Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Choice to find Common Ground

Last week WRC & YWCA hosted the annual Common Ground Conference. Long-time White Ribbon Campaign volunteer and collaborator Jeff Perera hosted a workshop during the Conference. We asked him to reflect on his experiences there.

His thoughts below.

Do you believe in fate? Is the future determined for us or do we decide what the next chapter will be in our lives? As for me, I choose to think it is a good mix of both, and my experience this past week was an example of that.

I was invited to speak as well as deliver a workshop at this year’s YWCA Common Ground Conference. As a Ryerson Social Work student who did my placement with the White Ribbon Campaign, I facilitated a workshop at the conference last year and was extremely excited take part once again.

As co-chair of the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign, I was also invited to speak at the United Black Students of Ryerson’s ‘Ladies and Gents’ event the night before the conference. This event saw 50 men and women separate into 2 rooms to discuss their gender and relations with the opposite gender, and then gather afterwards to debrief and share. After this amazing event I connected with the facilitator of the women’s conversation, Kim Crosby who is co-director of The People Project. Her group works closely with Toronto’s LGBT youth community and Kim has had vast experience facilitating conversations on gender issues.

Kim is an influential and inspirational sister whose words move hearts and mountains. As we discussed her session with Ryerson students, she gave me a copy of the ‘Black Male Privilege Checklist’ she uses during similar events. I quickly flipped through it as we talked and one sentence jumped out at me like headlights barreling down the highway into my consciousness.

“I have the privilege of believing that a woman cannot raise a son to be a man”.

For some reason this powerful sentence resonated with me, quietly followed me around that evening as I talked to the wonderful young men and women at the event.

In a blink the morning came, and with it I found myself preparing myself to speak at the conference. We had a smaller gathering than last year, but we knew that meant for more intimate sharing and conversation in the break out groups, and it truly was. I shared the space with a group of young men and women speaking on how men can be part of change, how we de-value the feminine and how it leads to the violence that women and men face.

One of the students in my group was a young brother named Rick (named changed) was a soft spoken student of little words, but was enthusiastic to find a space where we could converse about what being a man can be. I came to the section where I discuss 'fathers and role models' which is always an extremely sensitive and personal conversation for many people. He quietly shared how his little brother looks up to him.

I spoke of how many of us grow up with our father around but ‘not present’ or without a father at all. Rick shared how he was raised by his mom. At that moment the sentence I read last night exhaled in my mind, and asked to speak, so I let it out. Reflecting on that sentence I read from Kim Crosby’s Black Male Privilege checklist, I asked the group “So, do you think a woman can raise a son to be a man?” Rick thought for a moment, and said with a reserved boldness “Yes…yes, I think a woman can”.

It came time for the group to gather and select someone to report back on what they learned. We had some brilliant and eloquent young people from Arts school in our group, but I turned to Rick and suggested that he speak for our group.

He said "but I don't...speak English well"
I said "What?!? You speak it better than me!!!"
"But...I don't know all those big words."
I told him "Brother, sometimes I think simple words are more effective"

So, as the students all gathered into the main space they asked each group to send a representative to the table up front. Rick silently walked up to the stage to speak for our group. The moderator asked the students to share what they will take back to their school. One by one, they all shared concepts and ideas they learned like how oppressive words go under the radar in everyday conversations. When it was Rick’s turn he paused and looked down...then looked at me, and finally he slowly shared.

"I....I have to be honest...all the things Jeff taught me today...I couldn't take it back to my school...cause at my school they won't...they won't listen...but...some of them will...so...I will take it back to them... and tell them"

I went up to Rick after and gave him the biggest hug. We need to find those brave, strong young people and help them find their voice.

Do you believe we can change the future? Wearing a White Ribbon says that you believe you can. To make a change is a choice, and it is time we started encouraging men to make good, healthy choices. We need to create more safe spaces for men to feel they can explore who they really are without ridicule or needing to prove themselves.

Choose to change the impact you make in the world, and on yourself. Choose to change how you define what being a man is, choose to make good choices, and choose to change the perception of you. While we cannot control how others perceive us (sometimes with prejudice) we need to be conscious of the fact that we are role models and someone is always watching us. So let’s strive to be the best version of ourselves. Defining a healthy masculinity benefits everyone. Every One.

Rick and Kim were destined to cross paths with me by their choices, including his choice to come to the Common Ground conference. Kim decided she would be a part of change. Rick decided he wanted to become a part of change. And I was blessed to meet them because I decided to become a part of change.

We have a voice and we have a choice, so choose change.

Jeff Perera is a Facilitator with the Learning Success Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Jeff is a volunteer workshop facilitator with the White Ribbon Campaign and co-chair of the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign, a group inspiring men to be the best version of themselves.

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