Building A New Kind of LEGO City

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LEGOs can be found everywhere in my house right now as they are the new obsession of my 4-year old son, Joaquin. Half-built sets are strewn upon our dining room table, completed masterpieces sit proudly atop his toy chest, and a few single bricks inevitably find their way beneath my feet as I step on them in the dark. Ouch!

With each LEGO creation that Joaquin builds, destroys, and rebuilds, learning is taking place. He is understanding how to follow directions precisely to complete a task, but at the other end of the spectrum, his creativity is being allowed to blossom. As he connects one brick to another, his fine-motor skills are improving, and he is practicing colors, numbers, shapes, and most importantly, problem-solving and perseverance.

Unfortunately, when building his LEGO City, he is also learning a very narrow definition of masculinity. This Christmas, Joaquin was gifted with several sets from the LEGO City series, all of which contained male minifigures (police officers, fire fighters, city workers, etc.) with the exception of one set (60017 Flatbed Truck). Included in this particular set was a businesswoman who is the driver of a sports car. While my son was impressed with the car she was driving, I, regrettably, realized that the set was encouraging a scene in which the businesswoman’s car breaks down, and the mechanic with the flatbed tow truck must come to her rescue, setting up a damsel in distress scenario.

legoAs his father, I must find ways to make him aware of this subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) re-enforcement of gender roles, something that the company has increasingly come under fire for over the last few years, especially from young girls, like 7-year old Charlotte Benjamin.

LEGO LetterHer letter recently went viral, and when I came across it, I thought it would be a good idea to share it with my own LEGO enthusiast. In a moment together, I read aloud the letter to Joaquin, and as I came to the end, he said, “Yeah, Dada, but I don’t make the LEGOs.”

With the infinite wisdom that he possesses at 4-years old, Joaquin is correct. While neither of us “make the LEGOs,” we do buy them, and as such it is important that we challenge the stereotypes portrayed through the LEGO products and show our support as allies with the girls who are already seeking change from the company.

Other parents who have written on this same subject agree that gender disparity in LEGO products is a problem that can be solved. Here are a few suggestions to help boys begin building a different type of LEGO City:

  • Talk with boys about the lack of girl minifigures while playing with LEGO toys and ask them how that makes them feel.
  • Ask boys (if they haven’t already noticed) about the difference in packaging and placement of LEGO toys in most retail stores.
  • Purchase LEGO minifigures separately which include girl minifigures such as snowboarders or police officers and encourage your boys to incorporate them into their play.
  • Encourage boys to write a letter or email to the LEGO Corporation asking them to introduce more girl minifigures into the most popular sets.
  • Purchase LEGO Friends sets for boys as a way to begin breaking down the gendering of toys.
  • Switch female LEGO heads with male bodies and male accessories to create unique female characters.
  • Encourage the boys and men in your life to support/join efforts like the Brave Girls Alliance who are challenging gender stereotypes in advertising and products designed for girls.
  • Download and encourage boys to use the #NotBuyingIt app from The Representation Project to call out limiting depictions of boys and men in advertising.

By putting collective pressure as consumers on LEGO and other corporations to change their toys to represent a diverse society, I hope that my son Joaquin will not have to write a similar letter to that of Charlotte Benjamin when he is 7 years old. Instead, I hope that as his LEGO collection grows, so too does LEGO’s understanding of gender equality.

In the comment section below, please share how you have addressed this issue with the boys and men in your life, as well as any additional suggestions you have for seeking further change from the LEGO company.

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What is a “macho” man?

ImageMachismo—the mere utterance of this word stirs up an array of emotions. For some, it evokes great male pride, and for others, it reeks of negativity and abuse. Growing up, I associated the word with one thing, wrestling. My favorite wrestler was Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and after watching Macho Man’s signature moves on TV, I would emulate them during matches with my younger brother and step-dad, proving that I too could be “macho.” At the time, this word “macho,” seemed to epitomize what I wanted to be—a fighter that was cool, powerful, strong, and in control. After all, these characteristics were not only being portrayed by my favorite wrestler, but they were also being acted out right in front of me by some of the males in my own family and community. I was being conditioned to be a macho man, but what does that mean? What is a “macho” man?

