Involving all genders in gender equality: a conversation with Jason Tan De Bibiana of Next Gen Men

Leading up to International Women's Day on March 8th, Women in Global Health wanted to highlight how gender equality affects everyone and it is beneficial to all for us to achieve it within global health leadership. Along this thinking, Women in Global Health set out to interview a few Male Champions on their views on gender equality and how they are addressing it within their own networks. Jason Tan De Bibiana is co-founder and Program Coordinator of Next Gen Men, a Canadian youth-led, nonprofit organization focused on building better men through youth and peer engagement, education, and empowerment. You can learn more about Next Gen Men through their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Read on to see our conversation with Jason Tan De Bibiana.

[Women in Global Health]: In what ways have you noticed gender inequality at the leadership level during your career in global health?

[Jason]: Although only part of my career has been in global health, I think it’s safe to say that inequality, based on gender and other factors, continues to exist and persist in all fields and workplace settings, especially at the leadership level. I’ve become a bit more aware of this in recent years, and when I am considering organizations to partner with or work with now, I definitely try and evaluate what their values and practices are around addressing longstanding inequities.

[Women in Global Health]: How did you get involved in work addressing gender equality? Was there a specific reason that pushed you into this field?

[Jason]: The short answer is that I became really interested in how society’s ideas about gender and masculinity continue to impact men’s health and wellbeing, and how we relate to our peers and people of other genders.

The longer answer is that when I started graduate school in Vancouver, Canada, my friend invited me to come check out a youth sexual health organization and I ended up volunteering with them for as a peer educator and facilitator for the next few years. We went all over the city teaching sex education to young people in high schools and community settings. It was a lot of fun -- lots of hormonal teenagers, lots of condom demonstrations. What was really interesting for me was that within our team, I was one of the few cis-gendered, heterosexual males. From those experiences, I learned a lot about gender and sexual identity and diversity.

From Vancouver, I went to Jamaica for six months to facilitate sex-ed and reproductive health programs with the YMCA. I mostly worked with boys and youth, within the YMCA’s school and youth programs. My time with these groups, as well being immersed in a different culture and society, really highlighted the pressures and expectations around gender and masculinity and how they influence our identity, our attitudes, and our actions.

A little while after I came back home to Toronto, Canada, my friends and I heard about a sexual health education program called ‘WiseGuyz’ in Calgary that was pretty unique -- it was specifically for guys in junior high school, it was led by relatable male facilitators from outside of the school, and it focused on challenging stereotypes about masculinity. Inspired by this, we put together a pitch for our own initiative called ‘Next Gen Men’ and entered it into the Movember Foundation’s Canadian Men’s Health and Innovation Challenge. From a field of 140+ submissions, we were ranked in the top 15 and got our start-up funding for the next two years!

From the original seed of an idea in 2014 to run a sex-ed program for boys and young men, Next Gen Men has grown into an emerging, youth-led, nonprofit organization and a vehicle for us to role model healthy masculinities and promote gender equality, diversity, and inclusion with youth and our peers.

[Women in Global Health]: How have you been involved in addressing inequality in your work?

[Jason]: Based on our experience working with boys and young men, we have been developing programming that we can bring to workplaces and organizations to engage men in addressing gender inequalities. We’re really interested in focusing on male-dominated industries and professions, but we do hope to find ways to address inequality in many different fields, including global health.

[Women in Global Health]: What do you do to get people around you interested in working with gender equality? (ie in your workplace, personal life, etc.)

[Jason]: With Next Gen Men, our after-school youth program for boys and young men in grades 7 and 8 has been going strong for the past 2+ years. In each of the schools that we partner with, we get 10 weeks with our groups to facilitate activities, games, and discussions that explore concepts of masculinity and challenge gender roles and stereotypes, develop leadership skills, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, and build skills for taking care of our health and supporting others, among other goals and objectives. We started in two schools, and now we’re going to be in 15 schools across the Greater Toronto Area.

Over the past year, we launched an adult program in Calgary and Toronto that creates space for the conversations that men don’t traditionally have (e.g. body image, sex and consent, stress and mental health, and other topics that are related to gender and masculinity) and over the coming year, we are developing new programs for workplaces and other organizations.

I also moved to New York City over the past year and have been contributing to the work of UN Women and the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development’s Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality to support other youth-led gender equality initiatives. And I’m still a research and evaluation nerd -- I recently joined a research team looking at gender issues more locally.

