At the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, we are often witnesses to the emotional and psychological costs men incur due to the societal pressure to conform to stereotypes and “be a man.” “Altogether Boys” is a proactive, 8-week program for boys and young men designed to preempt the adverse effects of male socialization. The program provides prevention and educational opportunities for boys and young men to help them grow into successful, healthy, and happy men in the new millennium.
In this Revealing Men podcast, Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center, and Trey Sumner, the lead facilitator in the Altogether Boys program, talk about how the program helps boys and young men find the courage to tackle tough situations, the strength to be sensitive to complex issues, and the intelligence to build strong friendships.
Sumner has a 25-year career with the U.S. Army and U.S. National Guard, completing four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Studies from Grand Valley State University. Here are excerpts from their conversation (edited for clarity and length).
The Culture of Masculinity
Flood: You have this passion of working with young men. What is your back story about why you have this passion?
Sumner: Ten years ago, after I was completing my fourth tour with the army, I had gotten to a place where I was in a lot of pain myself, I also had decided when I got home that I was going to ask my boys to go to college and if I was going to do that, I should go first. So I was a 40-year-old freshman. And my degree is in Masculinities Studies and Gender Equity. I chose to study that because I wanted to make an impact in men. I wanted to find a way to give young men the tools, the permission, and the freedom to develop a healthy masculinity so that they could avoid the pitfalls and the pain that I had gone through and so many other men have.
Flood: What’s going on in the culture of masculinity you think that needs to have some re-socialization or some training?
Sumner: That’s a great question. I believe that as men we have a very narrow scope of what we’re allowed to do, what behaviors are acceptable, what defines us as men. And we extract so much of what is great and beautiful about being a human being from what it means to be a man: I have a limited scope of emotions I’m allowed to display, I have a limited scope of behaviors I’m allowed to display. And I don’t think that allows us to be complete human beings. And the long-term effect of that is a lot of pain and damage. Men my age, older men, the rise in substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide, they’re through the roof and these guys are landing in your office.
Flood: Right. And we hear that with the men that we work with. We often do these resocialization groups and programs here and we often hear men say “why didn’t they teach us this in school?”
A Program Especially for Boys
Sumner: A local junior high (City Middle) was incorporating the Girls Inc. program for their girls where the girls were learning about safe boundaries, healthy relationships, and the question was “why are we in the classroom learning this and the boys are outside playing kickball?” Which is when City Middle called you and said “hey, will you write this program?” And it’s been extraordinarily successful.
Flood: What happens in these classrooms? Tell us a little bit about that.
Sumner: What I’ve found repeatedly is that these boys, at this age, they want to be complete human beings. They’re not comfortable with this narrow scope of having to constantly perform in a way that gets them approval, either from their peers or from whoever their role models are. And what they’re really looking for is the permission, and the freedom, and the tools to be complete human beings.
Flood: Are there some people in the school systems, parents at all, that are worried that you are emasculating the boys, sissifying them? How do you respond to that?
Sumner: I can think of a very specific incident. There was a father who waited for me in the parking lot and was very upset. His exact words were that I was “un-Tom Sawyering” his son. Which I had to think about for a second. And I think he was a little surprised. And that happens frequently. You know, I get in those conversations a lot. People look at me: I have the beard, the tattoos, the military background. And so there’s a lot of assumptions. And when I don’t respond in that same way, it causes immediate friction.
Flood: So, did the conversation end up going pretty well?
Sumner: It actually went really well with that father. We talked for about 15-20 minutes and all I did was explain to him, “look, I’m not trying to emasculate your son. What I’m trying to do is make your son, to give your son healthier options to avoid all of these very predictable pitfalls that we fall into as men.”
What Defines a “Great Man?”
Sumner: There’s as many ways to define a man as there are men. What I do think, though, is that we need to give our boys the freedom to develop into the man that they are instead of performing in a very narrow, specific script of what is acceptable. Because it’s just that script doesn’t apply to everybody and it’s unhealthy and the long-term damage is there.
I ask boys frequently – one of my favorite questions is “can you name a great man in your life that you know personally?” And, inevitably, every time if I ask this question of a man or a boy… the overwhelming majority of people pick a father or a father-type figure: a coach, a priest, a teacher, somebody who affected them. And when I ask them “Why? What makes that man great?” they always tell me something that that man taught them, provided for them, gave to them or the community, and that’s what made them great. But if I ask them what it means to be a man or to “man up,” it’s a very different definition. So why is it what we revere is so different than what we adhere to be?
Flood: There’s a disconnect there.
Sumner: A very big disconnect. And we talk about our emotional toolbox. We have a toolbox to build the man we are. If you only use one tool, which typically is our hammer, you’re not going to build a very good anything. You need lots of tools. You need to be a complete person.
