and finances, that's the sort of superficial level that men communicate on a daily basis. Weather talk, sports teams, stock market, cars maybe, I mean those are all things that I have various degrees of enjoyment with, but it's something that we don't need to dwell on because it is part of our daily dialogue anyway. The challenge is to move beyond weather talk and to invite some more authentic conversation.
The specific details are personal but I can share what we do in terms of process. We start the meeting with a moment of silence when everyone gathers, where everyone leaves the stress of the day behind and centres their mind and spirit to being present to the moment. We follow that with a check-in and we use an elk horn as the talking stick so one man at a time has the privilege of having his story being listened to uninterrupted. One of our fellows found an elk horn in the forest and brought that in, so we use it as our talking stick. That part of our meeting ritual connects us back to traditional gatherings of men over the ages and across the cultures. The North American first nations come to mind where the person with the talking stick and peace pipe are used in gatherings. During our check-in we share how our last two weeks were, we meet every two week, 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month. After the check-in there are several possibilities for content for the rest of the evening. Sometimes material or issues arise from the check in sharing session. Usually when a common theme emerges. Like one time we had a couple of guys were faced with a challenging week regarding about bringing up their children. Some of the guys have step children and found it particulary frustrating the last couple of weeks, and they seemed to connect on that, we offered advice and they vented their frustrations. Typically something arises, a topic comes forward and we spend the rest of the 2 + hours on that. The other way of doing it is that we do the check-in for the first half and for the second half one of the guys will prepare a topic to focus on. So we might dicuss pornography, we might explore how we deal with anger, we might look at dealing with our parents expectations on us as adults or their influence on us as children, relationship highs and lows, and self-esteem issues. So someone would be responsible for exploring a theme. We share this role so we all take a turn to co-facilitate.

F: Would you change anything about the structure of the group?

P: No, I think the structure is very, very useful. It has elements of ritual that I think men in our society have gotten very far away from authentic ritual. I think we still have rituals in our society, like getting a cup of coffee every morning is a ritual. There is a sacredness about ritual, it could be lighting a candle, which I forgot to mention, lighting a candle while passing the talking stick and having a check-in and a moment of silence is all part of a ritualistic experience. It evokes or even invokes a certain amount of specialness and sacredness to the moment or the space. It's not exactly a spiritual thing but I think it has an element of well, sacredness in a very broad sense of the word.

F: What part of the meetings do you like the most?

P: I like the check-ins, but I also like when I'm challenged. I like when I say something and I know it's kind of bull or I've lost perpective on what I'm saying. And I like it when somebody says *hey can I call you on that,* and I say sure, and they say what I hear you saying is such and such and they reflect back to me something that I didn't have the perspective to see by myself. So I think when I'm challenged by choice that's particularly useful for me because that takes me to a new edge of learning and growth. When I get uncomfortable or nervous then I know I'm learning something.

F: Is there anything that you don't like about the meetings? 

P: No, just when the guys in the group are in a goofy mood and I'm not in a goofy mood. You just have to reconcile that. And I just have to be assertive about that, say look I'm not in that mood and accept the fact that that's where I'm coming from.

Question 3

F: What are the relationships between members like?

P: Oh good! We occasionally hang out. One of the guys in the group I would consider my best friend. He's been in the group now 7 years so we obviously know each other, so we hang out outside the context of the group. Some of the other guys live in different parts of the city so it's not as easy to get together with them. Relationship wise we extend outside the group meeting time like going to a movie, shooting some pool, a pot luck kind of supper, a few things outside the group, but mostly within the context of the group. So there's certainly life-long friends there, I may not call them on a regular basis but they would rally around a crisis for me.

Question 4

F: How does participation in this group contributes to your well-being?

