Gregory JaquetA conversation on Healthy Masculinity with Gregory Jaquet
It's Wednesday morning at the Library, girls and boys from the village are trickling in…they’re taking a book and settling in an armchair to quietly read. I ask Gregory, our Swiss volunteer, to join me in the garden for a nice conversation about the wonderful project he is developing for us.
RR: Well, It's almost been three months since you and your family (Anouk 42); Clémence (11); Romane (9); Marceau (7) are with us. Have you a routine on how to start your day?
GJ: Yes! When I wake up I get everything ready for my 3 children. As you know, we all live on the second floor of this Library and they are also working as volunteers. I clean the main reading room; open windows; put on meditation music, and stack new books on the shelves. Everything must be ready by 9 am, by which time there are already some kids waiting for the doors to open. I, along with the staff members and other volunteers, make sure everybody has something to read, whoever has homework has started doing it -including my own children, who we are homeschooling for a year, we make sure the ambience is quiet for studying. If there’s no urgent technological issue that needs my attention, I sit and continue working with the Humano Pacifico program. Since there are other volunteers assisting kids with homework and other educational programs, this is my main task during Library hours.
RR: How has the family adapted to the fact that this is your home, but during Library hours it is a Community Library?
GJ: Well, first of all, we have been traveling for six months now, moving from project to project: in a ranch, then in a school in Colombia, where we were living in the school. When we discussed coming over to this Library project, we knew we’d have to close our private space before opening our home as a public area. Since we had agreed previously, we are careful to have breakfast before the Library patrons come flocking in. At first, they had an adaptation period because while we are in the Library schedule, there are rules to follow: they must be in the Library, work, read, play inside it; sometimes they would prefer to go out to the beach or to the football court or go back to their room instead of being 5 hours in the Library, but we remind them: that was not the agreement. The rules were clear, we had two weeks of adaptation during which time the rules were flexible, now everybody is ok with the setting.
RR: Would you say that in order to turn a family into a team, you should discuss the issues in an open and democratic manner?
GJ: We´ve always done this. The narrative is ours (adults) when we call a “meeting” we explain our choice, we do keep our status as adults or chiefs of whatever decision we debate, we give out the information: the advantages and the challenges. Of course, without manipulation, we don't share every detail of situations that are not theirs to decide. We don't assume them as adults. We always sit around the table to meet and talk, let the issue sit for a day and discuss it again the next day. No one has a proper right to veto, but we never force our decisions on them.
RR: Have your parenting skills been useful to your work with us in the LIbrary?
GJ: Since I’m not a school teacher or coach for children, it has been an adaptation; as it would have been with any other children than my own. I have only educated my own kids with my partner, as a team, with problems, sometimes, but always with solutions at hand. This has been a tough adaptation. You see, as a team with my own children -whom I love unconditionally- I can always solve problems, which is not the case with other children whom I do like, but not unconditional love. We, as a team, are living a life of respect, altruism, empathy and it's working well. But, when I arrived, these kids did not show me empathy or respect. So I had to adapt. If I had been left alone with these kids, I couldn't have managed. I had to watch and learn from you, the staff, the other volunteers, to find a way to maintain peace and harmony with hyperactive kids, sometimes disrespectful as I completely understand now, and adapt to the context while being calm. Sometimes it was difficult to not be authoritative, or even violent and send a child out. Now I see that sending him out is not a solution, as you explained. What we are doing here is helping him manage his frustration, anger that reflects in his behavior; so, by sending him out of the Library, I would have been sending him back to the tension and violence that generates bad behavior in the first place. So, through reading, and several talks with you, I discovered a proper global micro and macro attitude with the kids so as to be part of the team of the Library who are extremely patient and helpful with some boys that are not so willing to collaborate, or accept suggestions or sometimes not interested in reading as much as I would expect from someone who steps willingly into a Library.
RR: Exactly, many of these kids don't have the advantage of living in a loved based family team, their reality is very different, and they are lured into the Library, because we strive to offer them that ambience of a safe place.
GJ: What is interesting to me is that we know very little about their family background. You said to me: we want to take every child for itself, we can´t change their living conditions, what we can do, is show them how it feels to be in a safe place during their stay in the Library, whether its an hour or a whole afternoon or several months not knowing how bad their family dynamics can be. Now that I know them more and more, I have to forget the background of each one. I’ve been able to find the right attitude by not responding individually towards each child, but offering an unbiased calm demeanor for all.
RR: Yes, we try not to “react” to their behavior, we try to make them understand that whatever happens out there we cannot help them change, but we can offer them emotional skills to better negotiate whatever happens to them. The best way to teach how to deal with pain, frustration or anger is to show them how a healthy adult deals with anger, pain and frustration.
