Rosenblum: An ally arrives to help put an end to domestic violence: Men

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2012 - 8:06 PM

Chuck Derry is gracious as he speaks about a growing activism he once only dreamed of. Men, in increasing numbers, are partnering with women to end domestic violence.

The effort "is a joy" to witness, Derry said. He'd be forgiven if he added, "and it's about time."

For more than 30 years, the crushing weight of ending violence against women has rested squarely on the shoulders of women, with few exceptions such as Derry himself.

That's changing, largely because of Minnesota-grown leadership, some brutally honest talk, and innovative programs turning many assumptions on their head.

Last Friday, 30 years after the birth of "the Duluth Model," which set a standard for domestic violence approaches, Derry and his colleague, Ed Heisler, summarized findings from the first comprehensive study in the state measuring men's efforts to end sexual and domestic violence against women. Even they were surprised.

They expected to find men serving on boards. They expected to hear from men who attended an annual "Take Back the Night" event. What they found was a far deeper and broader commitment, driven by altruism.

Survey responses indicated that more than 7,000 Minnesota men were involved in events to end violence against women. Of particular significance to Derry is that about a fourth of those men participated in five events or more annually, "a level of commitment that really gets to changing the norm."

Why did they do it? "Women are in our lives," one responded. "We care about them."

"I have daughters," said another. "Inner sense of justice," wrote a third. And this: "I want our Native Women to know that there are some Native Men who support and believe in the cause."

Those findings were supported in July, when St. Paul hosted a weeklong 2012 Women of Color National Call to Action Institute and Conference, bringing together women working in the domestic violence trenches, and more than 40 men who call themselves advocates and activists.

This may sound obvious, but it's a huge step forward.

"Since the early 1980s, men's involvement has been sporadic," said Derry, director of the Gender Violence Institute in Clearwater, Minn. (www.gen derviolenceinstitute.org). "Men's work would come and go."

There were exceptions, such as state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who collaborated with the late Ellen Pence to develop the respected Duluth Model, a multi-pronged approach that holds batterers accountable but also offers them opportunities to change.

But because most men do not abuse, most men never saw this as their issue, Derry said. "They saw this as a women's issue."

Tony Porter, a Women of Color conference speaker and co-founder of the 10-year-old New York-based A Call to Men, agrees. He calls these fathers, husbands and sons "well-meaning men."

"A well-meaning man does not assault a woman," he said. "A well-meaning man believes in equality for women." The problem, Porter said, is that these well-meaning men, by looking the other way, are shirking accountability and are too comfortable with "male privilege."

They're also missing important opportunities to speak up and effect change in their workplace, the Legislature, schools and houses of worship.

"We need to move this away from being a women's issue to being a human rights issue," Porter said. "If we choose to listen to women and take their direction, we could actually end violence against women."

Taking direction is key. Porter and Derry acknowledge the understandable skepticism among some women who wonder not only "Where have you been?" but also question the potential arrogance of coasting into the long-fought movement "to fix things."

Still, most women are opening their arms to these genuine offers of teamwork. "We need men's support," said Sumayya Coleman, a Women of Color conference organizer, who notes that women of color face far higher rates of abuse than do white women -- but it's all too high.

"We need men to speak to other men to support our work," Coleman said, "learning how to be allies to us, not speaking for us, but bringing us to the table."

Heisler, executive director of Duluth-based Men as Peacemakers (www.menaspeacemakers.org), also has experienced a "very gracious and welcoming" response by women. "It's been pretty amazing," said Heisler, who became an activist in college.

"Our experience has been one of great relationships and building accountability."

He and Derry hope that building continues ever stronger. "We're still very much in the infant stage, but we know we're impacting the behavior of men and boys," Derry said.

"Women created this movement out of nothing. Men can make the time."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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