Out of 40 students, all are male, except three. Polyester camouflage serves as a backdrop for one side of the room. In the center, rests an easel with a square drawn on a whiteboard. The knees of some ROTC kids shake, resulting in a fragmented line of boots quivering. The other half of the room is more diversified, the boys unabashed of who is sitting next to them. Like the first day in a foreign language class, all is silent, except for the squeaky Expo marker that hits the whiteboard.
“Respectful,” says one voice.
“Respectful, okay,” LaMont Johnson agrees, as he jabs at the board again.
“Stronger than your emotions.”
“Emotional strength, okay.”
“Cowardice? Let’s put that one outside the box.”
This type of commentary continues for a while longer, before LaMont Johnson opens the discussion of “What it means to be a man,” in today’s seemingly hyper-feminist culture.
The first days of school, more specifically autumn on a university campus, are prefaced with expectations of glorified glow-in-the-dark paint parties and sexy charity car washes at every turn. The “glamor” of a high-key social life might come as harsh reality check. Given any college weeknight, it is not uncommon to see a pair of heels and legs sprouting from bushes because of too much free punch.
Commonality of rape culture among college campuses is just that–too much of a commonality.
“What we’re going to talk about is going to be challenging,” Johnson says to begin the evening of an open discussion panel called “Boys Will Be Boys… Men Can Be Men.”
“The Women’s Liberation Movement has done such a good job about addressing domestic violence and relationship violence, but somewhere along the way, men have been left out of the conversation,” said Johnson.
This event marks nearly a year in which Johnson has worked with the Prevention, Education, and Advocacy program on U of L’s campus, more specifically the Men’s PEACC program. His goal is to have more male engagement programs on campus by ridding of the idea that PEACC is tabooed as a “women’s only” domain.
Earlier this week on a Tuesday, Johnson managed to bring out leaders from the Louisville community to Cardinal Towne’s the Avenue, including the Muhammad Ali Center for Peace and Justice, Louisville Police Department, a former ROTC lieutenant colonel, members of the U of L Foundation and legendary U of L basketball player “Dr. Dunk,” Darrell Griffith, himself.
“There’s this tier of retribution labeling among men. It’s a ball bash,” Johnson smirks, “of ‘guys are bad.’ It’s a very real perception, and that is why we are having this discussion so we can invite men to come in and talk about this. Relationship violence is not about man versus woman. It’s about right versus wrong.”
The mindset Johnson spreads seems to be contagious and unanimous among university students. Despite the event being only about 40 people (a third of the audience freshman, who found out about the event solely through PEACC ‘s advertising), it was seen as “shocking and refreshing,” to not only the male participants, but also the female bystanders.
“There was an event the other night targeted more so to women. It was about domestic violence and relationship abuse as well, but you saw the outcome to be around 80 people. Generally, this topic is hard for guys to talk about, so to see it even have half of that is pretty amazing,” says student Kat Gries.
Johnson and his team of community leaders are ardent about making sure the atmosphere of the conversation is a safe, non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing place for young men.
“I think that’s one thing our university does really well. There’s no wagging of anyone’s finger saying that you’re a bad guy because you go to a party, or if you have friends in fraternities, or whatever. They dissect the male psychology and talk about what it means to be a man and how to come together as men to do the right thing,” reflects X’Zashea Lawson-Mayes, one the three women who attended the conversation Tuesday night.
As the one hour dialogue continued, more and more male voices spoke up on topics such as mentorship, race, respect and coping with internal and external conflicts.
Sam Fox and Hermilo Acuna have been to other events aimed towards male leadership on campus, likely because of their involvement with the school’s ROTC program. They remember their first exposure to something like “Boys Will Be Boys…Men Can Be Men” was an ROTC leadership seminar partnered with PEACC. They didn’t know how to approach the discussion. Tt seemed unorthodox at best for men to talk about such touchy subjects.
“The first time we were forced to go,” laugh Fox and Acuna, but now they voluntarily attend these seminars.
“As men, we’ve seen these things happen. We know we have and don’t do anything about it, and it’s time to combat that instinct,” says Fox.
Acuna chimes in, “Yeah, like you know it’s wrong on the inside, but it’s always easier to just sit back and do nothing. People worry about their social status and how they’ll be perceived in friend groups if they speak up or do something that’s not the complete norm for them. This seminar is about doing the opposite of that. It feels good knowing we can prevent these situations.”
“Exactly,” replies Fox, “It’s really made me reevaluate who my peer group is.”
Feminism is, by definition, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” What happened to male opinions on gender equality? Have they been completely disregarded or lost in the wake of conversations involving rape culture, abusive relationships and sexual violence?
Johnson wants the student body to recognize the importance of male action in sexual violence, and hopes to continue more discussions hosted by the Men’s PEACC Summit. In the meantime, he will continue forward thinking this fall, heeded by U of L’s PEACC center.