PHILADELPHIA—Five teen boys sit around a long, wooden table after school on a Tuesday night. Each has secured a slice or two of pizza as a much older man writes on a white board in a room that resembles the children’s section of a library. On the wall directly above, hangs a photo of Barack Obama. Across the room, the wall is adorned with comics and a cork-board cluttered with notes and writing prompts.
All of them look tired, but yet still content to be exactly where they are, discussing something that most textbooks don’t teach: “positive manhood.”
The five-week workshop is called “Boys to Men,” a new curriculum offered by Mighty Writers, a writing program for kids in Philadelphia. The goal, to teach boys aged 12-17 about non-toxic masculinity through writing, with each week centering on a different aspect of “manhood.” This week’s topic is relationships—with themselves and others.
Bill Holmes, a Boys to Men volunteer with experience as both a professional writer and therapist, holds court, marker in hand. He’s usually the assistant, but today, he’s running it because the workshop leader is on vacation.
“What are some signs of a positive relationship?” he asks.
The teens are silent for a moment, then one pipes up: “No telling lies.”
Great, says Holmes. He writes “honesty” on the board. Soon, other boys chime in.
“Forgiveness,” says another.
Holmes offers another answer, “communication,” then presses the boys why.
The boys continue to loosen. “If you don’t talk about what’s on your mind, you’re never going to get a problem solved,” one continues.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, the Mighty Writers program director, sat in her back office during the hour-and-15-minute workshop I attended. She didn’t want her presence to influence participation or the boys’ willingness to open up. The Boys to Men workshop was her idea after noticing some informal discussions between another male volunteer and workshop leader at Mighty Writers and two of his male, high-school aged mentees.
“It seemed like they were having really great discussions,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I wanted [boys] to have positive role models they can talk with, a discussion circle for teen boys.” So in addition to courses offered at different locations across the city like “Reading Buddies,” “Family Write Night” and “Mighty Tutors,” the “Boys to Men” class was born. Thompkins-Bigelow even made flyers, advertising a workshop that teaches boys about “respect, peer pressure, success.” “We’ll even tie ties,” it reads.
She says the concept is to teach “positive manhood,” which to her means men “who can be leaders, resilient, and sensitive.” The term “positive manhood” is the antithesis to “toxic masculinity,” or the idea of rigid stereotypes of violence and aggression being the de facto idea of manhood.
Many of the risk factors of masculinity becoming harmful—like exposure to violence, poor family functioning and societal norms—start in the home, and early on in life. While a single class is unlikely to undo years of living in a society where toxic masculinity is the default, there’s much more hope when addressing the issue to folks when they’re young. And not just by saying, this “behavior is bad,” but by addressing the core of what allows toxic masculinity to permeate in our culture in the first place: boys’ self-worth and the behaviors they pick up from others that perpetuate the cycle.
That’s how Mighty Writers works to make itself unique and intersectional. It’s one of the few known masculinity workshops of its kind, exclusively offered to adolescent boys, to help them tackle issues head on, but also address lived experiences as teens of color.
For the duration of the workshop in Philadelphia, the boys discuss what it means to give others “personal space” and why asking for help is not a sign of weakness. They journal about the people who have helped them and learn about positive affirmations. When asked what they think “positive masculinity” is, one student chimes in:. “You have to be responsible for your actions,” he says. He adds that his mom does “everything” and he wants to be able to help her. His peers nod. They still want to help “provide” for their families, as men, but in a healthy way.
Holmes is confident they will: “If we have good and healthy experiences, then we’ll have healthy self-esteem,” he says. In other words, when the boys are confident in who they are, including having the “OK” from a male mentor to express their emotions, they don’t need to live up to that “toxic masculinity” standard. They’re enough as they are.
How to Raise a Boy author Michael Reichert framed it like this in an interview with The Atlantic: “For a boy to resist the pull of a peer culture trying to get him to go along with, for example, sexually objectifying girls and women—it helps to have a relational anchor. Someone really rooting him to a sense that he’s known and loved.”
Holmes hands the boys a worksheet on setting goals. The workshop—and the box of pizza—is finished. Tying ties will have to wait for another day.