Workshop aimed at empowering boys


(The Vancouver Sun, January 14, 2014)

A couple of years ago, my son came home from school a little puzzled. A female friend of his was going to be participating in a girls empowerment camp called iGirl. When he asked if there was something for him, too, he discovered there was not.

“Why don’t people care about boys?” he wondered.

Any parent of an elementaryaged boy has probably heard a similar refrain. We know the statistics. Boys are lagging behind girls academically. In classrooms where conformity and good behaviour are prized, high-spirited, disorganized boys are coming home with poor report cards compared to their female classmates.

Over the last 20 years, muchneeded attention has been paid to resolve a historical gender imbalance and empower girls to excel academically, shake stereotypes, and grow in assertiveness and confidence. But boys don’t get special consideration for their kinetic learning styles, or the cool way they can hop around on one foot while figuring out a math calculation, or workshops to explore what it means to be a boy in a changing world.

Until now. Sexual health educator Saleema Noon has been noodling the problem for years, since developing her popular iGirl workshops. “We’ve had so many people ask, What about our boys?” she says. “For years, girls have had so much support. I hate to say it, but it’s almost to the detriment of boys.”

Determined to set the balance straight, Noon has spent three years developing a boys empowerment workshop. iGuy launches as a pilot project in four Lower Mainland schools this month. One of the main challenges was developing a curriculum that was exciting enough so that boys would clamour to get involved. “What I didn’t want was to hold a workshop with a few boys who are only there because their moms want them to be there,” said Noon. “We’ve really been working on a curriculum to equip boys with the information, skills and confidence to navigate their teen years.”

Challenges that boys face include body issues, courage and vulnerability, the meaning of masculinity, expressing emotions and letting off steam, assertiveness versus aggression, and how to make smart decisions online and in relationships.

A challenge for Noon was finding the right person to deliver the program. Andrew Shopland, a youth worker with a background in workshop facilitation, turned out to be just that guy.

“It will be a fun workshop with an empowerment framework, but it’s going to challenge some of the assumptions boys have about masculinity,” said Shopland, who helped Noon develop the curriculum along with iGirl facilitators Anna Soole and Ashley McIntosh.

Like the iGirl workshops, kids will be asked to consider a pink box and a blue box as concrete symbols of the gender expectations they are expected to fulfil.

“By making it visible, making kids aware and talking about whether it’s in our best interest to be inside it, it gets them thinking about how it’s not an arbitrary universal force they have to conform to.”

Boys, for example, might be expected to be strong, athletic, smart but not nerdy, a slacker who doesn’t work too hard but still succeeds, a high-status guy who is cool and nonemotional.

“There is nothing wrong with being athletic, for example,” says Shopland. “The issue comes when we are forced into one of these roles, or fail at them. Boys will learn skills

around expressing emotions and being assertive rather than passive or aggressive. “We give them tools that aren’t really in the blue box.”

The workshop uses a roleplaying format with fun exercises to challenge blue-box stereotypes, strategies for online safety, healthy relationships and becoming a better friend.

It will not, Noon cautions in a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer on her iGuy brochure, “guarantee that your son will want to chat about his day with you or be more sociable in the mornings.”

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