Many studies have been conducted to answer this very question, but a wide range of conflicting responses still exist. For every connotation of the word “macho,” there seems to be a philosophical debate. The literal definition, however, is difficult to refute. In simple terms, the word “macho” means one thing — “male.” The phrase “macho man,” therefore, is actually somewhat redundant because to be macho merely means to be a male.

The clash over machismo occurs when people begin to equate being male with being a man. Boys learn how to be a man from television, music, movies, literature, and most importantly from the other men in their lives. As they get older, however, each man must decide for himself what kind of man he is going to be. Will he place drugs and alcohol before his family, or will he come home eager to spend time with his wife and children? Will he be the husband who beats his wife just like his father beat his mother, or will he treat his partner as an equal and share household responsibilities? Will he gather with friends to make racist, anti-feminist, or homophobic jokes, or will he seek to be understanding of those who are different from him? Will he coax other young men to participate in chauvinistic practices, or will he serve as a positive role model, challenging traditional stereotypes? In the end, only he can decide.

For me, the wrestling fan, the decision came after much self-discovery. I came to the conclusion that I would embrace the idea of being macho—of being a male—without all the preconceived notions about what a man should or should not be. There’s only one problem, though, with not following preconceived ideas. There’s a lot of room for error when you have to figure out things on your own. So, although I have a clear picture of what kind of son, brother, friend, husband, and father I want to be, I still need occasional help and support from the men in my life to make sure that my picture remains in focus.

Every man should paint their own picture of what kind of man he wants to be, and if enough men paint with respect, then perhaps, a grand masterpiece of tolerance and nonviolence will be created in our communities.

Engaging Men Beyond SAAM

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Spring is a time for new beginnings, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, with its diverse set of events can offer your center an avenue through which to forge new alliances with men in your community. Take the time to plant the seeds at your events and then nurture these new relationships through the following four steps.

Invite – Contact men who participated in your events during Sexual Assault Awareness Month as this is an opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with these men. Extending personal invitations is ideal, but since it is not always possible to meet or involve folks in person utilize a dedicated page on your website, a Facebook page, newsletters, e-mail updates, a blog, informational meetings at various times and locations, other forms of social media, or phone calls to provide men with a sense of investment and ongoing involvement. Regardless of the method you decide on for communication, use every opportunity to learn about other male leaders you should talk to and continue asking these men for more names in order to build a stronger network of male allies. Along the way, collect contact information for each man that you speak with, such as name, address, phone-numbers, e-mail address, and more importantly skill-set and experience.

Raise Consciousness – Help men explore their personal and collective role in ending all forms of sexual violence. Share information by creating a lending library of books, articles, zines, films, and magazines (recommended resources on pages 40-45 of TAASA 2014 SAAPM Toolkit), or if this is not possible, share on-line articles, blogs, websites, newsletters, and videos through social media platforms, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Encourage men to organize and establish book/article discussion groups with male co-workers, classmates, neighbors, family members, and friends or post reviews of books related to themes of healthy masculinity and sexual violence prevention on their personal social media accounts. Join the Texas Men’s Nonviolence Project and the National Men Against Violence list-serves or organize a Google+ Hangout or Twitter chat for men to further their discussions. Finally, organize, promote, and offer your own trainings/workshops on a variety of topics facilitated by local community members for no cost or for a minimal fee. Refer to your established network of male allies to find men that can lead these workshops or consult with the TAASA prevention team to provide you, your staff, volunteers, and men in your community with free training and technical assistance in order to support and enhance your efforts to prevent sexual violence with men.

Take Risks – Try something new, forge unexpected relationships, step out of your comfort zone, and resist the temptation to become complacent. This requires open-mindedness, courage, and a willingness to allow men from the community to lead particular endeavors. Experiment with different strategies, activities, and environments, utilizing the ideas presented in the TAASA 2014 SAAPM Toolkit throughout the year rather than solely in the month of April. Think evaluatively about your efforts. Ask the men who participate why they can and/or continue to stay engaged. Notice the effect of both long and short-term work with a specific group of men and the different ways that different groups of men are impacted. Make mistakes, ask for feedback, adjust, try again, and always striving to improve your men’s engagement efforts. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and not know the answer – to fail, and to succeed.