GJ: This is so true for children anywhere. This is the idea behind gliding into a peaceful, serene, empathetic, calm and respectful community. Our work here is preparing everyone for a more peaceful community.
RR: Yes, so this brings us to your work with us; let's talk about your professional career. When we first started talking I was impressed by your background on Masculinity, your experience in the field and your years of study and reflection on gender issues and gender based violence. How are you applying your expertise to our needs and resources?
GJ: I have been a police officer for 15 years in Switzerland working on investigatios in different fields, such as sexual violence and femicides. I’ve been chief officer, recruiter, and officer trainer. I moved to Costa Rica as a volunteer with Instituto WEM (the world of men) in indigenous language. It’s a wonderful research and training program on masculinity, sexuality, couples relationship based on the Psychological Department of the University in Costa Rica. It's part of a Latin American Network: Men Engage; Promundo (Brazil); EME Masculinidades (Chile); there is no such network in Europe. White Ribbon in Australia is big in the English speaking world. When I arrived at the WEM Institute, I attended workshops, and was educated to be a men’s group facilitator. I was trained to deconstruct, masculinity, sexism, GBV. During this period we received 500 men each week, there was a lot of advocacy, TV appearance, and public talks. The Institute was in charge of the national sexual education based in healthy masculinty.
When I went back to Switzerland as a police chief officer, I wanted to multiply my findings on healthy masculinity within myself, family and community. I started to volunteer offering courses to public schools about sexual violence, sexism. Those organizations listened to me and were interested in the healthy masculinity and do no harm approach. The idea is not to tell men they are bad people, but instead, that we all come from a very ancient cultural tradition that is harming ourselves with sexism; we could be happier doing differently. I worked with several organizations, offered several talks on the matter and that’s when UN Woman in NY recruited me as an expert on Gender and Sexual Violence issues and public safety, and how policing around the worlld could be more gender responsive. I am one of the 20 police experts that developed the United Nations 500 page handbook on police gender response.
I should say reading, discussing and pondering on gender issues made me a better father, my two daughters and my son allowed me to try, test, be wrong, and correct. So I've also trained at home. I’ve written about the topic and applied it in politics during my tenure as mayor of my town and a deputy of my region in parliament. I’ve worked in Gender Equality for the last 10 years.
So, when I arrived at A mano manaba, I brought this background. You asked me to work with the boys that come to the Library on Gender Equality. So I researched and started to develop a specific program for these boys, on healthy relationships, while still empowering girls. I should say, we are not “correcting” boys or girls, we are educating humans on respect, empathy and healthy relationships, plus we can do some specific work with these girls and boys on correcting whatever creates inequality. This program is based on Human Rights Declaration, on Ecuador’s Constitution, on the Istambul Convention, signed by all the countires around the world, denouncing gender inequality education as the root of sexual violence. So we have this mandate that everyone has agreed on: we must change the way we educate children. If we ground our efforts on this common assertion none can disagree. Plus, I added Holy Scriptures that our neighbors in the village may trust. If they feel International Treaties do not speak to them. Any guide you may want to follow mandates equality of rights. This is the background of the project: let’s work with the boys with a global intention of raising respectful, empathetic and peaceful human beings that can enjoy life in serenity. We strongly believe that, by educating better humans, our public budgets on safety, health, incarceration will be reduced and with it, poverty and even global warming: most of the damage done to the environment is result of toxic masculinity that only takes into account the interests of domineering male power with no regard or empathy to the damage caused by their actions.
RR: Could you go into detail on the strategies that you are using to bring about this project?
