Partner Q & A: Male Only – Jason Geoffrion of Men’s Leadership Alliance
Men’s Leadership Alliance believes in a world where all men, and all people, can fully express their personal gifts and genius in service to their families and communities. Such authenticity can only be accessed through deep work with ourselves; what we call soul work. Drawing from the wisdom of ages and an understanding of the ever-changing needs of modern times, MLA has created an integrated series of programs designed to engage and support men in this important soul work, as well as programs for partners, family, children, and elders. It is our experience that soul work is the gateway to authentic manhood, which in turn leads to a life of joy, service, wisdom and passion.
Here’s an interview with their Executive Director: Jason Geoffrion, MA
Describe your work in your own words.
Men’s work is about normalizing the masculine experience for men. So often men feel like they are the only one with their experience – struggling with identifying and feeling emotions, persistent thought patterns, fear in making right choices, inability to take actions, disappointments in living up to expectations from partners and society, and on and on. It is hard for men to choose self-care, and the idea of being with just men for a whole weekend can seem really strange. Often it takes some dire circumstance, i.e. major life transition or crisis, to say yes to attending a retreat for the first time. However, once men sit in an intergenerational circle and feel heard and seen without judgment, they begin to wonder how they ever lived life without the support of other men. And then men learn to keep coming back to move beyond crisis and live into a thriving and vibrant life.
At Men’s Leadership Alliance (MLA) (www.mensleadershipalliance.org) we provide safe spaces for men to realize their own internal wisdom and help them take the next empowered steps toward a more vibrant life. By entering a retreat setting, men step away from the rigor of daily life to enter more of a witness perspective to be able to identify areas of needed improvement. This allows men to gain clarity around their past and present choices, discover compassion for self and others, find the courage to yes or no to certain actions, thoughts, feelings and ways of being, and in turn make the commitment to boldly shift in a direction that serves their higher calling and purpose.
How do you define rites of passage or talk about it in relationship to your work?
Men are going through various passages throughout their entire lives. Rites of passages are often thought of for men solely during the transition from boyhood to manhood. Of course for most men, the transition to adulthood was not marked or held in a good way, and because they were left to fend for themselves the lack of initiation often plays out in their adult lives in unhealthy patterns. Even if a man was fortunate enough to have a formal initiation to manhood experience, the various adult thresholds are rarely acknowledged. Men need to be witnessed and supported during all of life’s transitions – emerging into the work world, getting married, becoming a father, death of parents, retirement and Elderhood, and so on. No man can go through this life journey alone, yet so many of us, myself included, often act like we have to go it alone – mostly because we don’t know what it is like to ask for or receive help. Attending a men’s retreat begins the process of shifting this belief of being alone, among many others, and over time it becomes a normal part of life to enter transition times, rites of passages, with our eyes and hearts open and with the support of other men.
What brought you to this work? Are there specific mentors or teachers that come to mind?
I came to men’s work and MLA out of dire personal need. I was living a life that was contrary to my internal inklings, and was making choices based on what I thought I was supposed to do, based on how I thought I was suppose to live. I didn’t have Elders or mentors in my life to encourage me to listen to my internal wisdom or support me to make choices that would help me live a full and vibrant life. I didn’t trust myself. And I didn’t know how to ask for help. It wasn’t until things got really dark and dire in my life when the only option I had left was to finally reach out for help.
It was during that dark period that a book, Stories of Men, Meaning, and Prayer somehow made its way into my hands. Every word was so resonant – it was like finally discovering the words to the internal language I always knew was inside of me. And the author, Jeffrey Duvall (one of MLA’s co-founders) put his address in the back of the book. So I wrote him a 20 page letter pouring my heart out, and actually mailed it off! And, a week later he called me and invited me to come sit with him. It was the first time I felt like there was truly no judgment – his messages to me were that there was nothing wrong with me and that I was beautiful just exactly as I was right then in that moment. I didn’t quite know how to handle that, as it seemed so contrary to the messages I had been receiving my whole life up to that point. But I felt a deeper truth inside, and I knew that I had found the first inklings of ‘home’ in my sense of self, and a communal home in MLA.