Evaluate – Even if your organization has involved men in various roles for some time, it is important to constantly reevaluate. Get these men together to continue talking about the issues and create opportunities to listen to various groups of men in your community. These discussions can happen on the street, at churches, college dorms, recreation centers, or anywhere where men gather. More importantly, recruit and train men to organize and facilitate these discussions. Document these conversations, collect the information, review it, and share it with key stakeholders in your community. This information will continue to inform your process and provide insight into the interests, availability and expertise of men in your community. Use this as an opportunity to continue to conduct focus groups, especially with groups of men that have not had contact with your organization, whether it is a group of immigrants or members of a particular faith community. It’s critical to value and appreciate the experiences that each man shares with you and your team along the way. Invite men to share what they have learned and accomplished through poetry, photographs, stories, art, and writing. Celebrate and acknowledge each “historic moment” and embrace the failures as an opportunity to try again, consistently revisiting the four steps in cyclical fashion.

As you follow these steps, TAASA is ready to spring into action and assist you in any way we can so that you may continue to cultivate and grow your primary prevention efforts with men beyond SAAM. Contact us for support at prevention@taasa.org.

Cesar Chavez: A Model of Men’s Nonviolence

If you walk into my home office you will see two posters one of Emiliano Zapata and the other of Cesar Chavez.  Both of these men struggled for the rights of the poor and oppressed and organized movements that changed society; however, the tactics they used to achieve this social change differed greatly.  As we approach his birthday on March 31, I would like to reflect on the example of change set forth by Cesar Chavez.

Chavez once said:

Nonviolence is not inaction.  It is not discussion.  It is not for the timid or weak… nonviolence is hard work.  It is the willingness to sacrifice.  It is the patience to win.

No one lived these words better than the man himself.  Cesar Chavez modeled a deeper meaning of nonviolence, not just as a way of acting but as a basic principle of life.  He realized that in order to change the world, he had to be willing to start with himself; therefore, in 1962, he resigned from his post of national director of the Community Service Organization and founded the United Farm Workers of America.  Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the Southern Civil Rights movement, Chavez humbly led the union for more than three decades with nonviolence as the guiding tenet for all of his actions.  Even in the face of violent attacks from landowners and growers, Chavez maintained his commitment to nonviolence, organizing and participating in successful strikes and boycotts, as well as fasting for nearly a month on several occasions to send a message to farm workers, who began to speak of responding in kind to the violent assaults against them.  Chavez sacrificed personally, going days without eating, earning less than $6,000 a year, never owning a house, and leaving his family with no savings upon his death in April of 1993, but his sacrifice and dedication won fair wages, medical coverage, humane living conditions, and above all dignity and respect for farm workers.  Cesar Chavez was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary feats, always believing que “sí se puede.”

Join me in signing the Cesar Chavez Foundation and the United Farm Workers petition asking President Obama to create a National Day of Service on Cesar Chavez’s Birthday.  I praise both organizations for their work and encourage others to join their efforts, bringing to life the words of Cesar Chavez:

When you have people together who believe in something very strongly – whether it’s religion or politics or unions, things happen…. We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.

In this time, when so much emphasis is placed on self-preservation and retaliation, may the words and legacy of Cesar Chavez inspire and challenge us all to become the peace we seek in our community and in the world.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

priceslessToday we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day in which we express our love for our significant others.  What did you get your sweetheart?

