A great deal of emphasis in feminist philanthropy is placed on women, and changing the role of women in society. But what about men? What role can men play in challenging gender norms, and what initiatives are gender equality organizations taking to reach men?
To further explore these questions, I spoke to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, by telephone from her D.C. office. Promundo was founded in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1997, working with young men in Rio’s poorest communities on transforming gender norms and concepts of masculinity. It has since taken that approach far beyond Brazil, and its website notes, “Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.”
The Women’s Funding Network Summit began with Feminist leader and journalist Marianne Schnall discussing her eight-year-old daughter’s striking question after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Why have we not had a woman president?
The question wouldn’t go away for Schnall, and soon she found herself bringing it up to thought leaders and scholars, trying to figure out what it would take to put a woman in the highest governmental office in America.
One thing Schnall realized in this process was the need for stronger coalition-building across progressive movements. “This isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a human issue. It’s an issue of having a reflective democracy, and that’s why we need to have men be part of these conversations,” said Schnall.
While #MeToo revelations continue to roil the globe, what can we all do in our own sandboxes to say #TimesUp? How can we do work in our own lives that gets at not only the more egregious forms of relational abuse, but also at all the layers of harmful gender dynamics—psychological, social, relational, institutional, and yes spiritual—which create the conditions where abuse happens?
These are questions that gripped my mind and heart, and led me to help organize and participate in two “gender reconciliation” retreats, one in Seattle and one in Boston. The retreats were led by an incredible set of facilitators who are part of a global movement called Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) that aims to heal the deeper roots of our world’s gender wounds, one circle at a time.
I don’t know how many #MeToo stories you have read, but it is in the heartbreaking details that we find evidence of the “damaging relational dynamic” (to quote speaker Beth Moore in A Letter To My Brothers) of patriarchy. The details of #MeToo stories often reveal more subtle psychological, social, and even spiritual layers of male presumption which create a harmful consolidation of power and honor around a few “great men.” These men are granted excessive sexual and social latitude, making it hard for women to be equally honored and valued.
My gender story is not one that contains abuse, so I went into these gender equity retreats thinking I was there mostly to listen and hold other people’s stories. But just as happened in the Seattle retreat, at the Framingham retreat, I was again able to see how my own gender journey resonated with and became part of a larger tapestry of gender wound stories.
There were tears shed over the course of the three days, but there was much laughter too, like when I shared a story in my home group that involved a ski boat, and which captured vividly one of my early life gender wounds. After I shared my ski boat story, my Rwandan brother shared about some of the gender issues he encountered growing up for 18 years in a refugee camp in Burundi. Then my Indian brother shared about growing up as an untouchable. We all let out a howl of laughter after they shared, noticing that if I had not gone first, I probably would not have shared a story about a ski boat!
So how do we deal with all of the gender pain that exists in the many layers that created all the heartbreaking #MeToo stories? And how do we move forward and become better humans together?
There are many answers to this question, but one very basic way forward is to do what our human ancestors used to do when they didn’t have so many diversions: sit together in a circle. It’s almost like we have to go back to “rug time” where we sat in circles in kindergarten and nursery school. In these circles, we learned the basics of the give and take of how to be in social settings together. Sitting in a circle gives a social gathering a sacred quality that connotes we are all interconnected; we are part of a larger whole.
When we first gathered at the beginning of the three-day retreat in Framingham, the circle of 48 felt a bit stilted and formal since it was so big. What an interesting variety we had around this circle—a potpourri of evangelical pastors from the Boston area, some earthy crunchy types from Western MA, a few Buddhists, a Muslim, a few non-religious, lots of gender equality activists, men and women of all ages and stages, two openly gay men, one openly gay woman, two people from India, and one man from Rwanda who is leading a post-genocide reconciliation ministry there. All of this human diversity in one large circle gathered to hear and feel and in some way heal one another’s gender wounds — a tall task, but one we took on with open hearts. Over the course of three days as we broke into smaller circles and shared our stories, it felt like my own heart opened as I watched other hearts opening, forming a collective heart.
