In 1998, the Portland Family Violence Collaborative, a group of municipal and community leaders long active in addressing family and community violence, decided to expand its work to include outreach to young men. To determine how best to support positive, non-violent male development, the Collaborative established the Boys to Men steering committee, a team of educators, health care experts, representatives from leading non-profits, members of the business community, parents, and, of course, boys themselves.
Through a year-long process of research and discussion, the steering committee determined that, as a first step, an annual conference should be the centerpiece of the group’s efforts. This conference would:
• Focus on supporting boys in their transition to becoming non-violent men who respect women and girls.
• Offer boys a chance to explore the pressures and mixed messages that bombard them with violent and distorted images of masculinity, images that tell them to stifle emotion, and that suggest they aspire to one particular image of how they should act and how they should treat others;
• Recognize and celebrate the many ways of being male; and
• Facilitate the healthy involvement of adult males in boys’ lives.
Further, the committee decided the conference would have two primary audiences:
• Middle and high school aged boys, because that is the point in a boy’s development where they become most susceptible to societal and cultural messaging; and
• Fathers and adult male mentors, because most boys do not hear anti-violence messages and alternative ways of being male from the men in their lives – even though studies show that adolescent boys are most responsive to these messages when they hear it from adult males they most respect.
The first Boys to Men conference was held on November 3, 2000 and then annually after that through 2009. The conferences were tremendously successful. Schools from all over the state – even as far away as Calais – sent buses of kids to attend. Between 250 and 450 boys and their fathers or mentors attended each conference, and attendees came from every conceivable background: rich and poor, rural and urban, white and black, gay and straight, high-risk kids and high achievers, boys living in wealthy suburbs and boys living in shelters. Some years, due to space constraints, we had to turn away as many people as we could accept. As successful as the conferences were, however, each one still represented only a single day in the lives of the boys who attended.
With a few years of conference experience behind it, and encouraged by the persistent urging of community leaders and conference attendees, the Boys to Men Steering Committee decided to form a free-standing nonprofit organization to carry forward the work begun at the conferences. In its new form, Boys to Men would expand its program offerings to support the healthy non-violent development of boys year-round. In 2004, Boys to Men became a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt not-for-profit Maine corporation. Layne Gregory, one of the most effective advocates for the work of the Boys to Men Steering Committee and the person primarily responsible for planning and running the conferences, became the organization’s founding Executive Director.
From 2004 through 2010, under Layne’s guidance, Boys to Men continued to focus its attention and the attention of the community on the important and unique challenges facing boys and young men. It concentrated on addressing those challenges as a way to have a positive impact on the problem of male violence in general, and men’s violence against women and girls in particular.
Programs developed to carry those ideas into practice included:
• Multi-session asset-building workshops for adolescent boys and their fathers and adult mentors. Topics have included cooking, guitar making, Hip Hop Music recording, Television Studio Crew Training, Break dancing and Cartooning
• Monthly Televised Community Forums. In partnership with Maine Medical Center and the Spring Harbor Hospital, Boys to Men produced a monthly TV program, “Raising Boys to Men”, to explore important developmental issues facing boys and the adults who raise them. Topics included: Mentoring, Being a Single Parent of Boys, the Role of Athletics in the lives of Boys, Being a Boy in a Family Facing Divorce and Separation, and more.
• Quarterly Email Newsletter. Now boasting a mailing list of over two thousand, each issue carries the voices of young and adult men focused on growing up male today. Each newsletter is centered on a unique theme, provides personal accounts and perspectives, and shares community resources.
• Increasing Boys’ Academic Aspirations Project. In partnership with Bowdoin and Colby Colleges, the University of Southern Maine, the Mitchell Institute, and Portland Public Schools, Boys to Men has coordinated statewide forums to increase awareness of boys’ academic underachievement and highlight best practice models for supporting their academic success.
• The Reducing Sexism and Violence Program (RSVP). Boys to Men has developed RSVP as an evidence-based train-the-trainers violence prevention curriculum. It began as a program for both male and female high-school students and has recently been expanded to middle school and college audiences. Over the past five years, Boys to Men has brought this program to schools in Maine and elsewhere in New England. RSVP is positive in approach and affirming by nature. It focuses on empowering and training student leaders as “bystanders” to respond effectively to, as well as prevent, bullying, interpersonal violence, harassment and male violence against girls and women.
The curriculum consists of a series of real-life school and social scenarios ranging from dating violence to sexual harassment. By focusing on bystander behavior, RSVP reduces the defensiveness and powerlessness that many young people feel when discussing men’s violence against women. The RSVP program is supported by supplemental exercises, many of which utilize media images from popular culture to prompt critical thinking, open discussion, and challenge traditional construction of gender roles.
• Boot Camp for Dads. Boot Camp for Dads is a popular program presented in cooperation with Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital. Originally funded by a Grant from the National Fatherhood Initiative, the program is now supported by the UNUM Charitable Foundation. Boot Camp brings veterans (new fathers who bring their young babies) together with rookies (fathers-to-be) to show them the ropes of fatherhood. When men facing a common challenge get together, a locker room type of bond develops, and they talk openly about their experiences and what’s on their minds.
In 2010, following a course laid out in a comprehensive strategic planning initiative, founding Executive Director Layne Gregory and the board collaborated in a process to identify and install Layne’s successor. The process led to the engagement of Drew Wing as Boys to Men’s new Executive Director.
During Drew’s tenure, Boys to Men has sharpened its programming focus and attracted significant new funding, including a prestigious $300,000.00 3-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women to expand the RSVP program, and a generous gift from the UNUM Charitable Foundation to continue the popular Boot Camp for Dads program at Mercy Hospital and the Maine Medical Center.
Drew has also led the way to the establishment of Boys to Men’s newest program, The Boys’ Outdoor Leadership Development (BOLD) Day Camp. New for the summer of 2011, the BOLD day camp marks an expansion of our reach in the direction of elementary-school-aged boys. BOLD teaches leadership skills to boys aged 7 – 10 through the medium of outdoor activities. In its inaugural season, BOLD camp included exercises in survival techniques, shelter building, a ropes course, coastal exploration, and much more. BOLD will continue and expand in the summer of 2012 and beyond.
Now well into its second decade, Boys to Men continues to find innovative and effective ways to pursue its mission. It continues to work with community partners to leverage its resources and achieve maximum positive impact as economically as possible. Every year, it attracts thoughtful and thought-provoking speakers of national and international stature to address local audiences on subjects related to its mission. With strong leadership and a dedicated corps of community partners and individual and organizational supporters, Boys to Men is perfectly positioned to keep Maine in the vanguard in the important work of ending men’s violence against women and girls.