Monday, September 2, 2013

Power! Money! Women!

Attention grabbing?  Yes.  The best way to attract students to join a university club? Probably not.
I cannot take credit for that little gem of a headline; however it was generated from a student I advise in relation to promoting a residence hall club.    I distinctly remember opening the email containing the headline while in my office with a colleague.  We were in the middle of a conversation when I suddenly stopped talking and stared blankly at the computer screen, unable to formulate a thought in response to the headline.  My colleague inquired as to why I suddenly looked like someone had kicked my dog and I then read her the email.  Her response was a little more composed and to the point: “I think you need to have a little discussion with them.”  She was right.  The message was clear; but was it the right message, and how should I approach it?

Let me give a little background information.  I am an administrator for a residence hall housing 700 college students on a large university campus.  I also supervise a staff of 18 paraprofessional live-in individuals, and advise a hall club consisting of around 50 residents.  My job is wonderful and I find joy in almost every aspect of my job, from the conduct meetings to the developmental conversations that take place on a daily basis.  This is almost no different than any other administrative position within a college residence hall, however my experience has a little twist: this hall houses only men, the staff is all men, and my club consists of only men.  Here’s another twist:  I am the only woman.  My professional life is surrounded almost entirely by men on a daily basis so it is very safe to say that I have a particular passion for the development and education of college-aged men.  So when I received the above headline my heart broke a little and I was confused.  I had a number of questions: What impact really WAS taking place within the walls of my residence hall?  What sparked this headline such that the author believed those words would attract the majority of the men within the halls to join the hall club?  How deep-rooted did this stereotypical definition of masculinity (power, money, and women) go within our community? What should my response be? And finally, how would my message be received as a woman relaying this to only men?

My mind was spinning; however, it became the catalyst I needed to start a movement within my community.  Since beginning work at this hall filled with men there have been a number of little fires that have left me questioning my role in my community as the main administrator and educator. Each incident left me a little more determined and passionate about dialoging and communicating with my residents and staff.  After the Sandy Hook shootings an ad campaign featuring an assault rifle with the caption, “Don’t let them take away your Man Card” was circulating.  The Steubenville rape case happened and conversations were taking place about the role the individuals played in the video recording. Most recently the controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards happened…but conversations weren’t happening about Robin Thicke’s equal participation in the performance. 

These incidents coupled with more local issues including issues of sexual assault, consent, and the general societal norms of slut-shaming and rape culture sealed my mission with my community.  These issues are not just women’s issues; these are men’s issues and it is our responsibility to inform and educate our young men on what being a man is all about.  It is not about the Money, the Power, and the Women; it’s about personal acceptance and ability to transcend the societal pressures to conform.  It is understanding that the media’s ideal of manliness of having the hottest girlfriend, making the most money, and having the most power is not wanted by every man and should not be the standard each man holds himself against.  Blogger Harris O’Malley illustrates a culture that paints the idea of being a man as “animalistic” and “brutish, stupid, and violent,” but that we are working to change this ideal and become something greater. 

So here is my mission: Create an environment that challenges the current idea of cultural manliness but in a way that is safe, creative, open, and expressive.  But this isn’t so easy.  It takes buy-in and it takes conversations happening at a very basic level.  It takes more than just one woman working in all man world.  I have identified some fundamental elements that I am currently implementing with my community:

1.  Engage in conversations.  When things like this article hit the campus newspaper, don’t be afraid to ask questions.  I may have my personal questions and issues with it, but I want to know what others are thinking.  As a woman in my position I have found it pretty simple to ask these questions and get genuine responses, especially if there are 2 or 3 people involved in the conversation.

2.  Challenge viewpoints.  I love to offer counter arguments and elicit further conversations by the phrase, “Tell me more”.  I had a staff member in my office once explaining how as a white middle-class man he is not privileged.  He explained how he grew up knowing how to treat others and that he “didn’t see color”.  He was not understanding intent versus impact and how as a white man he was born with privilege, whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not.  So when things come across my desk such as the Power! Money! Women! sign I immediately ask how this affects our entire community.  What if, by chance, those things are not important to all men?

3.  Identify.  Identify those that are as invested as you are in your mission through these conversations.  These are your leaders and these are the motivators.  After talking with the individual who sent me the wonderful headline and challenging the viewpoint, he is now one of my biggest change agents.   Through conversation and encouraging the freedom to express ideas it becomes pretty easy to identify those who are as passionate as I am about making the much-needed changes.

4.  Educate.  I am continuously finding articles, TED talks, and current events that are relevant to our community of all men and sending them on to my leaders.  This provokes more conversations and allows for more challenges, and starts the cycle over again. 

5.  Sit back and watch it develop.  The seed has been planted and with proper care, your leaders and change agents will identify other leaders and the process will continue.  A wonderful point of pride for me recently involved a staff member sending me a TED talk by Jackson Katz; he was totally inspired by it and anxious to work it into our fall staff training.  He is a part of my hall administrative team and with his enthusiasm behind developing this training opportunity for our staff, the mission is developing.

6.  Stay motivated and stay in it.  Just because others have made it their mission as well, I cannot take myself out of the game; I need to persist and continue to find new development opportunities in order to make a complete change.

The questions are all still there.  I don’t go a day without wondering about issues that could be taking place in the 300-plus rooms in my hall.  I constantly worry that I am sending young men out into a world where they are under-prepared and culturally desensitized.  I consistently question my relevancy as a woman working with only men.  I wonder if words fall on deaf ears and unmotivated minds.   However, I am motivated on a daily basis by the conversations, by the actions, and by bright, talented and inspired young men I have the pleasure of working with every single day.   

Randi Ann Purvis is an Area Coordinator in University Residences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. She can be reached on Twitter @PurdueRandi.

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