“You gotta feel it to heal it.” I don’t know who said it first, but it is so true. If we don’t tend to our pain, it doesn’t vanish — it just goes underground. To heal a relational wound, you need to allow yourself to feel it. And you can’t short-circuit this healing process. It happens in its own time and in different ways. There is a role for doing this alone in a therapeutic setting, but the wisdom of the GERI approach is to feel and to heal collectively through a carefully facilitated process involving a liturgy of silence, guided meditations, small group conversations, dance, song, and games. The retreat is also comprised of rituals choreographed to open the heart bit by bit, not to tell all of the gory details, but simply to be heard and understood. Together, we grow to understand how gender dynamics create emotional wounds, and find ways to turn our own thoughts and behaviors toward healing.
All this is done sitting in circles of deep listening and trust. Throughout our three days, our circle of 48 was subdivided into a mix and match of smaller circles to get everyone talking, moving, sharing and listening together.
Over the course of those three days, it felt like something very sacred happened. In many settings where gender issues come up, conversation quickly turns to debate, but there was not one debate or argument in these circles — only listening to understand one another’s stories.
It is not easy to open one’s heart, nor does it happen instantly, but what emerges is well worth the time and trouble to get there. In a way, it felt like we healed an ancient divide, that we got to the deeper root of the problem. The women talked about feeling heard and understood, having experienced the kindness and good will of the men who showed up to be allies in the fight for gender equality. The men also spoke of feeling understood as they shared how they too have been harmed by patriarchy.
As I reflect back on #WeHealTogetherNewEngland, I still carry an embodied feeling of the heart of empathy that emerged like a beautiful weave, story by story, as we sat in sacred circles together. Encircling the pain with love and understanding somehow makes the the bad stuff feel lighter and our mutual longings for a “gender healed world” more in reach.
Below is one more glimpse of a creation from the retreat — a poem that was written and shared by the men in a closing ceremony honoring the women.
From the Men, Honoring the Women
Before we were formed in the womb, O God,You knew us. You knitted us together in our mother’s womb.We honor you as our teachers, as our wives, as our daughters,as our friends … as our mothers.May we be re-formed together in love, knitted together in the strength of tenderness, in the power of self-giving, in the hope of re-birth.You have shown us what it meansto be brave and bold, and truthful,and righteously angry.We thank you.
For more on how you can participate in a gender reconciliation circle to do something about the deeper roots that lead to all these #MeToo stories, check out the work of Gender Reconciliation International.
There’s the philanthropy that happens when people invest money to promote social change, and then there’s the philanthropy that happens when people take their money and their talent, and employ them in a way that addresses a social problem. Celebrities, particularly multi-talented and highly educated ones, have a unique capacity to combine their financial capital, talent, and public stature in order to push for needed social change.
That appears to be part of what happened when Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin teamed up with several feature actors including David Schwimmer, Cynthia Nixon and Bobby Cannavale, to film a series of six short films called, “That’s Harassment.” In each of these three to six minute cinéma verité shorts, the viewer is positioned as a cringing voyeur while scenes of sexual harassment unfold. Since debuting in the spring of 2017, these films have been adapted into 30 second public service announcements that are getting wide visibility.
Schwimmer, along with Milk Studios co-founder Mazdack Rassi, produced the series, and the former “Friends” star has been instrumental in promoting the films and getting them widely seen. The shorts are on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and other platforms, and excerpts are being showing in New York City cabs, and as public service announcements with links to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The films are designed to help employers combat harassment, and encourage victims and bystanders to recognize it and speak out. RAINN and the NWLC have partnered with “That’s Harassment” to compile resource and discussion guides, and the list, “10 Ways Your Company Can Help Prevent Harassment in the Workplace.”
