Monday, December 21, 2015

Let It All Hang Out: Shifting The Conversation About Men's Fertility

Shifting the Conversation About Men’s Fertility

Tooting, London

I'm hosting a fund-raising event for male-related charities CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably – the charity which exists to prevent male suicide) and infertilitynetworkUK (the UK's leading charity providing information, support and advice to all those struggling to conceive). The event will be held on Saturday, January 9th at the Gorringe Park Pub. There is no admission and the fund-raiser runs from 12:00pm to 3:00pm. The event is also a chance to bring some real-talk to a challenging area, and shift the conversation about male fertility and infertility, and masculinity in general.

I created the project while participating in a Landmark leadership program.  Part of the coursework was to create a project that benefits the community.  Landmark is an international training and development company, who is known for offering their flagship course The Landmark Forum.

Around 50,000 couples per year have IVF in the UK. For three quarters of them the treatment fails. My wife and I had two failed rounds in 2013. It was an upsetting time. Whilst there is a lot of support for women around this difficult issue, men are spectacularly silent. A chance to create a project that would raise awareness about this was natural for me.

The event is being supported by The Gorringe Park Pub who have waived their venue fee to support the event.

For more information: call The Gorringe Park on 020 8685 0469, or register to attend via Facebook here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What Makes A Man?

This is the whole-school assembly I delivered during Movember. I considered it to be part of a well-executed school awareness campaign.

The ‘news-cycle’ in our school (and others?) is pretty short. Especially in a recently-gone-co-educational school where the majority of pupils are boys. Boys have short memories and the routines and rhythms of schools are so strong it’s a wonder people remember anything. There is little time for reflection.

I had also made an announcement about Movember at the beginning of November where I referenced my facial hair, Professor Green's programme and other members of staff. The team have eventually raised over £1,000. And it's still increasing!

But anyway - during the week before my assembly, I put up posters of distinctive men (David Beckham, Barack Obama, Sonny Bill Williams, Jay Z etc.) with a simple question above each picture: ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ The call to action underneath was ‘if you have an answer, tell Mr. D’Souza.

I got a range of answers from across age groups - from ‘having a penis’ and ‘a beard’ through to ‘manners’ and ‘not showing weakness’.

So when I stood at the front of the hall to address the whole-school, the pupil body already had some kind of awareness.

I had written and rehearsed something in advance (reproduced below) so I had the flexibility to respond to my audience. However, I also wanted to create engagement. Which is a challenge with an audience ranging from 11 to 18 (and staff).

I did this by asking a question. Not a rhetorical question - an actual question of my audience. What happened is written below.


Good morning. For those of you that don’t know, my name is Mr. D’Souza. I teach Business Studies, and Psychology and I’m one of the Heads of Sixth Form. I’m here to do three things: one - ask you a question; two - give you some facts, and three - suggest how the future could be and invite you to take action.

So firstly, here’s the question I'm asking you: what does it mean to be a man?


That was a question. I’m asking you a question. What does it mean to be a man?

(I continue to wait, there’s more silence, shuffling, awkwardness rises, a teacher points across the room - but I think he’s raising his hand…I look across and a Year 13 pupil is brave enough to raise his hand)

Me: Yes - what does it mean to be a man?
Pupil brave enough to put up his hand: Sorry can you repeat the question?
(ripple of chuckling from whole school, awkwardness dissipates)
Me: What does it mean to be a man?
Pupil: Being brave enough to give an answer in assembly
(audience starts clapping, I smile, and after the seal was broken, there were another three answers…which I can’t remember right now)

You may have seen my posters around school. I got some other answers which were either stating facts or pointing to stereotypes. For example, beyond the obvious biological facts, some people said having a beard means I’m a man, or having manners means I’m a man.

Someone else told me that ‘not showing weakness’ is what it means to be a man. Others said ‘taking care of the people around you’, ‘having lots of money, women and fast cars’, ‘having a six-pack’ or ‘being a man is different from being manly’, or even ‘we can’t or don’t talk about feelings’.

I went to Sutton Grammar. When I was at school, being clever didn't seem as important as being strong and good at sport. I was the small round kid who tried really hard but was a bit rubbish. I decided as a young boy that being a man meant being strong. A very fixed idea.

In response to that fixed idea, I then spent most of the rest of my life being a rebel against this fixed idea. Keep this in mind...

Ok now bearing in mind everything that's been said, here’s my second point: some facts:
a) two thirds of murder victims in the UK are men
b) the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide

Now I'm not saying that there aren't horrible stuff happening to women because of men. There is still inequality between men and women - and we need to eliminate that.

I'm saying that the fixed ideas we have about what it means to be a man squash and limit men and boys. These expectations can make it harder to talk about how we feel. It's not that we can't. It's not that we don't want to - it's just hard not to bow to the stereotype.

Thirteen men take their lives every day in the UK. I have three friends whose dads committed suicide. One of them is my best friend Simon. He was best man at my wedding and I'm going to be best man at his. We were 19 when his dad took his own life. We all kind of knew. But none of us spoke about it, or asked him how he was. He's ok now and I said to him that I want to talk about his dad when I give my best man's speech at the wedding. He's said he would really like that.

However, what's predictable is that us boys and men will keep the walls up. Men in power will keep the stereotype going: show no weakness, don't discuss feelings, fight war.

This leads me to my third point - the future - maybe the future doesn’t have to be this way.

Perhaps we could start asking our friends, dads and grandads how they are - not the obvious way - but how they *really* are. Maybe we could start sharing honestly about how we're feeling. Maybe we could stop saying phrases like 'man up' or insulting weakness.

Remember what I said before about my fixed idea about what it means to be a man? That fixed idea is what I’ve rebelled against for most of my life.

Maybe being a man is not fixed. Maybe I could take all the best bits from my dad, choose my own role-models, and make up my own version of what it means to be man.

So my invitation to you: smash the stereotype and create your own version of what it means to be a man.

Thank you very much for listening.

The reception of this was very positive with comments from pupils and staff. It stimulated conversation. It's a theme I've explored on this blog, but also in my writing for Good Men Project and in my art for thismanscollages here and here.

It's also opened the door for staff other than the senior management team to do assemblies.

To round off the campaign, I left the posters up for another week. Part of the completion to the strategy was taking the posters down. In a school, putting up the posters myself drew attention to them. Taking them down had the same effect.

It has been interesting to think of my assembly as a campaign. I wonder if this way of thinking could be applied to other things at school?