2018-02-02 / Front Page

Cape Elizabeth hosts #MeToo dialogue

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — In the midst of the national #MeToo movement, and in recognition of the fact that sexual assault, harassment and misconduct is not limited to the recent phenomenon outing the powerful and famous – that hostile, misogynistic actions happen around us every day, in ways large and small – a group of concerned Cape Elizabeth residents have found an innovative way to combat the issue.

They actually sat down and talked about it.

About 40 people attended a community dialogue on the subject Jan. 25 at the United Methodist Church on Ocean House Road. The event was sponsored by Cape Diversity Coalition, a group formed in 2016 in the wake of a racial incident involving youngsters in the crowd at a football game. Group members wanted a way to model better behavior, to create a more welcoming community and to make certain that acts of aggression, physical or emotional, against anyone, based on perceived weakness or minority status, are actions that never become normalized in Cape Elizabeth.

“We felt like the moment was right with the MeToo movement to really talk about how we can change our own community so a movement like this is not necessary,” said coalition member Jim Sparks, a clinical psychologist in Portland.

The hope was that by providing a forum for discussion, in which people could share their experiences and observations, it might come to light just how prevalent such inappropriate behavior against woman is – that by simply acknowledging the existence of the issue, by hauling them out of the dark and into the light, the societal process can begin of eradicating those ugly urges.

The evening began by screening a February 2013 TEDTalk given by Jackson Katz, an educator, filmmaker, author and cultural theorist. That presentation, entitled, “Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue,” proves that the issue of gender violence did not simply rise up out of nothing within the last few months. As Katz points out, it has been an insidious and pervasive attitude for as long as human society has existed, and, he stresses, labeling it a “women’s issue” tends to give men tacit permission to disregard the issue as not their problem so long as they, themselves, are acting appropriately.

“We need more men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff and standing with women, not against them, and pretending that this is somehow a battle between the sexes and other kinds of nonsense. We live in the world together,” Katz said during the 10-minute presentation.

Attendees at the forum then broke into smaller groups to share their experiences.

“Many of the people who experience the kind of harassment we are seeing is similar to those experiencing domestic abuse,” said Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of Family Crisis Services in Portland, the domestic violence resource center for Cumberland County. “They feel fearful. They feel isolated. They are intimidated. There is that whole power control dynamic.”

“We wanted to start this dialogue where we can start to think about the kind of community we want to have in terms of safety, gender and equity,” Hobbs said. “This evening was about starting that dialogue. There is a kind of momentum created by the #MeToo movement and it fits with everything the diversity collation has been taking about in terms of equity and fairness and safety.”

Family Crisis Services is in the process of changing its name in March to Through These Doors, in hopes of better cementing in the minds of the public that the service does not exist only for families with young children, or only for people in the midst of an active crisis. It is a resource for all people, at all times, if they are experiencing the kinds of issues highlighted by #MeToo issues.

“This movement has people speaking out in ways they never have before, sharing experiences in their past, and finding that there is so much commonality there. What we have been seeing, these are not isolated acts,” Hobbs said.

According to Hobbs, calls for help placed to Family Crisis Services were on the rise even before the rise of the #MeToo movement, up 17.2 percent, from 2,900 in the services fiscal year that ended in September 2016 to 3,400 at the end of September 2017.

But even given that increase, the greater part of acts against woman go unreported, Hobbs said. The #MeToo movement has empowered people, she said, to speak up even when they only observe a hostile act, not when they are the victim of it.

“I think the idea of this issue is not just reaching out to people who are themselves victims, but asking ourselves as community partners and members, what can we do to help keep our communities safe. For years and years we’ve put the onus on the victim,” Hobbs said. “I think we are finally starting to acknowledge that the victim is often in the last place to work for their own safety. But if all of us together pay attention, if we overhear these kinds of behavior and we challenge, we interfere, we interrupt instances of negative stereotypes in our daily lives. If we can change attitudes and beliefs, then we can change the trajectory of this issue.

“It’s really about seeing things and speaking up, being direct and talking to people when they do and say things, rather than turning them in,” Hobbs said. “It’s like not allowing someone to bully someone else. It’s very similar.”

Cape Diversity member Maureen Clancy, who works with the multicultural population in Portland schools, said the #MeToo movement shares issues in common with all marginalized groups, in how best to approach the topic.

“It’s important that we really believe these things when we hear them, and that we really listen, and try to understand and make change,” she said. “One thing that struck me in the group discussion I was a part of, which always does with issues like this, is hearing from the youth. Maybe I forget what it was like to be that age, but it surprises me and also moves me to hear the experiences kids have had with these issues already. We really need to be talking to our kids about these subjects.”

Cape resident Cherie Gustafson is not a member of the diversity coalition, but said she wanted to attend the event as parent of a 9-year-old daughter and a 13-yearold son.

