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What does healthy masculinity look like?

AFSC staff Joshua Saleem and Ivan Monzon chatting during the Masculinity Conference, held in Dec. 2013. Photo: AFSC

At a recent conference held by the American Friends Service committee, I picked up a piece of literature titled "Principles of a Noble Man."

A noble man, it says, is a man of his word. He has a sense of responsibility for his own well-being and that of others in his circle. He rejects any form of abuse, is sensitive and understanding, takes time to reflect, pray, and include ceremony in his life.  The principles of a noble man, I thought, are principles of a noble woman. They are principles of a noble human.

Those principles were being distributed by the National Compadres Network, one of the organizations represented at that conference, held back in December.  Nearly 50 people gathered at Friends Center, AFSC’s central office, to think together about “Masculinity, Healing, and Peacebuilding." 

How can harmful patriarchal definitions of manhood be transformed so that they are more diverse, more authentic, more whole?

This topic is, for many, new and uncharted territory—rarely do we have conversations about the positive role that masculinity might play in creating a more peaceful world.   But there is so much to be discussed that has been unexamined, and this conference created the opportunity for a wide-ranging, rich conversation. 

Participants included AFSC staff, scholars, storytellers, community organizers, youth, and teachers.  It was a unique mixture of people, of experiences, of communication styles; but everyone involved seemed committed to bringing their full selves in a spirit of respect and authenticity. 

Together they searched for a positive and active construction of masculinity while examining its harmful legacy as understood, in part, through the hurt, healing, and stories from conference participants. I had been generously invited to observe the second and final day of the conference—a taste.

The first day had been a series of small breakout sessions on topics such as “Is masculinity a social construct?” and “Men as healers and peace-builders.”  The discussions that had taken place during those sessions had created a strong sense of intimacy; a connection that was palpable on what was only the second day.

As a woman simply observing the day of dialogue reflecting on the breakout sessions the day before, I could tell that I was listening to something unique, something raw and new and charged with energy. 

One woman shared how hearing the stories of the ways that dominant models of masculinity had hurt many of the men at the conference inspired her to look anew on her interactions with her grandsons.  I was also powerfully reminded of the negative impact that systems of violence and oppression have on all of us, of every race and gender.  Working for peace requires that we all come to the table, examine our own hurts, listen to the suffering of others, understand the legacy of oppression, and then work together to change the structures that keep each one of us from being fully human.

Again and again it was emphasized that we all are telling the story of masculinity right now—in the relationships we build, the media we consume, the values we choose to adopt.  We can decide what stories to tell and what stories to live by, what principles to claim, and what habits to release.  It's a powerful claim, and the first step in changing the narrative around the misuse of power and oppressive systems of domination.

Below is a list of "takeaways" from one of the conference's organizers and AFSC’s Assistant General Secretary for Integration and Impact, Renata Fletcher.

Oppressive Masculinity is a root of war and violence of all types.

The narrow and destructive construct of masculinity we seek to change is rooted in centuries-old supremacy, patriarchy, and oppression played out through events such as slavery, colonization, and war.  Massacres, stolen people, stolen land, and persistent attempts to marginalize or even destroy groups of people across the world and their cultures have multi-generational impact and have created legacies of hurt and pain.   It continues to be used to control and conquer.


Positive Masculinity is constructed from not one but multiple definitions, identities, and self and external concepts.  

All of these masculinities must be acknowledged, honored, respected, and present in healing and peace-building as men.


As individuals, we must prioritize or own healing where hurt and wounds are present. 

We cannot be fully effective in our lives and work if we ourselves are tired, sick, and unhealed. (As one participant put it, “we can’t be sick healers.”)


The strength of our individual and collective efforts must be rooted in our stories, and in telling and sharing those stories. 

Through these stories, we are able to heal and also to fully acknowledge each other’s dignity and humanity, including how we have done harm both to ourselves and others. The work, approaches, and methods of the majority of people in the room were rooted in stories.  One academic participant talked of his activism to push researchers to “put a human face” to all of their work and to everything they do.


A strong and effective community of healing and peace-building is wholly reliant on individual healing taking place, as well as on the power of relationships between people, communities, and organizations.  

We must support each other lovingly in our work and lives together. The power of relationships is so strong, and those active in various aspects of the wider social movement must broaden how we support each other.  It is narrow definitions that keep us from one another and from realizing larger scale change for our communities.   We need each other – as individuals, as organizations, as sectors.

Formal and informal institutions and systems may be most effectively transformed from the inside out.