VIRGINIA AVENUE PARK — Michael Jackson, the community services program director at Virginia Avenue Park and a graduate of Santa Monica High School, vividly remembers the moment when he learned what it truly means to be a man.

He was a scholarship athlete at Washington State at the time and was in Los Angeles visiting family and his girlfriend, a student at UCLA. The two decided to go to a movie in Century City for what was supposed to be a romantic date.

“It was the first time I knew what love was,” Jackson said as he stood before a group of strangers at Virginia Avenue Park last month.

While walking hand-in-hand, two guys said something derogatory to his girlfriend. Jackson reacted in a way he thought was the most appropriate for the situation. He lashed out with his fists, the fight catching the eye of a security guard, who would later let Jackson off with a warning instead of calling police so as not to jeopardize his football scholarship.

“I don’t like to fight, but I felt like what I was doing was honoring her,” Jackson said as he tried to explain his actions. “I was enraged with chivalry.”

He didn’t consider the consequences. Instead of making her feel safe, Jackson’s actions pushed her away. For the rest of the date, there was an emotional wall between them.

“She was ashamed. She was scared. The person I loved was now afraid of me,” Jackson said. “Through the eyes of someone I cared about, I realized there’s another way to be.”

Jackson uses what he calls his “love story” to capture people’s attention as he spends several hours guiding them through curriculum for the Male Violence Prevention Project, a community initiative — led by Santa Monica Police Chief Tim Jackman, the Westside Domestic Violence Network, Sojourn Services for Battered Women and City Hall’s Human Services Division — to change social norms around masculinity that traditionally have led to male-perpetrated violence, and to promote positive roles for men and boys.

Inspired by Dr. Jackson Katz, a national expert on male violence prevention, Jackman and the Westside Domestic Violence Network hosted a forum in February 2010 where community leaders came together to discuss what they could do to challenge attitudes that foster violence. The result is the project.

A year and a half later, with the support of City Hall, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and various nonprofits, the project is slowly being integrated into the community. Leaders with those organizations have held working groups to devise a curriculum and are training facilitators like Jackson.

So far more than 35 people have been certified as facilitators and the goal is to grow that number. City employees who work with youth have been exposed to the curriculum, as have some staff members at Santa Monica and Olympic high schools.

Natalie Levine, the clinical director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child & Family Services, said her mental health specialists who work with public school children have familiarized themselves with Katz’ teachings and have developed lesson plans for fifth graders. Those students who want to participate will be able to do so in January.

“The whole goal of this is to develop some awareness in boys about how they are socialized to be men,” Levine said. “We want to show there is more flexibility around what is acceptable boy behavior or male behavior, and hopefully it does not have to be related to a tough guy image at the expense of vulnerability.”

The effort is part of City Hall’s commitment to helping kids from the cradle to a career.

“Whatever is going on now is not working,” Jackson said. “Men are failing, from achievement gaps in school to prison rates to drop outs and suicides. As a forever learning community, we have to look at things differently. We’re providing another option, a way for young men to see things differently.

“I believe we have evolved as human beings. We can talk and support and encourage each other, and that can be the norm. It doesn’t always have to be ‘man up.’”

The curriculum focuses on boys and men because the largest number of victims of male violence are other men and boys. Traditionally, women have been the leaders when it comes to talking about domestic violence, and usually their audience is other women. The focus is often on women as victims and men as perpetrators. With Katz’ teachings, men are encouraged to take ownership of the issue of violence and speak out against the idea that aggressive or violent behavior is “manly,” instead promoting healthy masculinity, those with the project said. Men and woman are taught to be active participants who can take action against behaviors that lead to violence.

During training sessions, facilitators lead people through a series of role-playing games that challenges them to look inside themselves to see how they would react to teammates in the locker room making sexist jokes, or a friend taking a reluctant girl home who is clearly intoxicated. Participants are also asked to list traits they associate with the ideal man or woman, and then contribute traits that describe the opposite. What comes out of the exercise can be shocking or hurtful, but always educational.

“It gave me food for thought,” said Jeffrey Keller, who attended the training session with Jackson last month. “When you look at ads or commercials or listen to music, you are more sensitive to what’s being said.”

Keller is an outreach specialist at Samohi who works with kids who are struggling academically, some of whom are homeless. He said he sees stereotypes acted out every day on campus. He would like to use some of Katz’ teachings and relate them to racial stereotypes as well as gender, which he thinks can alleviate some tension on campus.

“I think some of the problems we have here is that we don’t know each other’s history,” Keller said.

He is looking forward to seeing the finished product. “I think it still needs to be fleshed out a little more.”

The curriculum is by no means complete, organizers said. It will continue to be a work in progress. Challenging traditional views that have been passed down for generations takes time and effort, as well as a commitment from those who have influence.

“People want sound bites. Yet this is about changing concepts of masculinity, or asking the question, are men outdated? That’s not an easy one to ask or answer,” said Julie Rusk, director of City Hall’s Human Services Division.

“We have to lead the way,” said SMPD Capt. Wendell Shirley, who was a counselor working with at-risk youth before joining the force. “We understand it is a tall order, but if not us, who? Who will step out there and tackle this thing?”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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