by Rus Ervin Funk, Chuck Derry, Cliff Leek, & Humberto Carolo
In the Last issue, we started a process of defining what we mean by accountability and began exploring several of the dynamics related to being accountable.
As men and as a male identified network, one area of accountability that we are often called upon to engage in is holding other men, or other men’s groups/organizations accountable. A prime and very public example is the National Football League and their systemic hesitancy to hold men who act abusively towards their partners accountable. Among other organizations, A Call to Men stepped up and has been a part of the ongoing process of helping (alongside several other advocacy organizations) to support the NFL to take more appropriate action towards preventing domestic violence.
Holding other men accountable is an area that is fraught with difficulty and challenge. The MenEngage Global Alliance has developed an accountability guide and toolkit to attend to these challenges. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is our privilege. The privilege to remain silent, to decide we’d rather not challenge another man or organization, our tendency to “just let it go”. As men, we will not bear the brunt of that dismissal, women will. So, as pro-feminist men, and well-meaning men, how do we attend to our own accountability and that of others? That is the ongoing collective conversation that is needed. When and how is this done?
In this month’s issue, we aim to explore some of this area of accountability in more detail, offering some lessons learned both with NAMEN, and with other organizational efforts of which the authors have been a part.
We have found “calling men in” an effective means of holding other men accountable. There are behaviors and attitudes that warrant “calling men out”. When behaviors or attitudes have reached a certain level, the purpose of calling out is very different. The goal is not necessarily to get someone to accept responsibility, change their ways and make amends; the goal is to more clearly draw a line in the sand to say this kind of behavior/attitude is not acceptable here.
Much more common are opportunities to call men in -- helping them (and us) to recognize their behaviors/attitudes, note the harm that is being caused, and offer them an invitation to make amends, when necessary, and adjust their behaviors in the future. We think this same kind of thinking applies on the organizational level as well.
Our experience is that, first, we are all on a learning curve (individually and collectively) about being accountable. Acknowledging this can be an important part of the process. When NAMEN has reached out to other organizations about our concerns, we have tried to lead with this recognition and attempt to open the door to this process as being a shared learning experience.
At NAMEN, we cannot claim to have figured this out, but accountability continues to be a critical aspect of the integrity of our network. This commitment to gender equality and respect challenges us to challenge ourselves and others. And, there are risks associated with those challenges. It can undermine personal and professional relationships and/or, it will enhance them. That is often not predictable. But we know our silence is complicity in the face of both personal and institutional sexist oppression. There is no neutral ground, we are either supporting gender equality and justice or we are colluding with the systematic injustices doled out to women.
In late 2013, NAMEN was approached by several community activists (male, female and trans) regarding an issue that had arisen with the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) during their Forging Justice conference in Michigan that summer.
NAMEN entered into a process of working with NOMAS in an attempt to address some of the questions that emerged about NOMAS accountability, including a primary member of the NOMAS council and accountability for his actions at the conference. In November of 2013, we sent NOMAS a letter encouraging them to consider some key points related to accountability. We received no reply. After several attempts to engage with the NOMAS Council and/or its representatives, we eventually were able to participate in a call with NOMAS representatives in May of 2016. Six months later, in November of 2016, we received a reply from the board indicating their satisfaction that their accountability processes related to the incidents occurring at the 2013 Forging Justice conference are complete and have no further interest is attending to those issues. In April of 2017 we responded to the NOMAS Council.
One of the key lessons that emerged for us was how we as men and men’s groups can use silence. Sometimes our silence is acting in an accountable way -- not defending or making excuses, not “mansplaining”, not deflecting the conversation. Sometimes sitting silently and listening intently to the ways that we have hurt or disappointed someone is a critical form of being accountable. But there are also times when staying silent is a way that we keep from being accountable. We have shared our concern with NOMAS related to their silence with us and others. Silence can be a critical aspect of respect and learning, and it can also be a tool of the privileged, used to avoid challenges or dismiss the concerns of those they purpose to support. There is a line between making excuses and offering explanations.
A second lesson for us is exploring this line between making excuses and offering explanations. A part of accountability, as we understand it, is transparency. Transparently explaining how it is that we come to the decisions we make is crucial. Whether those decisions are related to our initial behavior which is currently being challenged; and/or our subsequent response, or lack of response, to those concerns as they are expressed to us. This transparency is not a way to excuse our actions, or dismiss concerns brought to us, but it is a way to explain how it was we came to make the decisions we made. For example, several years ago, MensWork (a community-based organization in Louisville) and Rus were asked to support and call men to be a part of the largest fund-raiser for a “women’s fund.” When MensWork’s decision to do so was made public, MensWork and Rus were invited to meet with leaders of the pro-choice movement in Louisville to explain their decision to support a funding organization that refused to fund women’s reproductive rights. (As a note, they also refused to fund anti-choice organizations or programs). We explained to them what we had agreed to do and our decision-making process that led to the decision. MensWork and Rus explained, we did not excuse. When we transparently explain, those who have concerns are provided an opportunity for further discourse and the learning process continues between the parties. This level of transparency allows those with concerns to determine whether this individual, or organization/network, is an ally in the work for gender justice and someone to further trust and engage with.
This initial process with NOMAS was a step we felt was most appropriate in engaging them about accountability -- “calling them in”. It has been a long process, one we would have preferred to “just let go” at times. Due to both NOMAS’s response, and lack of response, we have been challenged whether we should simply “let this go” or make it public.
NAMEN has worked since 2013 to engage NOMAS in an exchange of thoughts and concerns related to accountability. This resulted, after much effort on our part, in one email, one phone call, and again, months of delay before we received the council’s reply to our requests. All of these requests have occurred as private exchanges. Due to our continued concerns related to NOMAS’ limited engagement, we feel an ethical obligation to publicly express our efforts to engage the group in accountability discussions and requests for transparent action, and the lack of substantive results, from NOMAS, regarding those efforts.
While we respect and appreciate the years of work and effort that NOMAS has engaged in to counter sexist oppression, we are sorely disappointed in their history of accountability. Accountability is an “enormously important issue” that is the foundation of our work for justice, and fundamental to the integrity of that work.
As a pro-feminist male identified network of activists and allies, we will continue to work to end gender oppression by responding effectively to harm which has already occurred, work to change the social norms supporting sexist violence and oppression, and hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions and intents. In this way, we build our alliance with women’s rights organizations and others working for gender equality and justice, and create a world where all people, regardless of their gender identity, have equal access to resources and the happiness and security which is their birthright.