“Uninitiated boys will burn down the village just to feel the heat”.
In 2014, Hunter Johnstone and Jamin Heppell received a $10,000 grant to conduct a wellness program for male students at Frankston High School. Their collaboration produced a workshop they titled The Man Cave, which serves to provide the lessons, resources and support they felt to be lacking in their own high school experience. It was only having left school that they learnt about struggles their peers were having at school. They wished that at school, talking about struggles was normalised but found there wasn’t a safe space.
In 2018, Hunter was a recipient of the Queen’s Young Leader Award which gave him a global presence and significance in Australia.
“There’s no one I would rather lead our organisation, he is such a beautiful cross-section of fierce emotional intelligence, incredible facilitator with a really switched on entrepreneurial mind, this alchemy ability that Hunter has really makes him a memorable person. An organisational value is ‘leave it better than you found it’. That extends beyond physical spaces to relationships, how can we leave every interaction better than we found it? The remodelling from Hunter is that with every interaction is an intention to create growth, intention of expansion and the best possible experience for others.”
The Man Cave has experienced exponential growth in the last two and a half years.
“It’s never been a more confusing time to be a boy growing up. If boys can’t express challenging emotions through their words, then they’re going to internalise it and it will be released in a potentially really destructive way.”
In its own words, The Man Cave is a ‘preventative mental health and emotional intelligence organisation [working] with schools to deliver transformational camps, workshops and keynote presentations that explore healthy masculinity, positive mental health and respectful relationships’:
“It’s not that boys don’t have things going on, or even that they don’t want to talk, it’s generally one of three things: there’s not a space that feels safe enough, there’s not rolemodels to show them how, and they aren’t necessarily given the emotional language to be able to explore their inner world”. In the workshop check-in circle, the boys will generally just say ‘School’s good, footy’s good’ but we know there is so much more below the surface; it’s about building tools in emotional literacy.”
The twenty facilitators at The Man Cave are all dynamic, different versions of masculinity.
“Boys are told to be so many things; [the organisation] wants to make sure we don’t want to take them out of one man box and put them into another, we want to break the sides and enable them to be their most authentic selves, determine who they want to be and then feel supported by their community to be that.”
Facilitators are trained to be excellent communicators, and to create space for boys to open up if they choose. ‘Challenge by Choice’ is a guiding principle of the facilitation, that is, men are not pressured to open up, it is an offering. However, experience has shown The Man Cave that if you role model powerfully and provide tools for emotional language. it’s pretty rare that boys don’t open up.
“Boys can’t be what boys can’t see, what is the environment they’ve grown up in, have they ever been shown an alternative. If they’ve never been shown an alternative, how are you expecting them to be able to know how to do things differently. When we shine a light on different repressed emotions, we are able to catch things before they drift.”
The Man Cave Academy is a training program for educators, parents, youth workers, coaches working with males. The prominent metaphor used in the training is that you can’t force a plant to grow by itself, but what you can do is affect the environment around the plant to make growing a byproduct. As such, when facilitators enter a space, there is a space created where boys feel it is safe to open up and putting some tools and actions in place to be able to continue the work when the workshop concludes.
Dr Arne Rubinstein, a global facilitation and adolescent development expert found that in Indigenous cultures there is a clear journey from childhood to adulthood. This shift in perspective doesn’t really exist in Western society. This absence of formal rites of passage can lead young people to invent rituals (particularly at frat houses, colleges and universities) involving destructive, dangerous, risk taking behaviour. Manager of Facilitator Development at The Man Cave Al Green believes that you need only look around society today to find a lot of boys running around in men’s bodies, many of them in positions of power.
The Man Cave programs are based on Dr Rubinstein’s rites of passage framework. The organisation aims to assist boys through intervening early and accompanying them on the journey to adulthood through storytelling, challenging, and creating a vision for the future. The focus is on breaking down masculine stereotypes, to embody a healthier version of masculinity and then be acknowledged by peers. Acknowledging and honouring each other is important because boys are not usually conditioned to sit in vulnerability, giving and receiving compliments.
Al contends that the organisation is not exploring a new concept, for example in Indigenous cultures around the world, there is really strong men’s and women’s business where gender is really sacred and powerfully explored.
“We’re just starting to scratch the surface of re-finding that ancient wisdom.”