In my personal life… it’s an ongoing journey to learn and unlearn about all these issues and put them into practice!

[Women in Global Health]: Where do you see opportunities to improve the inequality? Are there strategies you’ve seen implemented or used yourself that have helped?

[Jason]: We started Next Gen Men’s youth programs with 12-14 year-old guys, because this is a critical age during which our opinions, ideas, and beliefs about gender and many other concepts are being shaped by our peers and other influences.

Unfortunately, gender inequalities persist at all different ages and in all types of different settings, so there really are opportunities everywhere to address gender inequalities. When we started Next Gen Men, we knew from our experiences, and started hearing from lots of guys our age and older, that they wished they could have been part of something like our youth program when they were younger. This is what inspired our adult program, and now our programming for workplaces and organizations.

There are definitely a couple key strategies and principles that we’ve learned through our experience over the past few years, and from many organizations, experts, and mentors who have been involved in this work much longer than us:

  • We use a gender-transformative approach. This means that we challenge gender norms and stereotypes and address gender inequities.

  • We promote the idea that gender equality is good for everyone! We discuss how norms and stereotypes are harmful to people of all genders, including boys and men.

  • We meet everyone where they are at. We understand that every group, and individuals within those groups, are different, and everyone has a different level of readiness to learn about gender equality and take action.

  • We build peer support. It’s not always easy being the only person who is willing to stand up against bullying, discrimination, or violence. We work with groups from different classrooms, grades, and communities and encourage them support each other outside of the time we’re in program together.

[Women in Global Health]: Solving inequality requires an ‘all hands on deck’ response, we need all genders to address and engage in the issue. Therefore, what role do you think men can play in addressing this inequality?

[Jason]: This is a great question! I definitely agree that we need people of all genders (and generations) to get involved in solving gender inequality.

Feminist activists and women’s movements have been doing this work forever, so it’s not to say that men are going to come in and solve everything. However, men do have an important responsibility and role to play, because we are the most privileged group when it comes to gender. That’s the unfortunate and unfair reality of our patriarchal societies.

As a starting point, we want men to recognize this reality, understand that it is unfair, and then actually and actively do something about it. In terms of doing something about it, we often come back to this quote from soultired on Tumblr:

“Men who want to be feminist allies do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space that they have in society and make it feminist.”

This helps us focus on understanding what ‘space’ we have and how we can use it to better engage our peers.

[Women in Global Health]: From a societal perspective, what changes and adaptations do you think are necessary to highlight this issue and address it as a community?

[Jason]: I think societal change starts with all of us as individual people listening to each other, sharing our stories, and communicating our values to build power together. We have to build enough power to reach those who have the power in our societies, but I think that’s where it starts.

From there, we can create programs and services that serve the needs of our communities, we can update the curriculum that we teach in schools, we can change the narratives that dominate the media, we can improve organizational hiring practices, we create new government policies… and all the other changes that we know will be good for addressing inequalities at the community, institutional, and societal level. But I think it all starts from the values that we have as individuals, making up our societies.

[Women in Global Health]: What advice do you have for young men regarding gender equality and moving forward?

[Jason]: My first message to young men is that gender equality is not just a women’s issue! It’s an issue that affects everyone and it should be your issue too.

My other advice is to keep an open mind and be willing to make mistakes, learn some new ideas, and have your old ideas challenged.

We urgently need you to get involved in addressing gender inequalities, but we also need you to take the time to understand your reasons for getting involved and make sure you’re contributing in a good way.

[Women in Global Health]: In your opinion, how will we reach gender equality?

[Jason]: I’m cautiously optimistic because I have already seen that there is way more acceptance and support for gender equality among younger generations, including among young men, then when I was growing up. Obviously this doesn’t just happen naturally -- it’s the result of the current and previous generations fighting for these gains and the next generation building on. But, it’s encouraging. At the same time, I know that we are not moving anywhere close to fast enough to reach gender equality in many different ways. There is a lot of work to do, and I think everyone has an opportunity and a role to play in accelerating progress towards gender equality, through their different spheres of influence, with their unique talents and skills.

The other thing that we have to keep in mind, is that our efforts to reach gender equality must be intersectional and equitable. We cannot address sexism and misogyny separately from transphobia, homophobia, racism, classism, ableism and all other forms of oppression, and we have to make sure that we are addressing the needs of those who are most marginalized, instead of widening the gaps that currently exist.

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