The Women's Foundation of Minnesota is sponsoring a national conference. For men.

The foundation is lead sponsor this week of "The Many Faces of Manhood," a conference in Bloomington organized by A Call to Men that will explore "healthy, respectful manhood in athletics, education, incarceration, fatherhood, faith communities and issues of gender."

Founded in 1983, the Women's Foundation is the oldest and largest statewide women's foundation in the nation dedicated to growing equality for women and girls. Six years ago, it opened its governing board to men after deciding that ensuring opportunity, safety and leadership for girls and women required both sexes at the table.

Throwing their weight behind a conference for men is another step in that direction, said Mary Beth Hanson, the foundation's vice president of external relations.

"To end violence and guarantee safety for girls and women, we have to meaningfully engage boys and men as partners and leaders in the movement," she said.

Work to achieve gender equity and end violence generally has been viewed as a movement by women, for women. Many men didn't "understand how to engage or see a place for themselves in this work," Hanson said.

But now the movement has evolved to the point where it's increasingly calling to sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to take on more visible roles, she said.

"By supporting and encouraging men's engagement in gender issues, we are making that safer, more equitable world possible, which benefits everyone," Hanson said.

The Women's Foundation is covering the cost of 100 attendees at the conference, to be held Thursday and Friday at the Hilton Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport at the Mall of America. Organizers expect about 350 to go, mostly men.

Speakers at the two-day conference include Tony Porter, CEO of A Call to Men; Ramsey County Attorney John Choi; Ed Heisler, executive director of Duluth-based Men as Peacemakers; Saanii Hernandez, vice president of the Women's Foundation; and Beth Richie, professor of criminology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"At this conference, we will focus on men being their authentic selves. The more we promote healthy manhood, the more we decrease violence against women and girls," Porter said.

Opening the 'man box'

New York-based A Call to Men, founded in 2002, is a project of the nonprofit Tides Center. It's a violence prevention organization that promotes "healthy, respectful manhood" and has worked with the U.S. military, the United Nations, the major professional sports leagues, nonprofits and church groups.

Porter said his message isn't for the small group of men who assault women. Rather, it's meant to address the collective socialization of nearly all men that, he said, "creates fertile ground for violence."

He called it the "man box" and reached into his own past for examples.

"Growing up as a boy, we were taught men have to be tough, have to be strong, have to be courageous, dominating, no pain, no emotions with the exception of anger and definitely no fear. Men are in charge, which means women are not," Porter said during a TED Talk.

He recalled comforting his crying 5-year-old daughter, but impatiently telling his sobbing 5-year-old son to get ahold of himself and "act like a man."

"When boys are told not to cry or feel, there are long-term lasting negative effects on their health and relationships," according to the nonprofit.

Research by the Harvard School of Public Health has found that those who suppress emotions are one-third more likely to die prematurely than those who regularly express what they are feeling.

'Out in front of the violence'

As a New York social worker at a drug and alcohol treatment center, Porter watched domestic violence counselors and advocates speak with his clients. He said that work, while vital, is reactionary.

"Maybe it's time to get out in front of the violence and prevent it from happening," Porter said. "To do that, I really had to work with men — not the men perpetrating the violence but the majority of men. We don't perpetrate the violence but we are silent to the violence."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804