Shortly after meeting Jeffrey I went out on a Vision Fast with him, and in doing so opened myself to a whole new world of understanding and being. I realized years later that Vision Fast experience, at age 27, was my initiation into manhood. And once I opened myself up to living a life of fullness based on my own internal wisdom, the pace of life fulfillment accelerated rapidly. I showed up to everything MLA was offering, and along with Jeffrey got to spend time with Tom Daly and Keith Fairmont, MLA’s other two co-founders, as well as many other men and Elders. I began to make vastly different life choices and within 2 years I took over operations as Director of MLA. What saved me how now become my life’s work!
What brought you to focusing on a specific gender? How do you view the role of gender in this work?
For me as a man, it was only when I spent time with just men that I was able to learn how to stop losing myself in women. I was continually defining myself by the concepts of what I thought I was suppose to be, which was largely influenced by what I thought I had to be for the women in my life. I was doing the best that I could with what I was taught and shown by family and society, but it wasn’t until I engaged in men’s work and found my own strength as a man that I was finally able to truly show up for others. And it is why I have a healthy marriage now!
I think it is of the utmost importance for men to have time with men. Of course gender is a social construct, and one that has created severe limitations for all aspects of humanity throughout time. Yet, while it is arbitrary on some levels, I do identify as male and masculine, as do many others in this world, and so it is helpful to spend time with others who identify as the same. Being with men aids me in understanding myself, and from that understanding I can better interact with others from a deeper place of wisdom and compassion.
Does your work touch on non-conforming gender roles? What are tools or approaches that you have found or developed to make a more inclusive and relevant environment for these participants?
Gender identification outside the traditional binary system is something that has been very much in my field of thought for a few years now. I owe much of this growth to marrying my wife, as a number of her friends do not identify in the traditional gender binary system. Honestly, I had a lot of learning to do here, as I grew up in a very traditional binary structure of masculine and feminine and held a lot of judgment toward any concept that didn’t fit that system. However, through these individuals’ willingness to engage me with patience and steadfast teachings my understanding and awareness has expanded greatly.
During some of my conversations with these individuals, who have also now become my good friends, I found myself becoming apologetic for the work that I do. How could I do men’s work and still be open to a non-binary system? The messages I got from these friends were very reassuring: “Please keep doing what you are doing. There are a lot of people who identify as men in the world and we need them to be healthy. Thanks for what you are doing.” It was such a blessing to hear this reassurance as I feel such pride and purpose in my work. And then right after the reassurance came the potent challenges from them: 1) “We also need places where we can feel like we belong as well”, and 2) “What can you do within the men’s contexts you facilitate to help bring about more tolerance and acceptance toward people that don’t identify on the gender binary? How are you going to influence the captive audiences of men that you have?”
Good questions. I know I still have a lot of learning and shifting to do personally when it comes to this issue. I’m not sure how best to engage. I worry about alienating men who similar to myself a few years ago had little understanding and lots of judgment here. And, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to help bring about change. So, for now I am listening and engaging in any dialogue I can around this, and I look forward to meeting these edges in the months and years to come.
What is your hope or vision for the work/field as a whole, what do you see as our learning edges as a community?
One of the sentiments that came out of the Youth Passageways gathering at Ojai in 2014 was encouragement for us all to lean into uniqueness before attempting to find sameness. There certainly is a tendency in society to try and make everyone the same. I want to celebrate my uniqueness, stand strong in my identity, and from that place bridge to what I have in common with others. And at the same time be able to equally celebrate all other individuals’ uniqueness. For me, part of my identity is in being a man. My hope for men’s work, and this community as a whole, is to accept men’s work for what it is – healthy identity formation. When a man knows himself fully and realistically only then can he healthfully interact with others, and thus be of service to his family, friends, workplace and community. For some people due to patriarchic oppression of the past, the idea of empowered men can be quite threatening. My hope for the future is for a reframe of this old oppressive system. Truly empowered men are not dominating or tyrannical, but rather are strong in action and compassion for the betterment of all. And to get there as men, we need structured time with men to learn how to engage in self identity with compassion so we in turn can engage with others in the world in a generative way.