GJ: I started by researching what science is saying. I created a theoretical framework of change. I wrote it on paper. From this theoretical grounding, I created a training program for the Library staff, educating them on sexism, gender socialization, gender based violence, healthy masculinity (quite a new concept). Then I developed Gender mainstreaming in the Library, through the books that are offered to boys, observing their interactions, their obsession with competition, their tendency towards raising their voice and subjecting others in the Library. And, finally designing proper workshops directed towards change: finding who needs what to change and have proper impact. Before that, I had to get everyone on board with my planning: the directors, the staff, the other volunteers, some community leaders that had to understand and accept that I am not threatening their standing in the village. I wanted to be accepted by them so, when their boys said “I’m going to the Library for a workshop with Gregory” they’d be fine with that. I had to make sure that the fathers did not perceive me as a dangerous influence or threat to their lifestyles. I avoided being seen as an exotic guy from, who knows where, that is trying to convince them by criticizing their life. So after two months of inserting myself in the village, getting to know many neighbors and explicitly making myself visible and readable to them, I have started working with our Humano Pacifico workshops. Every afternoon I am receiving groups of boys ages 11-17 at 3pm, many of them come before and you can see them wandering around, waiting for the time when we can sit in our safe space, here outside in the garden. Within a pertinent context we discuss difficulties, vulnerabilities, times of distress in the way that I learned to do in Instituto Wem, and later delivered in Public Schools in my community. This is a proper method tailored to the needs of these specific boys and teenagers. The responses to this approach was immediate, they’re looking forward to this daily fixed hour. From the first instant, it worked. I am sure this is because of the two month preparation that we did inside the Library and in the village. It’s working very close to what literature in this kind of workshops expects. My reference is Pro Mundo, this organization in Brazil with a lot of experience in group sessions with kids. Since I’m not a psychologist I keep myself to socio educative work. I’m following Pro Mundo and I'm very excited to see our results so close to their literature. First actions were games with intention, they did not know that we were contrasting empathy and real friendship against false power and male competition. They enjoyed the dynamics. Then we created the rituals that offer a sense of belonging. Now they're coming every day, are more aware of how they conduct themselves, they are able to converse about sexuality, proper friendship, vulnerability, and how to deal with frustration. We covered these topics in the first week! These issues had never been brought up to them, his does not have to do with the fact that they are from this tiny village. When I was growing up in Switzerland, which is supposed to be a developed country, nobody talked to me about this!... I never discussed this until I was 35 and went to the WEM Institute. So I think boys around the world don't have these conversations that are a very important part of their lives.
I can see a fantastic change in each one: when some tried to flee, I talked to them individually and invited them to resist the urge to leave the safe place. I then turned the sessions into more light and fun reunions every other day. We are now enjoying our 60 minute workshops every day with a proper calendar and intention. I then write down every session with detail in a way we will have a trail to follow. Every day one of them brings a friend. I think it will keep growing in the future. The program is built in a sustainable manner. Another male volunteer will be able to continue once a week in order to maintain the safe space to talk about their feelings and hear from the others and listen to a guide -that has to be an adult- this man will follow my lead. This man has to be educated in masculinity by me, ideally. My intention is to come back once or twice a year to make sure we dont´leave them alone with all the things they are understanding and accepting, because the things they are realizing are so different from the mediatic world they are immersed in through social media, music, cinema, advertising. I want to come back and make sure the program continues and does not take a wrong turn. Even though we avoid a psychological approach, if this program is not done correctly it could harm. I need to see how this workshop keeps growing and how these young boys become happy serene men.
RR: Would you agree that Humano Pacífico offers a wide array of emotional intelligence to boys in a manner our patriarchal culture has avoided, if not repressed? The best part of this is that it is far away from repression and punishment.
GJ: The offer of an array of emotional skills is correct, along with another model of ways to grow up and alternatives to be a good human. We are showing them a way to be more effective, happier. We are not asking them to be different; we are showing them how to be better. It's not downgrading its upgrading. We are not asking them to give up anything or renegade from traditions, we are offering them different ways to deal with life. They immediately see the difference and change attitudes. When we first started someone bullied his friend in front of everybody -including me-. I asked in a very light way, was your intention to make your friend feel bad or just to be funny and popular; because being funny is ok but , how do you think he felt when you made fun of him. He admitted that making his friend feel bad wasn't his intention. The next day he came, he had changed his demeanor. Awareness is the first step towards empathy. We are giving them more tools, not taking away anything, it's only going up, making them better selves. If we start to question their personality and want them to downgrade what they and their fathers are, that does not work. We can continue this work with real men like myself or Esteban (staff member) and other volunteers after me, guys that are not exotic or so different, just regular guys, normal healthy men. I am behaving like any other man in the village -my confidence comes from my inner emotional kit- and just like any other guy in the village, I am well liked by most. This is something they want to follow.
My intention is to change the world, we all have the illusion to change the world by reducing violence and bettering our humanity, by avoiding the harm we do to ourselves and others. I hope to keep coming back and in 5 or 7 years, seeing decreasing indicators of violence in this village: we will be able to say we were part of bettering the world.
RR: After all your experiences and ongoing work could you say that healthy masculinity in your own life and family has made you happier?
GJ: I wouldn't call it happiness, I feel serenity, which probably is a more sustainable way of experiencing happiness. Yes, I am a better version of myself, but I still have a lot of work to do and it has to do with the fact that I still have to deconstruct privileges that come from the fact that I was born with a penis.
Anouk with friends