Monday, June 6, 2016

Building Stronger Children

Michael Di Maria, the International Programs Coordinator at the Lions Clubs Foundation shares his story and talks about his work, his personal story and what he hopes to see in the future through his work on building stronger children for sustainable futures. 

Even as a child growing up an upper middle class neighborhood in suburban Detroit, I had a bit of a global perspective. Not only geographically, but also around human issues. My father being a working class immigrant from Italy helped shape this perspective of being aware of situations beyond my immediate community.

I grew up in a female-dominated household. I have two strong sisters, a mother who has a very strong personality. She was also the financial head of the household. This was very different from the norm in my community. The men were the financial providers and main decision makers. We were different in this sense. I saw a different dynamic. But I did not have anything to compare it to. We were not the norm. I had been sensitized to women’s issues, struggles and even opportunities from a very young age. But because I did not have that comparison model, it confused me and caused some anxiety growing up. My father was kind of the stereotypical old-world European man. He was very hard-working but emotionally quiet and reserved. My mother was the bigger personality.

My first career was in educational publishing as research editor of textbooks; math, science, social studies, biology, economics, and so on. This was a very analytical career of correcting facts and being precise. I was good at it. But my focus did not veer from factual and precise. But global perspective and interest in community moved me down another path. I began working for the Goldin Institute, an international grassroots NGO that works to build community-based solutions for change. I was involved in a Gender-Based Violence project, based in the displacement camps in Haiti after the devastating earthquake, where the number of cases of Gender-Based Violence in these camps was astounding. The approach was not to impose our solutions on them, instead, we wanted to guide them towards their own solutions, based on their collective skills. They started by building a local security platform with men that these women knew and trusted – such as their fathers, brothers and uncles. Most of the instances of Gender-Based Violence occurred at night, when the women used the latrines or fetched water. The simple solution of creating a security platform was the vital behavior. And when the other men saw this they wanted to join the platform as well. We saw that with a team of about 25, in 18 months, what once used to be a rate of a hundred odd cases of sexual violence in a month had become zero. Through this, we also saw that a lot of women who were otherwise not visible or seen, suddenly were visible, seen as influencers and gained access to resources. We also did a digital storytelling project with them where we taught them the use of digital tools – be it audio, video, photography, writing and everything else – to tell their stories of “why I do what I do.” One of the things I learned as an organizer was that it is never right to ask someone else to do what you wouldn’t do, yourself. So if I wanted them to tell their stories, I would have to lead by telling my own story. That helped create the level playing field that helped us all start equally. So I created my own digital story that told my own personal story of dealing with family violence, one that affected my father on a profound level. 

Following my experience at Goldin I began working for Lions Clubs International Foundation, the fundraising and grant making arm of Lions Clubs International Association. LCI is the world’s largest service club organization. It is really a volunteer service organisation at its heart, and the foundation sits within to support our members. The foundation has four main areas of focus  – one being disaster relief where we work around reaching disaster areas with aid the work of our volunteers; sight-saving program where we work to prevent trachoma, low vision support and eyeglass recycling and other screening programs for sight health; a humanitarian dimension where we build schools, work on vaccination drives for measles and rubella for example; and finally, a youth silo in which I work.
Our flagship youth program is called the Lion’s Quest, a PreK-12 social and emotional learning (SEL) program that has seen activity in over 90 countries around the world. SEL provides the foundation for dealing with anger and frustration, preventing negative behaviors, while developing positive behaviors.  It teaches youth self-awareness and self-management, which helps inform and lead to social awareness. After learning social awareness, they become better at managing relationships. The program is entirely based on this, and the idea is to bring the home, community and school together around the child. It fosters character education, social learning, and service learning. This runs parallel to Lions Clubs mission of service. Through SEL youth have the support and temperament to resist drugs and to be open to address issues like fostering gender equality, empathy towards all, and environmental protection. We really believe in expanding the space to say equality for all, irrespective of gender, race, religion, age, and socio-economic status.

We are currently working on a pilot built around our core lessons to foster gender equality in school, home and community in India. We are partnering with gender-equality focused organizations, such as; Breakthrough, the Man Up Campaign, The Independent television Services (ITVS), and Priya’s Shakti to engage youth in schools and the community at large to challenge cultural, societal, and generational norms in regards to gender equality. Social and Emotional Learning will be at the core of this intervention, reaching mixed-gender classrooms so that by learning earlier on, we ensure that youth learn gender equality as a norm rather than the exception.

 I like to draw on a quote by Fredrick Douglas, who said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

The challenges with any change movement are many. But so are the opportunities. Grassroots groups need the buy-in from the decision makers. We need schools, teachers, and administrators to be part of the discussion. We also need political and cultural/tribal leaders to help set the community agenda. It is also most important to have the grassroots buy-in, the boots on the ground. We are heavily volunteer-driven and Lions are proud of that. We know that no movement is sustainable without volunteers.

Another point to keep in mind while working with something that involves changing behaviours, we are shaking up the status quo and the norms. When we shake-up norms, we are essentially taking something away. By changing gender norm for example, we are taking a view or perception away from men, something that might be comfortable to them as they are things that were handed down to them – for instance, patriarchy and male privilege is often a hand-me-down. So when we take away what they are familiar with as a norm, it is very important that we put something back in place of what we take away – and that would be to bring them to the negotiation table, and to present their voices as being integral to shaping the future, because the future involves both men and women, boys and girls, equally

Last year I was in New York for events commemorating International Women’s day.  I spoke at an event about how inequality and violence invariably have an equal impact on society. Violence has a direct impact on the one targeted by the violence or inequality, and a ripple effect on those who are connected with the person targeted. For example, in the 1970s my grandparents owned a petrol station in Coventry England where they lived. They were victims of a random killing spree that left them dead on the ground in front of their station. They were the direct absorbers of the violence. But the ripple effect tore my family apart, especially my father. My father, being expressive, full of life and love, emotionally died that day. I was 5 years old and now had a father that was emotionally dead, and was that way until he physically died when I was 28. That became a sort of a norm for me, emotional blockage. Violence has a ripple effect.

As men, we do face the rough side of patriarchy, too. As I said early on, I lived in a household with a strong mother and two strong sisters. It made us an exception in a community where the norm was the opposite. It was a challenge because I realized that we were different and worried that I would not be accepted among those who adhered to the common norm. So as a young man I had these internal conflicts that created anxiety and tended to make me lash out. It was and sometimes still is hard.

Today, I am a father to two beautiful daughters, and their mother is a very strong and wonderful role model to them I don’t believe it is fair of us to impose our choices for our children on them. As their father, I want my girls to be who they want to be, and to make their choices in life, and go in the direction that strengthens their identity. Just like their mother. Because if they become like her, I will be very happy.