“We don’t do any introductions here. What we’d like to imagine the space to be is completely horizontal, so everyone is equal,” were the words that Joel Oppenheimer, senior counselor at the Psychological Counseling Center, used to begin the masculinity themed workshop.
On Oct. 23, at 6 p.m., Oppenheimer, as well as other SUNY New Paltz counselors and mental health activists in the area, led an interactive workshop entitled “Practicing Positive Masculinity.” The workshop took place at College Terrace and was open to the general public, including members of all genders.
Immediately, participants were taught that doing introductions, listing positions of leadership and “all that status stuff” plays into the culture of masculinity because it creates a sense of competition, whether we realize it or not.
“[Let’s] let that status go and just be ourselves in this space, hear each other, hold each other, listen to each other. Does that make sense?” Oppenheimer said before beginning the workshop’s activities.
In addition to removing competition, another ground rule Oppenheimer laid out was acknowledging that the land our campus is built on originally belonged to Native Americans. Then, the group was led in rituals meant to bring love into the space and honor the land’s ancestors.
The space was no longer an empty meeting room, but instead, “Our village that we’re here to be in together for the next couple of hours.”
Attendees were invited to walk freely through the space for moments at a time. Every few minutes, Oppenheimer would pause the walking and give instructions.
“Somebody shout out what they need to let go of today,” Oppenheimer instructed. Responses quickly bellowed all across the room:
Participants continued their movement as countless words were shouted across the space. After a few other activities that established comfort in the space and connections among the group, participants were handed sheets of paper with questions regarding their experiences or observations of relationship violence, or any other trauma.
Ericka Francois, a fourth-year psychology major, said that the small group sharing session, where students could share their own stories or choose to read anonymous ones, was her favorite moment in the workshop. Francois said it was helpful that the host began by teaching, “not listening to respond, but listening to digest. And it wasn’t ‘Oh that happened to me too,’ it was like ‘I resonated with you when you said this, and it meant a lot to me when you said this.’ It was focused on the person sharing their story.”
The term toxic masculinity does not have a singular definition but is often described as the traits socially associated with masculinity that can be harmful to not only men but members of all genders. Examples of toxic masculinity include high aggression, misogyny and extreme competitiveness. The form of toxic masculinity that the workshop mainly intended to avoid was the suppression of emotions and commonly perpetrated belief that showing emotion is a sign of weakness and femininity.
By giving people of all genders a space to be fully open and vulnerable with their feelings, toxic masculinity was combatted and instead positive masculinity was embraced.
During the closing circle, many people talked about their time in the small group and the experience of being emotionally vulnerable with people they had never met before.
“I cried. And it was needed. It was needed. It’s important to go to programs that are like that, which [are]so rare,” Francois said. “And it should continue to happen more because we break down this outer appearance of who we may seem to other people and our status… it didn’t matter. We didn’t have any status there. We were just people, humans, individuals.”
The ability to be completely open, honest and emotionally raw without having to uphold a tough and emotionless exterior is what Oppenheimer believes to be the beginning of a movement inspiring the practice of only positive masculinity.
“We can all work together to change the masculinity narrative that penetrates our mind by this society,” said Kevin Martinez, a Spanish major who attended the workshop Martinez also said by analyzing and creating dialogue about toxic masculinity, “we can change the outcome.”
“These are workshops but I call this a movement,” Oppenheimer said. “We are trying to impact the culture.”
To experience the movement, attend the next Practicing Positive Masculinity Workshop at the College Terrace on Nov. 20 from 6-8 p.m.