A Call To Men

Teacher. Thinker. Change-maker. We sat down with Tony Porter to discuss promoting equality, and shifting culture’s point of view through education conversation.

As part of Harry’s on-going social mission, we’re shining a light on some of the charitable organizations we’ve partnered with to share stories from their founders on the importance of progress, and how they’re working to effect change in our communities every day.

A reckoning is upon us.

And while it might seem that the #MeToo moment—the proliferation of women telling the stories of how they were intimidated, harassed, assaulted by men—arrived suddenly, spilling into the open after years of whispered conversations and so-called “open secrets,” the reality is that it is here after decades of hard work by countless individuals, both in public and behind-the-scenes.

One such individual is Tony Porter, the co-founder and CEO of A Call to Men, an organization that for nearly 20 years has been fighting the scourge of violence against women. It does so by raising awareness with men, and teaching them how to be better: How to take responsibility for their actions, how to better understand the experience of women, and perhaps most importantly, how to break through what Porter calls “the privilege of silence”—the bro code that often prevents men from speaking out when they witness acts of sexism both big and small. (The organization’s most recent social-media campaign encouraged men to proclaim #IWILLSPEAKUP.) Harry’s is proud to support this organization as part of our Social Mission, and we will be donating our time and a percentage of our profits to their organization.

Wes Hicks
Tony PorterWes Hicks

For Porter, the wave of recent revelations, while painful, are ultimately a step in the right direction. “For me, having been at this for 20 years, it’s definitely an energetic time, where conversations are being had,” he says. “We are no longer silent. We’re talking. We’re debating. We’re agreeing. We’re disagreeing. To me, that’s a good thing because the privilege of silence has overwhelmed issues of violence against women for far too many years.”

Porter has made fighting that silence his life’s work. He grew up in the Bronx, and joined the Army at 17. “By the time I got out of the military, far too many of my friends that I grew up with were strung out on heroin,” he says. “And then crack-cocaine soon came after. I was fortunate enough to have a different experience. I went on a different path.”

“We are no longer silent. We’re talking. We’re debating. We’re agreeing. We’re disagreeing.”

Inspired in part by this experience, he became a social worker, eventually becoming the director of a drug and alcohol treatment program. He spent this time examining the role of incarceration in drug sale and addiction, which in turn led him to battle systemic racism. This put him in contact with folks fighting sexism, along with many of the other -isms afflicting American life. “In undoing racism, I’m a member of the marginalized group trying to get the dominating group, meaning white folks, to become invested,” he says. “When I started learning more about sexism and male domination, I had the opportunity to do what I was asking white folks to do with racism. As a man, I had the opportunity to become invested, and that really excited me.”

He volunteered at a battery prevention program for about five years, learning firsthand about patriarchy and male domination of women. It was clear that the battle against sexism and sexual assault—nearly one in five American women have been raped at some point in their lives, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—does not belong to women alone. And so he launched A Call to Men, which officially became a not-for-profit in January 2000.

Wes Hicks
Tony PorterWes Hicks

While the organization’s mission is to end violence against women, it begins by teaching men to recognize the more subtle forms of sexism in our daily lives. Take, for example, the oft-used put-down “You throw like a girl.” Here’s how Porter put it in a 2010 TED Talk (which, by the way, GQ later ranked as one of 10 TED Talks every man should see):

“I can remember speaking to a 12-year-old boy, a football player, and I asked him ‘How would you feel if, in front of all the players, your coach told you you were playing like a girl?’ Now I expected him to say something like, ‘I’d be sad,’ ‘I’d be mad,’ ‘I’d be angry,’ or something like that. No, the boy said to me, ‘It would destroy me.’ And I said to myself, ‘God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?’”

Or, as Porter says to me, “We teach our daughters, and try to empower our daughters, to live in a male-dominated society. That’s not promoting equality, though. That’s teaching them how to be successful. Promoting equality is when we teach our sons to be loving, to be respectful, to be invested in the experience of women and girls when sexual conquest is not your goal. To be invested in leadership for women, to be invested in the voice of women. This is the way to promote equality.”

“I said to myself, ‘God, if it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?’”

To help shift the culture’s point of view, Porter and his team bring the conversation to the likes of college and pro sports teams, leading corporations and the U.S. military, and the classroom. These conversations aren’t easy, but his unique background—as both a veteran and a person who speaks fluent intersectionality—helps him connect with audiences from, as he puts it, “the barbershop to the boardroom.”

Wes Hicks
Tony PorterWes Hicks

“Our experience with men has been very, very loving and respectful—even in circles of men that we would call alpha men,” he says. “Because it’s the way we choose to be with them. If you’re going to be vulnerable, and you’re going to be respectful, and you’re going to be transparent, you’re creating [a] space that—while they [alpha men] would not use the words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘safe’ in [relation] to themselves—you still have to create a vulnerable, safe space. And if you do all of that, our experience by and large has been men will join you.”

The organization also reaches out to younger audience. One recent example is LiveRespect, a free curriculum available for middle and high school students. When the organization launched it as a pilot program, it found that, prior to taking the course, only 19% of boys could define consent. Following the program, 75% could. That level of understanding, which often isn’t taught in the home, can make a world of difference in these young students’ future.

“I believe that everything we’re experiencing right now, in this moment, are all signs of progress.”

Asked what progress he’s made since he launched A Call to Men two decades ago, Porter returns to our #MeToo moment. “I believe that everything we’re experiencing right now, in this moment, are all signs of progress,” Porter says. “I could go back 20 years ago, and I would not be talking with a pro football, pro baseball, pro basketball, pro hockey team. We work at colleges all across the country—that would never happen 20 years ago. We have corporate contracts—that would have never happened. I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of work to do—we have a tremendous amount of work to do. But my belief is: The fact that we’re here, having this conversation, is progress.” Something tells us Porter is just getting started…

Learn more about A Call to Men.