Six senior students lined up in front of Darcy Poquette’s AVID/TOPs class at La Follette High School, ready to speak about standing in solidarity with marginalized communities.
They all held handwritten signs with a message of support for groups including black women, LGBTQ people and undocumented immigrants. Each of the signs included the hashtag, #LancersUnited.
This was just one presentation of many that the school's MENS club made to their peers throughout the semester.
The purpose of the MENS club, which stands for Men Encouraging Nonviolent Strength, is to get young men in high school to discuss conflict resolution, healthy relationships and societal expectations around gender norms. Domestic Abuse Intervention Services facilitates the program at La Follette and other sites across the city, including West High School and the Kennedy Heights and Goodman community centers.
Joshua Smith said #LancersUnited grew out of the urge to bring what the MENS club was doing to the broader La Follette community.
“We wanted to get more awareness that we have a voice. Hopefully people start feeling more comfortable speaking out,” Smith said.
On his sign, Smith wrote that he stands for Muslims and other religious minorities.
“(Muslims) are often blamed for a lot of problems in the world. When we think of terrorism, we automatically associate it with the whole group instead of an individual,” he said. ”We shouldn’t categorize them into one group.”
DAIS began working with La Follette four years ago. Many of the students, now seniors, joined MENS as freshmen and they’ve formed a brotherhood.
“Everyone is a family now, we’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Trey Simmons.
An aspiring film producer, Simmons was one of the first students at La Follette to join MENS and has documented their experience along the way.
“I really wanted to start recording so people can see our point of view,” he said.
Some of the topics the group covers are harder than others, but the rapport that the young men have developed with one another allow them to maturely tackle difficult subjects and challenge some of their long-held views. Simmons believes that the change happened over time, and said he and his peers have focused on developing their world view over the years.
“We’ve covered some emotional topics, but now that we’ve grown so much as a group, we can go to a topic again, share what we’ve said and be more open about it,” he said.
Although MENS has a set curriculum, the club also provides a general space for participants to speak openly and honestly about difficulties they encounter at home or in school.
“Some men think they are too cool to cry sometimes,” said Miles Jordan. “We talk about being one with your emotions. Ain’t nothing wrong with being you.”
The opportunity to talk also propelled Gregory Williams to join the club. “I was going through a lot of stuff and finding myself. I saw my friends going so I thought I’d go to get some things off of my chest. Since then, we’ve created a bond,” Williams said.
Even four years later, Williams said MENS is still a reprieve from the demands of senior year.
“We know we have something positive coming on Thursdays. If the week goes bad, we know ‘Thursday, I’m going to get this off my chest.’ You leave feeling positive,” he said.
Some of the young men said the group has helped to keep them out of trouble and shift some negative expectations people carried about them when they were younger.
“I was always looked at as a bad kid until my freshman year when I started with this group,” said Pierre Ruffin. He credits MENS with helping to develop his leadership on the football field and outside of the classroom.
In addition to MENS and playing on the La Follette football team, Ruffin participates in community service.
“I’m that kid that’s changed a lot. I do a lot for my community and a lot for my people,” he said.