I recently gave a TEDx talk which was hosted by some students at DePaul University. It had been fascinated by TED talks for quite some time and had often wondered what I would talk about. So when the ask came, I spent a lot of time pondering different ideas. TED talks are supposed to be ideas that are worth spreading.
Ideas worth spreading. I spent some time reflecting on this. In fact, I almost spent too much time and finished my notes for the talk just two days beforehand!
I knew early on that I wanted my talk to be called Against Me(n). The “staging” of the title is intentional. The talk would have to be about my own personal journey around understanding gender and hegemonic masculinity and a call to action for those in the audience. This post is a modified version of that talk with an alternate ending.
The journey started for me as an undergraduate student. I had gone to a historically white institution about 3 hours from home and one of the spaces I found refuge from the whiteness was with other students of color. A group of four women regularly hosted dinners at the house they rented off campus.
At one of those dinners during my sophomore year, my life changed completely. It didn’t change it that “I became a completely new person, kind of way, but rather in the “I just got a new eyeglass prescription” kind of way. That night, I was given a new set of glasses from which to see the world that I lived in.
I was sitting at the kitchen table with three other people playing spades. There were others in the living room watching TV and a handful of women in the kitchen finishing dinner. At some point, one of the women who lived there announced that the food was ready.
I sat there. I picked up the cards and put them away as people started to get up around me. At that point, one of the women who lived there, Donney, came up to me and whispered the following: “I don’t know what they do in your house, but in mine, if you’re hungry you get your own food.”
I went through a bevy of emotions ranging from confusion to anger. I was insulted. But I looked up to Donney. She had been a mentor to me from the time I set foot on campus. So I didn’t say any of the things that were going on in my head. All I could bring myself to say was that I was waiting for the line to die down.
Later that week, while hanging out in the student government office, Donney asked me if we could talk about that night. I didn’t want to. I didn’t think there was anything to talk about but I respected her. It was common knowledge that if Donney wanted to talk to you that you didn’t say no. She was that important to us.
We talked for a long time that day and spent the rest of the year in conversation about the context of that night. She asked me questions about my family, about relationships. She made me think, a lot.
The new prescription she had provided allowed me to begin to see things differently. I began to see the ways in which patriarchy dominated the way that I lived, the way I acted, the values I carried and the beliefs that I held. Donney helped move me to a place where I could begin to understand myself as a man differently.
Donney had compassion. That compassion allowed her to be brutally honest with those around her, with me. She helped me understand that the ways in which I had been taught to be a man were detrimental and hurtful to the women that I love. My journey started because of the love I had for the women around me.
It’s been 17 years since that night. I still have a long way to go to become the man that I aspire to be. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I know that along the way, there were countless women who had the same type of compassion for me to help move me forward. Some were colleagues, some are friends and all are women that I admire. These are just a few of them: Jena Olson, Laura Klunder, Tessa Lowinske Desmond, Toni Johns, Faustina Bohling and my wife and partner, Mariana Sanabria.
Within the last 6 years, I began to see that as long as my entry into this work around gender was because of the women around me, I would never be fully in it. It was women, like those above that helped me understand that my passion for the work had to come from inside. The desire had to be rooted in the idea that hegemonic masculinity was hurting me too.
At the beginning of this year, I added a section of my staff agenda called “Eric’s Reflection”. The agenda underneath that agenda item was to share reflections on my experiences as a man. The response was not what I expected.
What was meant to be a closing thought became a longer discussion with my students pining for time in the conversation. Rather than be excited to get out early, they would talk almost endlessly about their experiences. We haven’t ended a staff meeting early unless I needed to get to another meeting.
All I did was create space by being open with my own reflections on fear, relationships, manhood, current events, etc. This was all they needed in order to open up about their lives.
This is the same thing that Donney did for me. She created space for me to share, to explore, to question. And she did this because of the compassion she had for me as a person. I talk to Donney from time to time. She comes to Chicago to visit her sorority sisters and I happen to be married to one of them. We don’t often talk about that night, but she definitely knows the impact that she continues to have on me in my personal and professional life.