Flood: So part of what you’re doing is giving them then permission to see … there’s different forms of intelligence and so if you don’t have this emotional toolbox and knowing which tool to pick up at which time then you’re apt to make mistakes and run into trouble.
Sumner: And what we also do in the classroom is exercises that normalize talking about how we feel about our lives – about things besides sex and sports – with other men. And that has proven to be extraordinarily valuable. You can be a strong man. You don’t have to root it in dominance and conquering. You can root it in compassion and equity.
Tools for Success in Life
Flood: So what do you think as we’re moving into this twenty-first century, this new millennium?
Sumner: I think that if we as men if we don’t incorporate equity and collaboration into our day-to-day practices, our boys are not going to be successful in the future in any industry. The world has changed. We’re not out hunting saber-toothed tigers to make sure that our camp is safe anymore. We’re working in environments that have a very diverse and eclectic group of people.
The world has grown much smaller. And you have to be accepting and open to a wide variety of different ideas and people. And I think that traditional, stereotypical masculinity is a very much, “I’m in command,” “steer or get out of the way,” and that mentality just doesn’t work anymore. And I think that collaboration and not being afraid of equity is very. very important.
Flood: What I hear you saying, is that we’re not necessarily going to say that we’re going to take away the ability for a boy to be competitive, to be an athlete, to be aggressive, and to be able to take charge of a situation when it requires that, but they’re going to have the ability to be nimble. You want them to better respond to the context in which they’re in. If it requires collaboration, they’re not going to be in competition mode, dominance mode, and they’re going to be able to be more fit in that context.
Sumner: Absolutely. I think that for a long time we have hyper-idolized certain characteristics of masculinity that are important. There’s nothing wrong with strength and competition. Those are important things. But if that’s all you have, that’s all you’re showing, then you’re not going to be very successful in a wide variety of situations.
A Healthy Masculinity
Flood: So what do you say about this notion of toxic masculinity? What is your relationship with that term?
Sumner: I work with boys and young men. And so, for me, toxic masculinity isn’t something I talk about. I just talk about, with younger men, all of the things available to us as human beings and to talk about the fact that yes, there are differences between men and women, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that we have to exclude anything that we would identify as feminine from what it means to be a man because there aren’t feminine and masculine things in our body, we have just things, we’re humans.
You know, sadness is a really important emotion but we’re not allowed to experience that as men. If you get sad, you have to channel it into anger and rage. That’s the only appropriate, accepted response. … I think these boys see, they know it’s not healthy, they know it’s not right, they’re craving the permission to go be who they are.
Flood: I think it’s semantics. And, toxic masculinity, well, it’s like we can talk about toxic water and food poisoning and we don’t say that we’re anti-food or anti-water. And so I look at it as, whatever we call it, is just helping young boys to understand that when you define masculinity in this rigid way, where it doesn’t have that flexibility to respond to context, it can be toxic to your humanity, it can help you not be prepared to function from a wellness paradigm.
Sumner: It makes me think. My favorite quote from bell hooks is, “the first act of violence that men commit is not against women, it’s against themselves.” As men, we cauterize ourselves from emotion. We cauterize ourselves from so many wonderful things about being human. And, if we don’t, it will be done for us. You will be tormented. You will be teased, picked on, maybe beat up, in some cases we’ve seen men killed, boys killed because they wouldn’t subscribe to this. And that, I think, defines it very well.
Flood: Call it what you want, but I think that when we don’t get a chance as a society to be able to call it something and to name how injurious it can be for boys, then it’s hard to have programs that we can get into the schools and faith communities to say, “we’re here to try to prevent this, but we’re here mostly to foster and cultivate something that’s really rich and offering boys something.”
Saving Our Young Men
Flood: You know we’ve got shooters and most of the time when a shooting happens it’s a male but they talk about mental health problems, they talk about gun control. But no one’s talking about a public health problem for young men. And so that’s I think, having a struggle with funding and not having a larger conversation about men’s wellness and health, we have a lot of work to do in educating people on how important this is.
Sumner: Absolutely. And I think we’re seeing that now. I think for the last few years you and I have had, I don’t even know how many meetings, with how many schools, and talked to how many administrators, and their response is the same thing every time: “I love what you’re doing,” “I love your program,” “that’s awesome,” “let’s get it started.” “Oh, by the way, we don’t have any money, we can’t pay you.” I don’t want it to get to that point. I don’t want to get to a point where we’re putting out fires. I want to get in there and do the work ahead of time before it’s a problem.
Flood: That’s why it’s a prevention program. That’s our vision. And that’s what we continue to lean into.
For more information about Altogether Boys and its success, how you can support the program, OR to bring Altogether Boys to your school or organization, contact the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan.