I first became an activist when I was in college in the 1960s. Obviously, the anti–Vietnam War movement was big back then. I left the country to avoid the draft, but when I came back, I wanted to continue my political work. That’s a big reason why I settled in the Bay Area: There was a lot going on there culturally and politically, so it seemed like a good place to get involved in community action.
The women’s movement also was emerging at that time, and many of the women in our lives — whether they were friends or partners — came to us with the anger and outrage they felt about domestic violence and the other injustices they were experiencing.
My initial response was, “I’m a good guy. I treat women respectfully. I don’t hit my partner.” Rightfully so, they weren’t having it. “That’s all well and good,” a few of them told me. “But there’s two or three million men a year who batter their partners. Do you stand with us in the struggle for anti-male-violence and gender justice?”
That was a hard question. Because they weren’t only asking what I stood for; they were asking me what I was doing about it. Yeah, I said the right things and acted with integrity, but was I actively working for the change that would eliminate the problem?
The answer, of course, was no. So myself and a few other men asked them, “What can we do?” Their response terrified us: “Our hands are full working with women survivors of domestic violence. It’s men who are doing the violence. You’re men. Go talk to these other men.” We were like, “Anything but that.” We were intimidated. The men who were beating their girlfriends and wives were the bad guys. We saw ourselves as the good guys, which meant we wanted to stay as far away from them as possible. It also was a challenge we didn’t know how to take on.
It was one of my first major lessons in what it meant to be an ally. You don’t just get to walk in and decide what you want to do. You listen to people on the frontlines of the struggle and find the role that responds to what’s needed. And the role for us was to talk to other men — even the ones we wanted absolutely nothing to do with.
We essentially created the Oakland Men’s Project in 1979 to kickstart this dialogue. Our motto was “Men’s work to stop male violence.” We worked with men of all stripes from a wide variety of economic backgrounds, races and other identities, including men who identified as straight, gay and bisexual. Wealthy men, however, were rarely in our groups, because they typically had the resources to protect themselves from accountability through the use of lawyers and political connections.
We began by asking all of the men we spoke with, “How were you raised to be a man?” We quickly realized the core messages were: Be tough. Be aggressive. Be in charge. Don’t listen. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t ask for help. We named this the Act Like A Man Box. It was filled with destructive expectations that came at us from all directions — from the media to family and friends. It also seemed to us that all men had been socialized to accept that they needed to take their cues from the Act Like A Man Box. To reverse things, we talked about how many of us turn pain, anger and frustration toward those with less power — whether it’s our spouses, subordinates at the office or the underprivileged.
We worked in juvenile halls, after-school programs and residential programs. We even set up a summer program. We always saw what we were doing as social justice work. Violence prevention was merely the entry point — in large part because that’s what people were concerned about. They wanted us to come in and “deal with” the young men who were being violent — as if that were the only problem. But the reality was that a lot of these guys were responding to institutional patterns of violence.
In my experience at least, most men don’t want to be violent. They’ve experienced trauma themselves and take that out on the people around them. They’re also regretful and remorseful about what they’ve done. They realize they’ve destroyed themselves and the people around them. Opening up a conversation about their actions in a safe way is a tremendous relief to them. They begin to understand that there are alternatives to hurting people. One guy always sticks with me in this regard. He came to one of our summer programs while on probation. But once he connected with some of the other men there, his perspective completely changed; for the first time, he considered the choices he made in the context of some of the abuse he had suffered himself. He now runs a youth program and is an advocate for those marginalized in his community.
That story is important to me because it best exemplifies the primary purpose of our work. It wasn’t just to get individual men, one-by-one, to stop hitting their partners or kids. It was about getting men to participate in community efforts to stop violence. We wanted them to re-enter the community as active citizens in building a world based on healing and justice.
While we closed the Oakland Men’s Project in 1999, that’s what I’m most proud of and like to think of as its legacy. We had a significant impact on the young people and adults we worked with as well as on the work to stop violence in interpersonal relationships through the exercises and educational tools we developed, the trainings we conducted, the role modeling we undertook and the books and curricula we wrote. And we were a real ally to a wide network of feminist and social justice groups.
That might have been my biggest lesson: Being an ally is a practice. It’s something you do every day; it’s not something you declare or a role that you take on. It’s listening and educating oneself toward action, taking a role and interrupting the status quo.
— As told to C. Brian Smith