P: Oh, it's a major factor. The major characteristic of men's relationships with each other in our society is one of isolation and loneliness. Sadly men spend a great deal of their time in life experiencing that aloneness even though we work with men, play sports with men, we can still feel emotionally alone, especially in our pain. And I guess I'm not speaking for all men, but speaking for myself, that my world has been a very isolated world, men don't risk to reach out to me, and it's a very isolating experience to be a man in our society. And it's not just neutrally isolating it's actually aggressively competitive, men try to take each other on. It's very lonely in that experience. So having male friends and overcoming any of the fears around emotional intimacy with another man are extremely valuable to me. Whenever words like intimacy are used to describe men getting together the stereotype that we must be gay men comes up. That is one more way to isolate ourselves, homophobia, fear of men. The guys in our group are all straight and we need to reclaim that sharing feelings, even hugs is not limited to gay men but very much part of healthy relating for all men. We don't have a chance of being emotionally connected and sharing our feelings if we buy into the fears of stereotypes. I think it's quite a celebration that men who are heterosexual can begin to explore that kind of connectedness emotionally, because one of the ways we isolate ourselves is homophobia, we're afraid of touch, we're afraid of revealing our feelings. All the guys in our group hug and I think that really begins to radicalize the relationships between men and really confront some of those tough, controlling, macho, I don't need you, I'm the man type image. On a personal level to challenge that goes hand and hand with challenging it on a political level.

Question 5

F: What do you feel you contribute to the group? 

P: Well I think I've had a lot of life experiences and I think that I can give the advice to others that I need to use myself, so that's kind of useful to me. You know, I now what I need to do and I can give advice to others, but when it comes to me I need them to give that advice back to me. So I think I have a very strong contribution, I'm quite in touch with my own inner life, I'm very comfortable with a wide range of experiences and it's useful for me to share that and hopefully it will help someone else.

Question 6

F: What is your opinion of self-help in general?

P: I think self-help is fabulous. It's too bad that it has a stereotype that there's some kind of weakness involved in it, that when you go to a group you're doing so because you're weak or something and need help. I think it's the people that are out of touch with their weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the ones that are probably saying that. I think it's something to celebrate, the ability to reach out and share with another human being, whatever the cause that gets you to that place, whether it's surviving something from you're childhood or just wanting to connect on a another level. I think they're extremely positive experiences and in fact there is really no other way to do it but to sit in a group and talk. You can only go so far reading a book and you can only go so far sharing with one friend. There's something about being publically accountable to a group of peers that I think is quite rewarding and quite powerful from the transformation point of view.

Question 7

F: Would you say there are any negative aspects of self-help group participation?

P: The negative I would have in mind is a certain amount of self-indulgence that if you just keep your world within that room and don't take it to the larger world then there's a certain amount of copout there. So I think there's a challenge to yes grow within the safety and strength of a group, but also to translate that into daily living, to make that come alive in all your human relationships. And I think that's a challenge for all, not necessarily just our group. We talk authentically and we talk directly and assertively within our group, but then I go somewhere and someone tells a racist or sexist joke and I let it go by. That's not really what it's about. It's about standing up for what you believe in and saying that this is not acceptable to me this is a stereotype of men and it doesn't do any man any service to keep these jokes alive.

Question 8

F: What does your family think about your participation in this group?

P: Well they think it's wonderful. I think they're very open about the journey. I'm quite sure they've seen the results of me unlocking and uncovering myself. Ten years ago I had a divorce and I was a pretty closed up kind of person and surely it marked a change in terms of my openness and my willingness to be free and to laugh. And I think that kind of thing is noted in families that are paying attention.

Question 9

F: What would you say are the most important aspects of self-help group participation?

P: I think the fact that there's an opportunity to rebuild trust with another person. Because I think the most devastating thing that happens to a person is when they feel isolated and alone and this is an opportunity to risk and trust again. I think that can only bring the human spirit forward and help it celebrate the very goodness of living. It's from that isolation and sense of loneliness and that *brokenness* not only relating to others but in translation to our internal lives. That I think can cause us a great deal of pain in our society and in our relationships. So a group, a self-help group in particular, that comes together for a particular focus or reason can be there for people. It has all the potential to help people, but is also can be a very intense place for that very same reason.

F: Are there any activities within the group that you feel are particularly important?

