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One Thursday last month, during the lunch hour at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, half a dozen teenage boys have gathered to eat pizza and talk about hollering at women. “From where I come from, you holler at a girl,” one student tells the group. “A girl can’t be too upset when a guy is paying attention to her.” “It depends on the type of girl and whether she has respect for herself,” another says. “Some girls will say, stop. But they like it, for real.” “If she’s wearing short shorts, booty shorts, short skirt, with the thong showing, she wants it,” another guy says. “Can’t blame it on the boy. She knows what she’s doing.”
“But what if it’s hot out?” This is Kedrick Griffin. He’s here to play the 37-year-old devil’s advocate on a subject that’s generally considered normal behavior for a teenage boy in the District of Columbia.
“What if all her other shorts are dirty? What if it’s 2 a.m. in a dark alley? What if it’s your girlfriend who’s wearing the short shorts?” Along with the targeted line of questioning, Griffin has also brought three boxes of Pizza Boli’s and an 18-pack of Sierra Mist. These Woodson students have been eating Griffin’s pizza since September. By now, they know full well that it’s wrong to blame a woman for rape based on what she’s wearing—now, they’re just struggling through the street harassment piece. This exercise has come almost at the end of a year-long District program called the “Men of Strength” club—MOST Club, for short. The same pattern is repeated with groups of boys in public middle and high schools across the District: Come for the pizza, stay for the deconstructions of masculinity.
Getting teenage boys to engage in gender theory can require a soft approach. The vague title of the clubs—“Men of Strength”—dodges the activist implications of the D.C.-based organization that runs them: Men Can Stop Rape. At the beginning of each school year, MOST facilitators arrive on campus and lure in participants. “Last year, we were hanging out outside school, and some people were like, ‘we need some males over here to eat some free pizza,’” says Eugene, a 16-year-old junior at Foggy Bottom’s School Without Walls. At that first MOST meeting, Eugene and a dozen other guys were fed pizza and offered free movie tickets; over the next school year, they came back each Tuesday for the pizza, and gradually advancing conversations on gender. Now, “I kind of like to keep the MOST club secret from other dudes,” says Eugene. “We all have this strong connection with each other . . . But also, if you bring more people in, then there are fewer slices.”
Griffin facilitates two MOST club meetings a day at nine different DCPS schools. Every week, he spends less than an hour with each group. But that’s enough time, he hopes, to challenge traditional masculinity and push his young charges to respect their female peers.
Thus Griffin has become accustomed to addressing thorny concepts in abbreviated time frames. At one middle school MOST club, he says he knocked out a discussion on prison rape in the time it takes to travel between classes. “One of the guys said, ‘When you go to jail . . . you get raped and when you come out you’re gay,’” Griffin says. “I said, ‘Oh really? Well, I’ve got ten minutes. That’s enough time for me.’” So he moderated a discussion with seventh and eighth grade boys about why a man’s sexual orientation and history with sexual assault make society see him as less of a man. “I wasn’t prepared for that discussion. It wasn’t even on my radar,” says Griffin. “But if a young person brings up a topic for discussion, I can’t just ignore it.”
Griffin doesn’t just stroll into D.C. public schools with a pizza and start engaging boys on topics like rape. Each MOST meeting begins with a slow wind-up: a weekly “check-in” in which each student updates the group on his recent life developments. Stuff like how he can’t find a ride to football practice, or how he only slept in one class today, or how he’s starting to look at colleges, or how he put his rap video on YouTube but then he took it down. These personal conversations are meant to transition into headier discussion topics like understanding rape culture and questioning the patriarchy. As a short-cut, MOST has chosen a phrase that Griffin employs more than once in each meeting: “The Dominant Story of Masculinity.”
In order to illustrate what that means, Griffin performs an exercise he calls “The Real Man.” Griffin shows students photographs of male celebrities—from Lebron James to Barack Obama to 50 Cent to Johnny Depp—and asks students to comment on “who they think society says is a real man and why.” The exercise is meant to reveal how society’s idea of ‘manhood’ is threaded with negative attributes. While it’s reasonable to want to be president and dunk a basketball, do you really want to get shot nine times in order to prove you’re a man? “When we talk about what a ‘real man’ is, we think of stuff like: Strong. Lifts weights. Spike TV. Prison. Explosions,” explains Eugene. “When we start talking about men in our lives and what we want from them, we think: Nice. Fun. Cares about us. Respects his family.”
By the time the exercise is finished, a few students at each D.C. public school have at least a taste of looking at gender expectations from a different perspective. When they leave the club, the theory goes, the students will tell their friends, and gender relations in the District will slowly begin shifting. Woodrow Wilson Senior High’s MOST club, facilitator Nate Cole says, averages from between two to eight students every meeting—but five are members of the school’s basketball team. In “the hierarchy or food chain of high school, they’re at the top,” says Cole, 23. “When they start challenging their friends and the people they come in contact with, that has a huge effect on the school.” But even with these high-status students, an hour is not always enough time to tease out all the complexities of gender relations.
At a recent Woodson MOST meeting, Griffin starts off the discussion by raising the murder of University of Virginia lacrosse student Yeardley Love. “She got killed, she was on the lacrosse team. I think they said her boyfriend did it,” one student says. Griffin explains that the man charged with her murder is George Huguely, a male lacrosse player who allegedly sent Love death threats—and then violently beat her head against the wall—when she tried to break up with him. “Remember, in the dominant story of masculinity, the only emotions we are taught to show are anger and rage,” says Griffin. They nod. “If a girl broke up with me, I’m like alright. Oh well,” says one student. “You can be mad but you don’t have to kill somebody.”
Time to move on: In the last ten minutes, Griffin mounts a quick discussion of the murder of D.C. principal Brian Betts, who was allegedly targeted on a gay chat line. In order to illustrate the social dynamics behind the killing, Griffin constructs a social ladder with his hands. “If a heterosexual man is on this level,” he says, raising his hand to his nose —“and a woman is at this level”—his hand descends to his chin—“then a homosexual man is on this level”—his hand drops down to his chest. “No, no, women are at the top,” one student says. “Fags. They got the most money,” another suggests. As time runs out, Griffin discards the gender discussion and tries a more accessible approach: Don’t kill a guy, steal his credit card, and get locked up. Stay in school.
Photo via Darrow Montgomery