Men at Work
A new group helps males rethink their masculinity
At first glance, Chris Sloane fits the stereotype of a "man's man." The 44-year-old Richmond resident has a deep voice, a closely cropped head of salt-and-pepper hair, powerful hands and muscular arms built up over 25 years of working as a chef.
Sloane grew up in an abusive household where masculinity was equated with toughness. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was prone to daily outbursts of rage. Where some men might grow up and perpetuate that cycle of violence towards others, Sloane turned his anger inward. He abused drugs and alcohol and became a workaholic, sometimes putting in 80 to 90 hours each week in the kitchen. Being a great chef wasn't just a job; it was an obsession.
When Sloane moved to Vermont in 1990, his life began to change. Recognizing that he'd grown up without a positive male role model in his life, he began to redefine his masculinity. He gave up his partying lifestyle and started reading books on feminist theory, alternative healing and the men's movement. Eventually, he quit the restaurant business altogether and returned to school full-time, earning his Bachelor's degree in transpersonal psychology at Burlington College. Today, Sloane works as a drug and alcohol treatment counselor for the Act One/Bridge Program in Burlington while also pursuing his Master's degree in counseling psychology at Johnson State.
Along the way, Sloane discovered the Burlington Men's Group, where he met other males like himself questioning the cultural expectations of manhood and masculinity. Among them, Sloane found a group of men and women who launched the Lake Champlain Men's Resource Center (MRC), a Burlington-based nonprofit group dedicated to creating "a new masculine paradigm, free from oppression and violence."
Though the nascent group doesn't have a physical home yet, it has an ambitious goal: to address what Sloane called "America's crisis in masculine character and leadership." Through community outreach and educational programs, the MRC hopes to offer boys and men healthy male role models that are pro-feminist, gay-affirmative, anti-racist and nonviolent. The group plans to work with other community groups in the social-justice movement to redefine the popular notions of what it means to be a "real man."
The organization's first public outreach is a screening of the film Tough Guise, a documentary that explores how pop-cultural images of manhood fuel a pathological and often deadly cycle of violence, both at the individual and global level. Seven Days sat down with Sloane last week to discuss how and why the group was formed.
SD: Why did you get involved in the Men's Resource Center?
CS: We can't just stand idly by anymore. The group of men who created the Lake Champlain Men's Resource Center have all been doing this work on themselves, and you reach a point where you have a pretty good life, but it's still not enough. You can't sit back and say, "I've got mine and fuck everybody else." When you realize the power of these men's circles, the transformation that can happen, you imagine how many other lives you can touch. Now, it's about creating the infrastructure to put those ideas out there. It's also important to work with men and women so that women understand that it's not just men. We're in this together.
SD: What will the center do?
CS: The piece I see as really important is working with adolescent boys, going into the schools to present this material to them over and over. Because think of how much saturation happens to these kids with the mainstream media. We have to try to overcome it. You can't compete, but you can drop a seed in their heads. What happens to that seed is out of your hands.
SD: You've talked about a connection between the epidemic of school shootings and the corruption scandals that plague corporate America. What is it?
CS: The way I see it, it's the same illness, different symptoms. It's boys growing up not knowing where they fit into the fabric of society. On one hand, you see the boys who don't fit in, the outcasts in school who can't do nothing right, so they get angry and say, "Fuck it! I'm gonna get a gun and take some people out!" On the other hand, you've got the kids in school who know the right people, mom and dad are better off and higher up in society, they make all the right connections and go to all the right schools. They get the right degrees and meet the right people and they learn how to play the game. But just because they look good on the outside, they still don't know what the hell they're doing. There's a severe epidemic of depression among CEOs of these companies because, inside, they're really empty.
SD: How are the schools addressing the problems of these adolescent males?
CS: What I've noticed is the response to all these school shootings is [to say], 'We need to have guards and metal detectors and cameras.' That's our response, which isn't adequate. It's not about keeping the guns out of school. It's about getting to the point where kids don't even think about bringing guns to school. Part of what we want to do is go into schools and put on educational seminars, taking a film like Tough Guise and show it to a bunch of adolescent boys and say, "OK. Now what? Let's have a dialogue about this.' We're just being sold this stuff by the mainstream media and we keep buying it. And nobody dares question it.
SD: One institution in society that provides many of the values and structures you're trying to promote -- self-worth, honor, tradition, and respect for the wisdom of elders -- is the military. Why is that problematic?
CS: The military pretty much wants you to fall in line, do what you're told, and not question authority. Because it's been around for so long, there's honor, tradition and structure. But unfortunately, they're also going to send you to get your arms and legs blown off . . . If anything, I see the MRC as being a place where guys can go to when they get out of the military. Right now, there's the highest percentage of GIs coming back from Iraq seeking counseling than at any other period in our history, because you get out of a situation like that and you're not OK.
SD: Will the MRC have a spiritual component?
CS: Anytime you start talking about spirituality, you're walking a fine line. What's really more important is awakening that inner awareness in men, that there's more to life than just physical possessions. You realize it's not about the trophy house and the trophy wife and the trophy car and all that other shit. Whether that's sitting in a group of men and having an open discussion and being open-hearted or just being together in a noncompetitive, non-confrontational setting. It's realizing that I'm sitting across from this guy and he looks like a total dweeb but I'm listening to him talk and thinking, "Oh, my God! He's telling my story!"
SD: How will the MRC reach men who need this message the most?
CS: There's an old saying: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." I think it's just a matter of putting the work out there and having a high enough profile so people know there's something available to them. So when they're in a moment of crisis, which is when people are at their weakest, they know there's somewhere to turn and somewhere to go. You can't force-feed this work to somebody. You've got to let them come to you.