P: I think the acceptance is really useful. That no matter where you're at the group says we still embrace you, we're still here, maybe you don't feel like talking that night and that's still okay. So I think that whole idea of accepting someone and loving them unconditionally, in the context of the group replaces some of those painful experiences that people have had in the past. And I think that that's the most powerful aspect of it.

Question 10

F: Have you ever quit or thought about quitting the group?

P: I can't think of any reason not to go. I'm quite diligent about going, even when I have a mountain of stuff on my plate in terms of work and stuff. I still maintain that space because it's a very special space for me. Sometimes I didn't understand what I needed from the group, but that's my responsibility to deal with. Quitting the group, no, it's useful to have, we have new members coming and going so it's good to have fresh blood and stuff, fresh ideas. But no.

F: Would there be anything that would cause you to quit the group?

P: I can't think of anything.

Question 11

F: How do you feel before and after attending a meeting?

P: I feel sort of confused or *lumped* up emotionally and I'm not really sure what's happening. And afterwards I've had feelings of being relieved, cause of being able to get things off my chest and get some perspective from other people's comments. So I think it's from confused to clarity.

Question 12

F: And why do you continue to participate in self-help?

P: Because it meets my needs. What are my need would be the next question.

F: Yes, I suppose it would be.

P: My needs for belonging, my needs for love, my needs for humor, my needs for sharing, my needs for safety, and on certain levels the group supports my self-esteem.

Question 13 

F: Describe anything that makes it difficult for you to participate in self-help.

P: Just the guys joking around. If the guys are joking around I don't really feel like revealing something heavy on my mind.

F: Is there anything that makes it easier for you to participate in this group.

P: When someone else goes first and risks sharing. Someone else has created the safety.

Question 14 

F: What factors do you think are an important influence on men's participation in self-help?

P: Well ultimately I think we have to unpack an awful lot of attitudes and past patterns around dealing with other men. That's a particular challenge I think. It's not traditional in my experience growing up to reveal who I am. I can't just automatically sit down in a group and say okay here I am, here's my fears, weakness, vulnerabilities, that just doesn't come automatically. It take a great deal of energy and intention to reveal who I am and reveal it slowly, reveal it fast. So I think for men that's a particular challenge. The stereotype of women is that they've been able to share and are much more in tune to their realities and experiences than men are. That get's back to the theme of isolation between men. For us to sit in a group is actually unpacking, not just a generation but perhaps hundreds and hundreds of years of men relating. That's a pretty awesome responsibility for this generation to do that.

Question 15 

F: So you have any thoughts on how to improve men's participation in self-help?

P: I think some sort of structure. Actually there's two contrary thoughts. One is a facilitator who creates a safe place and engages in a process where men feel comfortable and descend into our issue and we also come out of our issue, like the meeting is cut off while we're deep into it. So someone who is aware of process brings us back out to the end of it. I would suggest ritual and process and closure. We start with a moment of silence and we end with a moment of silence. So there needs to be a beginning and an end of the moments that we share. So a facilitator can do that. So I think it would be important for those men to acknowledge that men are perhaps genetically, or from our culture or traditions that we require some sort of process. I think having that contained space makes it easier for men to feel safety in revealing who they are.

F: You mentioned before that there is sort of a weakness associated with self-help participation, what are some things that may take that away?

P: You name it. If it's your first time in a self-help group, what have you heard about it. Fears are of things that are unknown so name, deal with it, get your head around it. It's a matter of taking control over it and not letting it run you.

Question 16

F: Is there anything about men's participation in self-help that you think is important and I haven't asked you about or you would like to tell me?

P: I'm curious to see organizations like the Christian Rights bringing out like 30,000 guys to a football stadium for a promise keepers. I'm curious as to how their needs are being met by that. Mentally what happens is people go to things because their needs are met so it's our responsibility to find out what are needs are. As men to get in touch with that it's kind of catch 22, we need a group to get in touch with it and yet we need to get in touch with it before we feel comfortable in a group. So I don't know what can break the deadlock on that. There are certainly challenges that are out there, for everybody.


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