When Asher Klaven was a senior in high school, he heard a friend casually call a girl a bitch.
That’s not an uncommon high school experience. But it stands out in Klaven’s memory because this time, he worked up the courage to challenge his friend.
“Why did you say that?” Klaven asked.
His question led to a productive discussion, and today, the two are best friends. It was the beginning of a relationship built on vulnerability, Klaven said.
Klaven had been empowered to confront sexist jokes and remarks as a member of the MENS (Men Encouraging Nonviolent Strength) club at Madison West High School.
Now, thanks to a $68,000 grant from 100 Men of Dane County, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) will be able to expand the MENS program to help high school and middle school boys engage in healthy masculinity in the hopes of preventing intimate partner violence.
The MENS program started in 2004 and addresses conflict resolution, gender norms and relationships. The number of clubs has “ebbed and flowed” over the years, said Shannon Barry, DAIS executive director, but DAIS has recently been trying to “really expand the effort.”
Klaven, now 25, came to MENS because a friend invited him, but he wasn’t sure what to expect. That day, the group was watching the film “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity.”
“As a 15-year-old, it just really made an impact on me, because I realized, wow, I’ve been told to act a certain way my entire life and I don’t have to do that,” Klaven said.
MENS provides a unique space for teenagers to be vulnerable, Klaven said: “it’s an incredible forum that’s not available normally to high school boys.”
They discussed boundaries and consent. They presented what they learned at middle schools, talking about healthy teen relationships, gender roles and sexism with younger boys.
DAIS has surveyed participants of the program and found “significant outcomes,” among MENS participants, like “becoming much more active as bystanders,” Barry said.
“I have become more aware of the privilege I hold and I am more thoughtful towards relationships and gender equality,” read a comment from a recent year-end evaluation.
“I have really been opened to how many of my minor actions in everyday life affect others,” read another.
A few years ago, a teacher was about to walk into a computer lab when the teacher heard one young man make a comment about a picture of a woman online, Barry said. His classmate said, “Hey, I really don’t want to hear you talking about women like that.”
The offender pushed back: “You’re just saying that because we talk about that in MENS club.”
But so did the classmate: “Think about how that impacts the women in your life.”
They didn’t know there was an adult listening, Barry said. They had internalized the message, leading to “a really productive and healthy confrontation.”
The MENS club at La Follette even launched a #LancersUnited social media campaign within the school after noticing an escalation of bullying towards students of color.
“This program started as an intimate violence prevention program, but it’s really expanded far beyond that,” Barry said, with the La Follette club acting to “stand up for each other and not tolerate hatred and violence and bullying language toward any of our community.”
The program currently runs at East, West, Memorial and La Follette high schools, Prairie Phoenix Academy, Vera Court Neighborhood Center and Wisconsin Youth Company. The grant from 100 Men of Dane County will support current MENS clubs and help launch three new clubs that are “in the pipeline” Barry said.
100 Men of Dane County is a nonprofit that began in 2018. It’s building a membership of 100 men to donate $1,000 quarterly for a charity voted on by all the members. For this quarter, the organization (which was at 68 members and is growing) chose DAIS to receive $68,000.
While DAIS is known mostly for their shelter for families escaping abusive situations, that represents the extreme intervention end of their services, Barry said. MENS is on the other end of the spectrum: prevention.
“When it comes to any kind of public health issue … prevention is always the better choice,” Barry said.
Apart from everything else, it’s cheaper. DAIS has seven core programs, but the shelter takes up half the budget, Barry said. She said the challenge with prevention is proving that programs are working and getting funding.
That’s why she’s so grateful for support from organizations like the Cremer Foundation, a longtime supporter of the program, and 100 Men.
“It can be so difficult sometimes for men to understand how they can plug into this work, and to see 100 Men really step up and be fully in on this program … we just really appreciate how supportive they are,” Barry said.
“It just felt like there need to be more men that stood behind an issue that’s presented as predominantly a women’s issue,” said Ryan Behling, a founding board member of 100 Men of Dane county.
For Klaven, the effects of his participation in MENS are far-reaching. Today, he volunteers with another DAIS group, Power of One, which aims to create male allies against domestic abuse and organizes discussions and community events like an upcoming “Standing Tall Against Abuse” fundraiser at Rockhound Brewing Company.
“I felt like this is not something I can afford to stop doing; it’s too important,” Klaven said.