Australia has an awkward relationship with masculinity. The Top Blokes Foundation is looking to reverse the long-held idea that seeking help is a display of weakness.
If you think life is complicated for young women, spare a thought for their male counterparts. Not only do they die from suicide more often than women, they also have significant problems with mental health and are even more likely to die from an accident than young women. Ten years ago, a young woman doing a Bachelor of Communications at the University of Wollongong thought this needed to change. She set up the Top Blokes Foundation, aimed at supporting young men. This year, she is the NSW Young Australian of the Year, and a few days ago, Melissa Abu-Gazaleh, 29, was chosen by the Financial Review and Westpac as one of the 100 most influential women in Australia. “When I started, I came across a statistic that said that 79% of articles in the media about young men are negative, and that bothered me. I thought they were being stereotyped. Painted as a liability, never as an asset to the community. That seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. It is also expensive. Untreated mental health problems in young men cost the Australian economy billions. The same goes for suicide. Investing in young men is not only valuable, it is a necessity.”
Top Blokes has been active for ten years now. It organises peer-mentoring programs in high schools, working with boys from 14 to 17, trying to improve their mental wellbeing and change their behaviour. It also mentors young men from 17 to 24 and organises workshops for parents, educators and employers. The aim is always the same: to turn young men into Top Blokes and change the stories that are being told about them. One of the youth workers is Will Homer, 24. “I am a footballer. Although we are only a small percentage of the community, we get a lot of negative publicity. That is fair enough if people do something wrong, but most players also spend a lot of time doing charity work and nobody ever writes about that. To my mind, the biggest issue is the lack of role models. I didn’t grow up with a father figure in my life and most of the young men in the groups we run don’t have them either. I had to find my own examples when I got older and was lucky to have a good grandfather and some helpful coaches. I was on the fringe of criminality and if they hadn’t helped me out, I could have ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. A lot of boys have nobody. In the groups we do an exercise where we ask them to write down the names of the people who have helped them out and showed them how to be good males. They struggle with that. Often the only names on the butcher’s paper are females: mothers, teachers, aunties. There seem to be no males in their environment who are doing well and can show them something positive. Or if there are, they don’t want to get involved and help boys out. Sometimes it looks like connecting with boys, having a real relationship with them, is seen as too soft, too emotional. Not masculine enough.”
“Some parts of Australian masculinity can be toxic and dangerous,” Melissa says. “Our culture wants to see men silent, not communicative and caring. That is detrimental.”
When we met him his main aim was to get the most negative reports on his school record in the history of the school. Now he is on the student representative council and has turned his life around. There have been many young men who quit using drugs or kids who are in school more, or getting better grades.
“It can make you feel really lonely, and misinformed,” Will adds. “For instance, like a lot of boys, I didn’t receive the birds-and-bees-chat from my father, but got it off the street. But what they told me there was wrong in a lot of ways. There was never any information about real emotions, real relationships. I found it really confusing. That is why by helping out young men, we are also helping out women. If young men change, their relationships with women change as well and that is a win-win. Less domestic violence, more men who are engaged in a positive way. This is a social justice issue, not so much a matter of gender.”
For Keaton James, 18, one of Top Bloke’s Youth Ambassadors, the arrival of the Top Blokes program at his high school was a blessing. He credits it with opening up his world. “One of the main topics of conversation in our group was drugs and alcohol. None of us had really been told how dangerous those were. Afterwards, whenever we were partying, we were much more careful. Another bit of very useful advice was talking to people. When you feel bad, tell somebody. None of us had ever done that before, and it was a relief when we were shown how good talking could be.”
In Melissa’s words: “The essence of what we are trying to tackle is masculinity. What is a man? Or more to the point: what is a good man?”
“In the beginning,” Will explains, “boys always define a man as a block of muscles. And a great man as somebody who can’t fit through a door. To them masculinity is a matter of physicality, and sometimes I wonder if they are describing a tank engine instead of a person. It takes them a while to adjust that picture to somebody who is caring and loving, to make a difference between confidence and arrogance, between being protective and being manipulative. A lot of them think that what women want from their partner is some kind of a brute, somebody who is physically strong, but emotionless. Nobody has told them otherwise. Usually we are the first ones.”
By helping out young men, we are also helping out women. If young men change, their relationships with women change and that is a win-win. Less domestic violence, more men who are engaged in a positive way. This is a social justice issue, not so much a matter of gender.
Top Blokes works with almost 1,500 young men a year and at the moment Ernst & Young are doing a social impact analysis, to find out if the results can be quantified as well as narrated. For Will they are already clear. “Every day we meet boys whose lives have been changed. There is a guy, when we met him his main aim was to get the most negative reports on his school record in the history of the school. Now his ambition is a little more positive. He is on the student representative council and has turned his life around. And there have been many young men who either quit using drugs altogether or are phasing it out. Or kids who are in school more, or getting better grades.”
“Or they decide to leave, but get a great apprenticeship and make themselves happy that way,” Melissa adds. “Those are wins too. We want to make sure that young men are happy, healthy and safe. And that they are generous contributors to society. A lot of the boys who have been mentored come back to volunteer or work for us. That also seems like a good sign to me.”
Top Blokes is not government-funded, but gets its money from philanthropy, corporate sponsors and community donations. Nevertheless, it does contribute to the state of NSW. A large percentage of the older boys comes to Top Blokes through the Work Development Order Scheme, run by the Office of State Revenue. Usually they are young, unemployed men who have large outstanding fines they can never pay off. Following a mentoring program is one way of settling their debt. Often, mentors like Will have to start at the beginning here: “Lots of drug and alcohol problems, lots of anger management stuff, problems with mental health. We begin by teaching them to properly take care of themselves. ‘Get enough sleep, exercise, don’t fill yourself up with energy drinks, eat well’. Often they also need to be told the work basics: ‘don’t yell at your boss, show up on time, don’t get to your job stoned’. If you don’t come from a family where work is normal, you don’t know this stuff.”
“Social education,” Melissa summarises. “It sounds so simple, but often we fill the void that their parents have left. Basic things, but very important.”