I’ve steeped in heart work over the last few years. Five years ago I was a photojournalist in Nepal on a tour raising awareness on global warming and how it affects the inhabitants of the Himalayas. Three years ago I worked to install education infrastructure in rural Nepal. After that, I worked with a travel organization that does volunteer homestays in developing countries, building community projects and infrastructure. And in the past two years, I’ve done a little work with two other creative non profit organizations: One is a photo-based project to tear down media-built stereotypes, called The Everyday Project. The other is Leaving the Life, about the reality of human trafficking in Seattle and your own community. All of them are grassroots operations. Incredible work is being done in places where you never hear about it. Small groups are going to great lengths to build a better world. Sometimes it feels incredibly fractured, to be doing random work for organizations because I connect with them on some level. Sometimes it feels like so much work for small, local progress. But working at this level feels like where I should be.
Last night I attended a screening of The Mask You Live In, a documentary about how boys are raised in our culture. The short of it is, our culture bends boys toward growing up without the ability to share emotion, without being able to show feeling or connection to anyone, even though that’s what they desire most during coming-of-age years. Violence is bred in the isolation created from this lack of emotional connection. During the course of the documentary, we’re taken to an Oakland school where the kids are dealing with the toughest of the tough: Homeless in high school, beaten by parents, estranged from fathers, gang activity, drugs, shootings, on and on. Or, that’s the story that I latched on to. There was also a story about an ex-NFL player, who has turned from the tough-love, hazing culture of sports, to being the supportive, emotionally-aware father figure that many athletes need. He coaches with heart. And there was the San Quentin juvenile lifer who, after years of reflection, described in detail how his low self-worth and emotional disconnection led him to taking someone else’s life. Many of the men in the movie talked about taking their own lives. Gun violence, video game violence, media violence, sports violence, and Hollywood violence were all sited as contributors to breeding men with armor, men with masks over their emotions who are unable to live an emotionally engaged life. Quick clips of data supported it. And still our gun culture flourishes.
See the film. Every man in America should see the film. It’s a great example of several grassroots organizations in action. You can stream it for $6, but of course it makes a bigger impact if you screen it in your community (also an option on that same page). It’s done by The Representation Group, the same operation that made Miss Represenatation in 2011.
Now back to Oakland – the story I latched on to. Ashanti, who graduated from this high school, was accepted to Stanford for an engineering degree. Raised by a single mother in the ghetto of Oakland, he wanted to be an engineer, and had his sights set on the lucrative career that would come following that Stanford degree. But instead of engineering, he steered toward his high school community when he saw them faltering. He saw that the boys needed to be freed from armor and masks they are being forced to wear so they can be accepted members of their school, their community, society. Ashanti quit engineering and became a teacher (and assistant principal) for his own high school instead, where he immediately saw how the kids needed a place to connect and father figures to connect with. He offered to buy them lunch once a week if they would sit in a group with him and tell him how to be a better teacher. Simple but beautiful ideas like this always make me sit up and pay attention.
(Side note: not excluding women here, rather removing the pressure of having female players in this forum allowed the boys to open up more readily. The impact on women is reflected in the way men treat them and can relate to them better, especially on an emotional level, once the masks have come off.)
Some boys volunteered, showed up and gave him feedback. He fed them lunch. “I still had some engineering money back then,” he added in story, after the screening. And so his organization was born. Now he leads groups of these same kids (all joined voluntarily) in removing their masks. He gives them a safe place in their own community to be who they want and need to be: People with real emotions who can express it in ways other than through violence and anger. Incredible work from the inside out, instead of from The Capitol Building down. And while politicians belt out catch phrases on primary stages across the country, and many of our state and federal officials can’t seem to move related laws forward at all, this method, the grassroots work that is being done at the community level, feels all the more effective, necessary and useful.
After the screening there was a panel of speakers, including Ashanti and even one of his students who had become a mentor in the program himself. They each told stories, answered questions. It was a packed house, but afterwards, I made my way down and talked to Ashanti for a minute. On the car ride home, five of us moms-of-boys talked over the key points of the evening. Someone asked me what I talked to Ashanti about. “I tried hard not to cry while I shook his hand and thanked him for the work he is doing.” I would have hugged him, but that would have surely opened the floodgates. Hmmm. Heart work.