In one film, Schwimmer plays a lawyer who forces himself on a recent hire played by Zazie Beetz. It’s clear that he is abusing their power differential and harassing her, and yet he is not a menacing caricature. He is not violent and doesn’t make any threats. Once rebuffed, he is highly invested in maintaining a nice guy persona, asking “Are we good?” and wanting a final hug to demonstrate that everything is okay between him and his victim. The Schwimmer character tries to pressure an employee into sexual favors, but wants to be reassured that his behavior is acceptable, and that he won’t suffer any consequences for it.
The other films detail various forms of male-female harassment: a brusque doctor fondles his patient, a bartender verbally and physically harasses a new waitress under the guise of letting her know what pigs men can be, a photographer degrades a young model by asking her to touch herself suggestively as he shoots stills of her, a famous actor exposes himself to a star-struck wardrobe person, and a veteran politician comes onto a younger journalist interviewing him.
“All of the stories are based on real incidents,” says Avin in an interview she and Schwimmer gave to Build Series NYC about the project. When she was a young playwright, Avin says an established actor exposed himself to her backstage during a rehearsal. Schwimmer shares that once the “That’s Harassment” project was underway, his mother revealed that she’d been harassed by a doctor. Schwimmer notes that the majority of the crew working on the shorts were female, “Unsolicited, every single woman came forward and said this reminds me of what happened to me. Everyone had an experience.”
Avin based “That’s Harassment” on a similar series that she’d made in Israel, and called on Schwimmer to help get the U.S. versions made and distributed. She says that her motivation in making the films was that while there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment, “You never got to see it.” Her approach was single-take scenes of several minutes where the viewer is “like a bug on the wall.”
The U.S. versions rolled out in the spring of 2017, but in the wake of the high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals that roiled the entertainment and other industries in the fall of 2017, Schwimmer and Avin sought a wider audience for them, and got RAINN and NWLC involved. “That’s Harassment” has also been covered by various mainstream media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Good Morning America and USA Today.
What makes the films so effective is that the perpetrators’ behavior is abusive, yet familiar. The victims don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears, nor do they angrily confront their harassers, all of whom are in positions of power over them. The women appear confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable, deflecting the unwelcome advances and comments, and sometimes laughing or shrugging off the harassing behavior or remarks.
The bartender, actor, and lawyer characters want to be “good guys” who compliment women and do them favors, but what the films show is that the nicest thing they could do would be to respect their female colleagues and let them do their jobs. The doctor, politician and photographer characters don’t play the helpful nice guy card; instead, they emphasize their experience and authority. You can almost see the gears turning in the victims’ heads: what is going on here? Is this normal? How do I get this to end without a scene or future reprisals?
The films are useful in provoking discussion about sexual harassment, and as tools for employers to use. This can be tricky — employers have a legal and moral imperative to combat sexual harassment, yet didactic and heavy-handed training sessions and amateurish videos tend to provoke more eye-rolling than actual change. For this reason, having a professional like Avin script and direct the films, and use working Hollywood actors, goes a long way in making the scenarios believable, and something that should be taken seriously.
In the current climate surrounding harassment, many men wonder what their role should be. Most would prefer not to talk about it all. It’s easier not to get involved, rationalizing that if one is not a perpetrator, then it’s best to keep one’s head down. There are costs—including threats to one’s livelihood and social ostracization—for speaking up when harassment takes place. Moreover, some men fear that their involvement might be unwanted, or seen as patronizing by women. Finally, many men, and women, are still grappling with what constitutes sexual harassment. The films do not solve these thorny questions, but they certainly start the conversation, and can lead to some concrete and specific ways to stop harassment in the workplace, as indicated by RAINN and NWLC.
Schwimmer and co-producer Mazdack Rassi’s contribution to the project, supporting Avin in getting the films made (and seen), is a good model for other men to follow in terms of being allies to women in the fight for gender equality.