- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Nigel Okunubi, program instructor for the Empower Program, and Neil Irvin, director of community education for Men Can Stop Rape.

Question: Mr. Okunubi, what’s the purpose of the Real Young Men project?

Answer: Neil Irvin of Men Can Stop Rape and I teamed up last year and created the Real Young Men project. We like to say we’re just raising social consciousness. We have a group of eight young men who meet weekly at the Empower Program offices to discuss men’s issues.

Many of our members, ages 13 to 18, attend District public schools, but we also have students who attend private schools in Maryland. …

During our meetings, we talk about violence against men, violence against women, masculinity and its relationship with violence and a host of other topics. Our primary objective is to promote gender equity. …

Traditionally, women get together all the time and talk about issues that are going on in their lives. We provide a forum for the guys to talk.

Q: Mr. Okunubi, why did the Empower Program and Men Can Stop Rape partner for the conference?

A: We thought it would be neat for the Empower Program and Men Can Stop Rape to team up and host a conference because our missions are so similar. The Empower Program covers a wide spectrum of subjects: violence, sexual harassment and bullying just to mention a few.

Men Can Stop Rape promotes gender equity, meaning guys are not superior to women and we are all on a level playing field as human beings. Men Can Stop Rape focuses on prevention of sexual violence against women and men. Neil and I put our heads together and for the first six months, the conference was all on paper then, we started recruiting members for the conference.

Q: Mr. Irvin, have you noticed any trends among young men in exhibiting violence?

A: It’s less a trend, but more attention is being paid to men’s violence against women. The fact [is] that women have been doing this work for so long and doing a wonderful job, but now there is space for men to be involved.

I think what you are seeing is more men willing and able to speak out about men committing acts of violence against women. Men now have developed the skills to speak out against male violence. The way [we] as men are socialized to think about ourselves really promotes this mind-set that we don’t interfere in other people’s lives.

Emotionally, men end up being very isolated and disconnected because that’s what men were taught made you strong — like the Marlboro Man. And I think now there are more men willing to challenge that notion of masculinity and define a truer definition of masculinity and strength.

Q: Mr. Okunubi, tell me about the upcoming conference.

A: This is our first annual Real Young Men Conference, which will be held on Saturday, May 31, at Howard University’s Blackburn Center. The day begins at 8:30 until 3 p.m., and we expect well over 100 young men from the metropolitan area to attend. Breakfast and lunch will be served.

We’re really excited because this is the first conference of its kind in this area.

We have planned workshops throughout the day that deal with subjects like teen-dating violence, how the language of hip-hop music can be used to educate and inspire young people regarding their concerns, and we will have a workshop that examines masculinity in popular culture.

Also, participants will have an opportunity to get involved in action projects which are designed to create tangible outcomes.

For example, one of the action projects planned requires participants to make a pledge to be nonviolent.

We recognize during the summer months young people, specifically young men, have a lot of time on their hands. So we want them to sign an agreement that states they will be nonviolent throughout the summer months.

We’re going to have eight speakers at the conference who are considered experts in their fields.

Rosalind Wiseman, co-founder and president of the Empower Program and the author of “Queen Bees & Wannabes,” will discuss the emotional and physical consequences of teen-dating violence, the cycle of violence and the personality traits of potentially abusive people.

Byron Hurt, the director of the documentary film “I am a Man: Masculinity in America,” will discuss the film and open the floor to questions from the audience after the film has been shown.

Empower Program members Arthur McFadden and James English will facilitate a workshop called “The Box,” which talks about how society boxes men into various roles. Men are supposed to be tough and aggressive. Guys are supposed to be physical. This workshop will address how the box or these parameters plays out in everyday life.

In the afternoon we will have a conversation between young men and women who serve on a panel to address relationships today and how the relationships can become stronger.

The panel will also address some of the barriers that prevent healthy relationships between young men and women. This is a rare opportunity and space for guys to be themselves. We can take off our masks and put down are guards and, again, just be ourselves.

Q: Mr. Irvin, do you think the conference will be effective?

A: I think so. It’s the alternative we speak about, 100 young men coming together to talk about how they can role model — examples of true masculinity and strength — nonviolently and proactively discussing issues of gender equity and violence prevention, and then demonstrating their awareness through our RYM action projects.

Q: Are you accepting donations on the day of the conference?

A: Yes, we are accepting donations to show our support of organizations that serve women. Any money that’s collected will be donated to My Sister’s Place, a shelter for battered women and their children.

To contact Community Forum, call 202/636-3210 or e-mail dbarnes@washingtontimes.com.

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