A provocative discussion of what it means to be a healthy and respectful man begins Thursday when the Twin Cities plays host to the 2017 national conference of A Call to Men, a violence prevention organization. The Many Faces of Manhood conference brings in A-list speakers to tackle fatherlessness, sexual violence and incarceration, but also healing and promising practices gaining ground in schools, sports and homes. The two-day conference, at the Hilton Hotel near the Mall of America, is open to the public (bit.ly/2n9Kvbr).

A Call to Men’s CEO Tony Porter answered a few questions this week.

Q: You’ve been at the helm of this organization for 20 years. What is the biggest change in terms of men’s involvement in violence prevention?

A: Twenty years ago, men really were not being held accountable in any purposeful way, in terms of domestic violence and sexual assault. Since that time, our awareness around violence against all women and girls, and an understanding of men’s role in the identification and prevention of it, has increased tremendously. That’s not saying we don’t have a lot of work to do. We do.


Q: You often speak of the “Man Box.” Can you say more about what that is?

A: The “Man Box” is the collective socialization of men that creates an epidemic of violence against all women and girls but that also hurts boys. Some of this socialization happens intentionally; some is taught subconsciously. Men learn to view women as the property of men, to have less value than men, to be seen as objects. Boys and men also are told to deny their feelings, to always be in this place of control. We can’t talk about love too much. We’re kept hostage in this box.


Q: Your primary sponsor for the conference is the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. How important is it to you that women join this effort?

A: We are honored to be in partnership with them. Women like Lee [Roper-Batker, Women’s Foundation president] and Saanii [Hernandez, foundation vice president] get it. They understand that while most of their work is centered around women and girls, they also need to give time and attention to working with men who are trying to do the right thing.

Women have been at this forever, all the way back to the suffragist movement. If women could end the violence on their own, they would have. We’ve got to grab the majority of men who are not perpetrating violence and bring them into the process, to be part of the solution. In most places when we’re invited to speak to men, it’s women who invite us in. When we can flip that around, and the majority of invitations are coming from men, that’s when we will normalize this.

Q: You spend your life working to end violence, from bullying and hazing to campus rape to sex trafficking. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge?

A: There are times when I’m feeling overwhelmed. We’re in a time now where we have to be intentional. No time to get tired. I surround myself by like-minded people, and I relish small successes. I love to read the testimonies. That’s the stuff that keeps my heart going.


Q: Please tell us a success story.

A: We are piloting a school-based curriculum, called LiveRespect, that addresses healthy manhood. Before we taught it, 16 percent of participating boys agreed or strongly agreed that boys are taught to view women as having less value. Post-curriculum, that number increased to 74 percent. Before, 68 percent of boys said the Man Box exists; post-curriculum, that number increased to 99 percent. And before, only 19 percent of boys agreed or strongly agreed that they know what consent means. Post-curriculum, it was 75 percent. All this speaks to the effectiveness of the program, and also the need for it.


Q: What do you want the conference takeaway to be?

A: Authenticity. The whole conference is a conversation, built around men being transparent about their journey toward authenticity. We want to give them permission to go home and say, “You know what, son? You don’t have to say, ‘I’ve got it.’ You can say, ‘I need help.’ ” And, “You feel like crying? You can cry. It’s healing for men. It’s healthy for men.”

We want to take back our humanity. By doing that, we will create the space to have loving and respectful conversations with women and girls.