Monday, September 23, 2013

Building Community Amongst Men: A New Conversation

The need for men, those in college specifically, to better understand who they are - is driving this significant wave of masculinity research and dialogue. As we continue to read, write, research, and teach, we should pay close attention to the opportunities inherent in bringing together members of a community to transform their culture. My individual conversations with college men reflect a desire on their part to break through the limitations of the traditional constructs of masculinity. When they realize that much of how they think, interact, and engage is shaped by a larger societal expectation of how they show up in the world - they want something different. There is a growing desire for more authenticity and greater vulnerability. And ultimately, as a millennial generation they want the quality of their friendships to match the quantity of their friendships.
Two years ago as we begin discussions to create a transformative learning experience for fraternity and sorority members at Virginia Tech, our attention turned towardscommunity We became interested in understanding how you build a community, as we knew for certain that if we were going to inspire our leaders that it would require a shift in their overall paradigm about what community is. We discovered Peter Block's Community: The Structure of Belonging. In this book, Block describes, "In community building, we choose the people and the conversation that will produce the accountability to build relatedness, structure belonging, and move the conversation forward".  This one phrase dramatically shifted me away from thinking that our efforts simply needed to start with new programs and services. Those would surely come - but, we had to first unpack this idea that we needed to start with "people" and "conversation".
As we consider the need to teach men about themselves, what if we embraced Block's framework and think about masculinity as a community-building effort. After all, if our ultimate goal is to enhance their self-understanding through authenticity and vulnerability, then relatedness and belonging have to be paramount to our attempts. Some researchers within this field of study have utilized small group discussions to teach masculinity. What if the small group interaction actually became the means towards the end?
I would propose that we truly consider the power of community building as we seek to shift the culture and limitations of traditional masculinity. Choosing a small group of inspired students that are interested in co-creating a different experience is the first step. In this small group, accountability is developed through their willingness to be present for each other, offer a dissenting opinion, and ultimately agree on what's possible. As these men learn more about themselves and each other, they will undoubtedly come to realize the gifts and talents they each have to create new and invigorating conversations about a different existence for men within this world. Out of these collective efforts could arise innovative programs and services created by this community of men. At this point, belonging does not simply describe their relationship to each other, but the ownership they each have for their new community.
My thoughts could simply be "pie in the sky" images, but if Block's process of community has worked for towns, localities, and organizations around the world, then why could it not work for a group of men that may be moved to redefine the "culture of men". As educators, we must find a way to facilitate the efforts of a small group of men to begin having these conversations. As Block also says, we have to give special thoughts to who the group invites into these conversations and that these interactions mostly occur without a mandate for participation - as choosing to be part of the conversation also means choosing to be accountable to those conversations as well.
In imagining a different type of intervention for assisting men I do not think we should abandon the programs and initiatives that have worked thus far. I think we should rethink how we structure those opportunities for student learning so they are meaningful, lasting, and transformative for our college men. Our role is not simply to manage our men's issues, but to equip our men to align their strengths with a need in their community. To equip them means to give them the room to sort through the complicated issues that affect them while in community with each other.
Within the complicated dialogue of men's development is a messy, challenging process that often has no finite answers. This flies in the face of how current students have been socialized - as they are used to quick, prescriptive answers. At times, this process is often challenging for the educator that may not appreciate that within the messiness is a powerful opportunity to engage in meaningful learning. Masculinity can be a difficult reality for students as they come to fully realize the intersections between self and society, and the extent to which they negatively impact themselves and others. It seems only fitting to examine how we might shift the culture of masculinity much the same way that social entrepeneurs build community. Out of this educational process may arise a learning paradigm in which our college men: foster curiosity within themselves; develop a stronger self-understanding of their talents; engage in civility by valuing those on the margins; become courageous leaders by joining those on the margins to move forward a different conversation; and ultimately realize that life in service to others (building other better men, and women) grows the self in immense ways.
Byron Hughes currently serves as the interim director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Virginia Tech. Prior to his work in this area, he also worked with Student Conduct and Housing and Residence Life. Through this work, he has also been able to see the learning that takes place through conversations, relationships, self-reflection, and more. The work we do is awesome! Feel free to reach out to him via email ( or Twitter (@gull2hokie) to keep this conversation going.

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