  • A card .…$2.49
  • A stuffed animal ….$4.97
  • A box of chocolates .…$10.99
  • A dozen roses….$25.00
  • A diamond pendant ….$450.00
  • A healthy, nonviolent relationship ….Priceless

Too often, we succumb to the traditions of the holiday by racing frantically to the store to pick up a heart-shaped box filled with candy or an over-sized gorilla that sings “Wild Thing” in order to present it to our significant other over a romantic dinner at a local restaurant.  This year, did you think outside that heart-shaped box?  There is always time to give your significant other something that is more meaningful and lasting – a relationship based on equality.  Try exercising these practices:

  • Economic Partnership: Making money decisions together, ensuring that both partners benefit from financial agreements.
  • Shared Responsibility: Mutually agreeing on a fair distribution of work, making family decisions together.
  • Responsible Parenting: Sharing parental responsibilities, being a positive nonviolent role model for your children.
  • Honesty & Accountability: Accepting responsibility for self, acknowledging use of violence, admitting being wrong, communicating openly and truthfully.
  • Trust & Support: Supporting your partner’s goals in life, respecting one another’s rights to personal feelings, friends, activities, and opinions.
  • Respect: Listening without judgment, being emotionally affirming, understanding, and valuing your partner’s opinions.
  • Non-threatening Behavior: Talking and acting so that your partner feels safe.
  • Negotiation & Fairness: Seeking mutually satisfying resolutions to conflicts, accepting change, and being willing to compromise.

You might already be doing these things in your own relationship; however, there is always room for improvement.  An important aspect of having a healthy, nonviolent relationship is our willingness and commitment to live by these practices on a daily basis.  In this way, we can consistently give the gift of equality and celebrate our love for our partner beyond February 14th, which is truly a priceless gift that will keep on giving.

Good Will Towards Men…and especially, Women

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Only a few days have passed since we rang in the new year, and already our holiday cheer has begun to fade.  Nothing seems as bright or as beautiful as it once did draped in the lights of the Christmas season.  The gifts that we spent hours shopping for are now just a long list of items on a credit card statement.  The decorations that we delightfully hung from our tree are now a chore as we remove them from the branches.  The tamales and cookies that we enthusiastically devoured are now a few extra pounds around our waist, and, as the final remnants of the holiday season are packed in a box, the guilt continues to set in.

Perhaps, that is why we begin each year with the same routine of reflecting on how we are going to improve ourselves in the coming year and then resolving to do a whole list of things that too often results in no change at all.  This year, I challenge men to break free from this routine and the typical resolutions of weight loss and financial gain in order to bring about true change not just in themselves but in our communities as well.  I invite men to reflect on the issue of domestic violence and resolve to be a part of the solution rather than the problem.

Reflect – According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, and men also perpetrate 95% of all serious domestic violence.  In 2012, 114 women were killed due to domestic violence in the state of Texas, which was an increase from 102 the year before.  Three of those 114 women were from Austin, but to their families, these three women (Kirstin Louise Anderson, Cassandra Clark, and Adriana Rugina) are not a number.  They are a set of memories and missed opportunities.  They were real women – mothers, sisters, aunts, and friends, who were killed by men who once professed their love for them.

Resolve – The statistics for 2013 have not yet been calculated; however, when they are released there will be more women on that list like Kristen, Cassandra and Adriana.  These lists MUST end, and we, as men, must do our part to bring the statistics down until the number of deaths related to domestic violence can be reported as zero.

I would like to invite all men to take the first step in ending men’s violence in our communities by making a personal pledge never to commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women and children.  If men of all ages make this pledge and commit to upholding it, then we can make a difference in reducing the number of women who are killed each year because of violence.  So, I challenge men to make this pledge your resolution not just for 2014 but for each day of your life.  This is one resolution that is too important to give up on after just one week.  It requires hard work and constant dedication, but the rewards are great.  Failure to uphold the resolution, on the other hand, can cost a woman her life; therefore, turn to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) for support if you find the challenge to difficult to undertake yourself.  Check-out Bro Models or Step Up to learn about ways that you can actively work in your community to end men’s violence.

Too often, the good will towards men that we express during the holiday season is also packed up with the Christmas decorations.  This year, extend that good will throughout the year.  Don’t let one of the things you’re guilty about next year be that you spent more time yelling at your kids than playing with them, or that you stood idly by as a friend ridiculed his girlfriend, or that you said nothing while legislators cut funding for domestic violence centers.  Instead, do your part – make the pledge, commit to following it in 2014, and help make our communities one without violence.