It is important to recognise that the ‘challenge’ or rite of passage is contextual to the community to which an individual belongs. For example, the Massai culture who live on the Serengeti had each fifteen year old boy kill a lion to prove their strength and their ability to protect their community.
While the feedback from the workshops has been overwhelmingly positive, Al is under no illusions. Naturally, when you step into a new space to dismantle an old system and the ‘real man persona’, there is pushback from the old guard:
“There are people who grew up in a very different time and what we are doing feels really radical. They believe opening emotional spaces should happen at home, with families, partners and friends and not as part of education. But the reality, is those conversations aren’t happening at home and this is an opportunity to speak to many boys and young men simultaneously. A 2018 study by Jesuit Social Services entitled ‘The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in Australia’ found that a series of behaviours can’t shift until a group reaches the same consensus at the same time.
For Al, one of the most profound workshop activities is ‘Good Man vs Real Man’ where students brainstorm about the stereotypical real man, ie. you’ve got to harden up, you can’t cry, you’ve got to sleep with lots of girls, you’ve got to get wasted etc and then students reflect on good men in their lives who are kind, courageous, stand up for their family and friends and are loving and are open.
“It’s about realising neither are boxes. One day we might need to be really strong and stoic and not show emotion, but the next day, we should have the ability to relax that mask and be vulnerable, emotional, authentic to people around us.”
The staff at The Man Cave are careful not to position themselves as prophets with the answer; they are on a journey as well. A lot of trust is placed in co-workers within the vibrant organisational culture to be lovingly called out and kept accountable when they make mistakes.
There are certain requirements a school needs to meet in order for a workshop to work effectively. For example, when Al was first a facilitator he was asked to conduct a session next to a basketball court while basketball practice is running, which is not the most conducive to opening an emotional space! It is also helpful to have teachers present whom students look up to, who can be designated as safe people to speak with and the impact is greatest when groups are revisited multiple times. Program delivery is guided by the question, “What’s best for the boys?”..
“Often the most powerful data from the workshop is qualitative, that is, ‘What are they thinking about differently?’ ‘What actions are they going to take moving forward?’ The best feedback is when teachers call and say ‘I’ve been using the language from the workshop and the boys get it and they love it’ because that means we’ve shifted them a few degrees onto a different tangent.”
The Man Cave was evaluated by Ernst and Young in August 2019 who found that the programs had a materially significant impact of the behaviour change of boys:
“The workshops cultivate a deeper knowledge of mental health and wellbeing after one-day, and contribute to the development of meaningful relationships with family and peers.”
There are systemic ways the government could assist programs like The Man Cave, such as dispersion of wealth across schools, and ensuring that the wellbeing officer at schools is someone approachable and relatable for students. Al suggests perhaps normalising and incentivising younger people who are closer to the high school experience to join wellbeing positions.
Secondary schools tend to focus attention on academic success, and we’re seeing so many students leave school without critical life skills and not knowing how to manage their own well-being and support their friends’ experiences.
“There are so many important relationships formed in school that never open up that emotional pathway. We’ve worked with corporates before where we’ve run checkins with people who’ve sat next to each other in the office for fifteen years and they learn more about each other in three minutes checking in emotionally than they have in fifteen years.”
With the exception of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, leaders need to improve their role-modelling of emotional intelligence. To combat the lack of role modelling, Man Cave TV was launched. It is a platform with a mixture of cheeky, authentic and practical video content and resources created for boys to continue their journey after the workshops. The organisation is currently approaching musicians, rappers, artists, gamers YouTubers who can help spread the message of The Man Cave.
Word of mouth referrals are the best form of marketing for The Man Cave, and if supporters in a financial position, they will gratefully accept donations. The most effective way for the public to assist in spreading the message of The Man Cave is to just check in with the boys and men in their life, commit to opening a space and have the one on one conversations.
“I really feel like The Man Cave is onto something quite magic, and we are at a point where the pieces are still falling into place. I’m so impressed and consistently amazed by our culture. One of our pillars is ‘these are the days’, meaning we don’t want to be elderly and in our rocking chairs before we reflect and appreciate life. We want to be present, we’re making a difference, we’re proud of it, and we want to keep doing it for as long as we can.”
The Man Cave wants to see a world where every man has healthy relationships with the people around him, contributes constructively and effectively to the community and knows how to find his place within it, and reaches his full authentic potential.