Student leadership is something that institutions around the world aim to achieve. They hope to facilitate the growth of young leaders from their initial orientation sessions to emerging leader programs all the way to alumni networking opportunities. These are all fantastic, well-intentioned initiatives; yet we still seem to be falling short in one particular area: male engagement. We pump millions of dollars annually into these systemic programs, yet male engagement in leadership activities seem to be dropping. But why?
I believe to answer this question appropriately we need to take a closer look at two core issues that may be hindering the success of these initiatives. The first is what does it mean to be a young man? The second is what does it mean to be a young man in college? The answers to these often over-looked questions may be the opportunity for us to reframe our approach at male engagement. First and foremost, of course, there is no definitive answer to either of these questions. What is offered here is an experiential and perspective based approach to these answers. With that said, I would say that currently, being a man means struggling with dysfunction and misunderstood privilege. Being a man opens so many doors, but without any idea which to walk through, the results are disastrous. Men are often offered a great deal in the way of opportunities and power, but a vacuum of understanding will surely result in misuse and abuse.
For instance, men are often socialized into dysfunctional and unhealthy expressions of emotion. With a limited repertoire of emotion, men tend to emote in ways that are harmful to themselves and others. Positive coping is also role modeled poorly more often than not, resulting in continuously negative results in a cycle of negative emotional expression and negative emotional coping. The results, as we know, can often lead to substance abuse, violence, and even suicide. To think these emotional motifs abate in the college years is naïve. In fact, they are often times exacerbated. Young men who don’t understand their privilege – who are given status in a community – will inevitably default into problematic behaviors, which may become problematic lifestyles. If being a man means struggling with dysfunction, being a man in college may mean succumbing to dysfunction. To many, being a man in college isn’t about being a leader or positively affecting your community, rather it is about attempting to find where you fit on the totem pole of life through the aforementioned misunderstood privilege. It’s easier to have parties, and get drunk than it is to spend time building a positive community or shaping new leaders. Because that’s what they are taught.
We, other men, act as the gatekeepers of masculinity rather than the facilitators of manhood. We influence, encourage, and indoctrinate with our language, actions and ambivalence. Since we are the ones who perpetuate the cycle, we must be the ones to CHOOSE to break it.
So, easier said than done right? What do we do then? A few suggestions are as follows:
- Get men involved. Let’s be real, men are the biggest influences of what it means to be a man to other men.
- Be vulnerable. It’s not easy to open up to new people, but how is someone supposed to trust you if they aren’t allowed passed the surface in their relationship with you. They need to get to know YOU. Which may mean you need to get to know you.
- Again, this is easy to fake, but real caring relationships involve really getting to know the other person and investing in them. Investing your time is the most valuable thing you can do and also the most powerful, because that tells someone “You matter.”
- These relationships should be bi-directional. A trusting relationship that leads to results includes a feeling of mutual respect and trust. This is hard to accomplish when you are seen as the “teacher.” I like to look at it more as I am the passenger in the car giving occasional directions while they are the driver.
- Don’t be a stereotype. Remember you, and those you work with are people. You are real people with real stories and real feelings. Don’t let anyone tell you how you need to be, and most certainly don’t default because it seems “easier.”
This all may seem easy or very difficult depending on your personal experiences. This process may require you to do some self-exploration and to figure out who you are (much like I am currently) and where you stand and what your values are. But in all, as mentioned before this is a process and we can’t do it alone. But we can certainly start a movement with a few well placed conversations which may become life altering relationships.