“I wanted to come to get some ideas for how to start having conversations about these issues with my children that are developmentally appropriate,” she said.

Interestingly, Gustafson said, it is her teen son who has expressed the greater interest in the issue.

“One thing that has stood out for me from this event is that it is just as important to talk to my son about these issues as it is my daughter,” Gustafson said. “This is not a women’s issue, it is a men’s issue. That’s my greatest takeaway.”

The people in her discussion group included parents like herself, Gustafson said, as well as a mixture of community leaders, victims of male aggression, and those merely curious about the #MeToo movement.

“In the larger scope we were talking about how we are so glad these conversation are happening, even though there can be a sense of hopelessness that we are realizing just how much objectification of women there is in our society,” Gustafson said. “But it is as important to ask questions as to offer solutions.

“One of the big discussions in our group was, can you think of time when you didn’t step up, when you didn’t say anything, and can you think of a way now that you would approach that,” Gustafson said. “So, our group talked less about personal situations, but objectification of women in music and television, and the movies, as well as everyday conversation – in everything from being dismissive of women, acting as if they are somehow something less then a man by saying things like, ‘You run like a girl,’ to how part of the job description for a woman on the news be that she is hot and sexy.

“So we talked about how to think about and model better critical thinking of these types of things all around us,” Gustafson said.

Two other attendees have been fighting those attitudes for years, proving the solutions, as well as the problems, are not new to the area.

Tom Crane is president and Jamie Brookes a board member of Maine Boys to Men, founded in 1998 to help boys grow into emotionally healthy, respectful, nonviolent men, by confronting narrow gender assumptions that severely limit men and women.

“We empower boys and men to stand up as allies with girls and women in support of gender justice and to end gender based violence,” Crane said after the event. “I wanted to be here to represent Boys to Men, but having done so, I’m now so glad I came, just for myself. It has been a very worthwhile, valuable experience, just talking to like-minded people who really care.

Like Gustafson, Crane said his discussion group started out being, “almost kind of depressed,” by the issue, just from how much the issue has been in the news, making people aware of just how pervasive to problem has become.

“But then there was a woman in my group who said she was actually relieved that all of this is finally coming to the forefront in a way that is fostering dialogues like this,” Crane said. “So, it was interesting to hear the different perspectives on this, which is really what these dialogues were all about enabling, I think.

“Men and woman experience things differently. Being aware of that makes every day an education and this is all about building awareness,” Crane said.

“There is some pushback among men I know against the #MeToo movement, from those who say it is not that big a problem as its being made out to be, or that it unfairly vilifies all men,” Brookes said. “That’s a reasonable debate. But fundamentally, it’s about recognizing the problem, and the question is, what are we going to do about it. So, this all fits in well with and adds a dimension to what we do at Boys to Men, trying to get to the root of things where boys develop into men.

“It is that stage where opinions and values and ideas formulate and take root,” Brookes said. “So, anything we can do, including events like this, to get the discussion going and to foster leadership of young people among their peers – to say respect is important, disrespect is not OK. Events like this benefit everybody by saying we just need to be decent human beings to each other. It can really make a difference.”

“It is great that there are so many organizations that are out there talking about these issues now,” Crane said. “It’s a little sad that they are needed, but all we really need to do is make sure we are not working at crossed purposes to one another.”

The Cape Diversity event was followed by a school-wide assembly Jan. 26 at Cape Elizabeth High School on the topic. Principal Jeff Shedd said the event, which was closed to the public, featured a panel discussion with high school staff and outside experts, including representatives from Family Crisis Services and Maine Boys to Men, as well as Lee Ann Dodge, director of the SoPo Unite-All Ages in Community Coalition.

“The goal is to be able to talk about it, making it safe to have the conversation and reinforce appropriate behavior,” Shedd said. “Really it’s about empowering people to feel safe and acknowledge the issue and help our staff understand how it is an issue our students are facing.

“With kids reading so much about it in the media, in sports and entertainment, as an educational institution, not to say something about it is saying something unintentionally,” Shedd said.

Moving forward, the Cape Diversity Coalition hopes to sponsor similar programs.

“Ideally, something like this involves a more profound change of consciousness, so my hope is to have a continuing set of dialogues and conversations,” Sparks said.

“A lot of times, you only get one piece, but at this event we got to hear, listen and talk, and bring it home. So, I hope we get more of that,” Clancy said.

Notice of future events will be posted to the Cape Diversity Coalition’s Facebook page, online at facebook.com/capestrong.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached news@inthesentry.com.

FMI

Resources for anyone interested in or needing help with issues of violence, objectification, or cultural oppression again women.

Cape Diversity Coalition: facebook.com/capestrong

Family Crisis Services: (800) 537-6066

Maine Boys to Men: (207) 774-9994

Portland Center of Restorative Justice: 400-4755

Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine: 828- 1035

SoPo Unite-All Ages in Community coalition: facebook.com/SoPoUnite

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