Accountability and Men's Work

A conversation with Parker Johnson about the need for intersectional and anti-oppressive men's work in progressive communities.

The Inner Activist uses affinity groups (also known as caucusing) in our programs because we believe when people who share target identities gather together to discuss their experiences and engage in dialogue, we can begin a journey towards resilience and resistance. People who share agent identity can also form a caucus to understand the power and privileges they hold to build capacity for making choices in their personal, relational, and professional lives that challenge the systems they benefit from to change the conditions of marginalized people. For instance, when white people form affinity groups they can lean on each other to process their white fragility, feelings of shame, and guilt that arise from recognizing their position of power instead of relying on people of colour to hold that space for them.

Our team is committed to using the tools we offer in our programs and starting in Spring 2019 we will begin the Inner Activist Men’s Circle for cis and trans men of colour. This work has emerged from requests made by women – particularly women of colour, who are wanting to see the men who work in community and movement spaces to develop capacity for inner work, accountability, and repair. The power of this men’s circle rests in the act of empathic witness and relationship building that can occur between men. We also believe that “men’s work” cannot happen without accountability to and out of sight from folks of all genders. Any time people with privilege come together to “do their work”, it needs to be clear who is guiding or leading this work. It is crucial that this work is done in community and with a clear mechanism of accountability with those in target groups. 

The Inner Activist Men’s Circle will be led by faculty member Parker Johnson and supported by our steering committee co-chair Natasha Tony as accountability liaison. The following are some highlights from a conversation with Parker Johnson on his thoughts on men’s work.

How do you define men’s work?

Men’s work needs to be informed by cultural identity (ethnicity, language, geography, etc.) as well as dynamics of patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. These intersecting forms of domination have informed me on a conscious and unconscious level as a cis, middle class, straight man of colour, a black man from the States. I need to say I experience the world in a particular way also because I am a cis-man and carry a lot of privilege. I think it would be curious and inappropriate for a men’s group to not be queer, trans and nonbinary inclusive. 

For men of colour, if we were going to actually do some work we would have to do it in an anti-oppressive way, challenging enduring impact of homophobia, patriarchy and heterosexism, colonialism, how capitalism informs and mis-informs the ways in which we see ourselves and the world. We really need to be transformative in the way we deconstruct and reconstruct how we think about masculinity – using cultural and ideological frames, also using frameworks of compassion and accountability.

I don’t see men’s work as men getting together to talk about cliché surface stuff around masculinity but to delve a little deeper into the darker and harder areas of it. Dealing with things like homophobia, men and violence, men and pornography, and emotional labour are essential work. Also embracing things that men do that are positive and beautiful. The ways in which we love and care for each other as men must be explored. We don’t do it in a way that presumes the white man’s burden; we’re concerned about liberation and transformation.

There are ways we have disconnected our relationship with the earth and our cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions that have been mutated by a curious form of Judaeo-Christian ideology. White male heteronormative masculinity is formed around the discoverer, the achiever, the dominant which is a result of the disconnection from the earth, from community and the interdependence of one’s existence instead of the dominance of one’s existence. Pablo Neruda wrote, “what can I say without touching the earth with my hands”? Masculinity and how it’s currently practiced is dehumanizing to men themselves and the world and people around them.

What are the most pressing men’s work issues that you’ve seen come up in progressive communities?

Within progressive communities we think we are doing better than we are and we tend to be more performative than substantive. We need to do more listening than talking. We need to challenge the “not all men” narrative. Progressive men are also a part of toxic masculinity, we gain privileges from that. Mansplaining, not doing emotional labour, taking up a lot of space, men celebrating the achievements of men more often than we celebrate women’s work in community spaces, we need to acknowledge and be accountable for all of this. Men need to spend less time “protecting” women and we must stop protecting each other particularly when we perpetuate patriarchy, violence, and avoid accountability.

How do you keep men’s work accountable? Who should this work be accountable to?

Men’s work needs to be accountable to the broader community, to people who don’t hold the privileges of patriarchy, heteronormativity, able-bodiedness, people who aren’t neurotypical. We sometimes think we are serving the community when we are actually just serving people like ourselves. And this is not about separating the “good men” from the “bad men”. We can't keep patting ourselves on the back every time we move forward in our relationships with people who don’t hold our privilege. Accountability is rooted in the question, “on the backs of whom is this forward movement happening”?

How can men’s work go wrong?

It can go wrong if it becomes self-referential, if it becomes narrowly framed around redefining men, trying to make good men. I have a problem with the word “good”. People need to be accountable and responsible, not good. Accountability means you take responsibility, you do what you need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and to most importantly stay vigilant of that inner critic that is shaming and blaming one’s self all the time, or saying it doesn’t matter, I tried my best. Because then we start following the example of the self-congratulating billionaire who feels better after he donates his wealth to the poor. But the question still remains, why were you a billionaire in the first place?

Why is The Inner Activist pursuing men’s work within our community?

Men need to be able to peel back some of the layers of harmful conditioning including unconscious bias, beliefs and behaviours. The Inner Activist provides some principles, values, and practices that can help with this and to make decolonizing, dismantling patriarchy, and challenging capitalism, a part of men’s work. We need to interrogate why we maintain oppressive systems and believe they serve us. The Inner Activist offers tools to do this.