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Hunter Johnson models vulnerability
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Hunter Johnson models vulnerability
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Hunter Johnson models vulnerability
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Conversations
3 June 2019

Hunter Johnson models vulnerability

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Hilary Walker

Nathan Scolaro on meeting Hunter Johnson

Some of the most courageous work we can do in our communities is to start new conversations about what it means to be a man. We’ve seen how the long-told narrative that men need to bury their feelings and have it all figured out has been destructive on many levels, and yet we still find ourselves—usually unknowingly—repeating sentiments that reinforce it. The Man Cave, founded by Hunter Johnson and his mates Jamin Heppell and Benton Saulo, is working directly with boys and young men to redefine their ideas of masculinity and ultimately shape the broader culture, so that men can stand in their truth with openness, vulnerability and mutual responsibility.

Since its beginnings in 2004, The Man Cave has engaged more than 25,000 young men across Australia, giving them opportunities to confront their social conditioning and connect with a deeper part of themselves. Hunter works with his facilitators to create safe and non-judgemental spaces in which the boys can take off their masks and feel seen and heard by their peers—often for the first time. The program has gained traction around the world. In 2018, Hunter was named one of the Queen’s Young Leaders, a Commonwealth-wide initiative which honours young people doing extraordinary work in their communities. When he accepted the award at Buckingham Palace, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle said they’d wished the work was around when they were young.

Personable and engaging, sensitive and self-aware, Hunter models the kind of masculinity that he talks about: the kind that we need to heal so much of our current social and systemic dysfunction. He observes that this work isn’t about rejecting the masculine altogether, it’s about acknowledging wholeness—the feminine and the masculine that exists within each one of us—and how certain traits can become destructive when they’re not in balance with others, or given their full expression. After chatting with him for an hour, I felt present to a new wave of leadership, and positive that the deep work of culture change was not only possible, but happening.

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

NATHAN SCOLARO: Maybe begin by telling us a bit about where the Man Cave is at right now.

HUNTER JOHNSON: For sure. We’ve been working on training up and sending relatable and charismatic young male facilitators into high schools. Guys who are really diverse in their backgrounds, from your classic Melbourne hipster to salt-of-the-earth country bloke to a former child soldier. And as you know it’s a very interesting time for masculinity. We’re getting lots of people coming to us, saying, “I had no idea this existed. I wish this was around when I was younger.” So at the moment we’re growing at a decent rate, focusing on our impact with communities instead of just scaling for the sake of it, and training our facilitators who can relate to the wide range of young men in communities across the country.

And what does the training that you do with the facilitators look like?

So collectively, our team has worked with about 50,000 young people across Australia now and about 10,000 specifically through The Man Cave. And we’ve been able to identify the different things that work well in holding space, understand the archetypes in a room, the power dynamics, the behaviours. So we’ve created this blueprint for them to fast-track their facilitation abilities, based on what we’ve observed. Then we have monthly meet-ups and also quarterly retreats which are very experiential and that’s where the real rites of passage work comes in. Our facilitators have always got their journals at workshops, so afterwards they’re reflecting on what they did well, what they didn’t do well. We encourage internal reviews as much as possible as a way of learning. So

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

we’ve created this model which is really just about working with and understanding the human condition, and creating space to care for these teenage boys who often haven’t known it’s possible to talk, or had the language to talk or the permission.

Is the essence of the facilitation any different to what it might be working with adult men, or even women?

There are certain nuances that definitely resonate more with boys. We ran a program in Bendigo recently with over 100 year nine boys and year nine girls. And the emotional difference between the girls and the boys was huge. The girls were engaging, articulate and good at challenging ideas, whereas the boys sat there and didn’t really know what to do. We decided to split them for a session and just have a discussion. We asked them, “What are the pressures that your gender feels that impacts your ability to be your authentic self?” For the young women it was the stuff we knew: “If I speak up I’m bitchy or I’m bossy. The boys always take up space and they don’t even say the right things. And they shut us down.” And the boys were like, “I just get told I’m a pussy or I’m gay if I’m not acting a certain way, if I’m not manly.” We then asked them to write down the pressures on Post-It notes, and when we got them back together the boys would read out the girls’ and vice versa. And even then the boys were so stuck in their own experience whereas the young women could empathise with the challenges of the boys. So I think there are slight differences with how you facilitate genders, especially with men and at a younger age. There are very clear archetypes that you’re going to encounter in a classroom setting, like the classic jock who is looking for power and who probably also feels very trapped in that identity. We were in this school in Lilydale recently and there was this kid we were told to look out for. As soon as we walked in, he yelled out “Gaaaaay!” I stopped the program and said to him, “I reckon you’ve got a bit of a reputation.” And he said, “Maybe.” And I go, “I reckon that reputation serves you sometimes. I reckon you get a bit out of it; a bit of social power, people probably don’t mess with you.” And he was like, “Maybe.” I go, “But I also reckon you feel trapped by that. I reckon you get unfairly judged, I reckon you get sent out all the time, I reckon you actually really want to be mates with people but you don’t know how to let them in.”

Wow. That’s really big for him to hear.

Yeah. And I said, “But I also know guys like you have enormous leadership potential. And today I’m going to give you an invitation to explore that. In fact, who’d like to see this side of him?” Nearly 50 hands went up in the air. What ended up happening over the course of the day was that this boy started to open up about his story. His dad suicided a year before and he started getting into some arguments with his mum. This lead him down a path of drugs, homelessness, rehabilitation, 10 pills a day prescribed by doctors, and he’s just returned to school to get his education back. He’s sitting next to boys who haven’t hit puberty. Right? So as he opens up and starts talking about this, he just transforms because he finally feels understood. And I throw it open to the other boys: “What are you getting from this?” And they’re like, “Fuck, I thought he was a dickhead.” And I asked them, “What’s there for you now?” And they go, “Unbelievable resilience. Like I don’t know how I would deal with that. I thought my life was hard.” Then the next session one of the boys was sharing about how he was struggling with his parents’ divorce and this boy goes, “I just want to say something. I want to give an acknowledgement to this kid because it’s so hard to be in your emotions. And I know that from experience.” For me, that’s real leadership and a transformed young man.

And so the work you do in these sessions is essentially getting young people to share their story, and the deeper parts of their story?

Yeah, what I would say is we create a space where young men can take off the mask they wear every day and for the first time understand themselves and realise that their experiences are widely shared. Some guys in our program have said, “He’s been my best mate for seven years and I’ve just learned more about him in the last 30 minutes.” It’s typical for boys to sit in banter and trade in banter, so we help them experience other people, and we give them practical skills that they’ll actually use in their lives, like how to hold space for their mates to talk about real things. You know,

there’s a lot of discussion about encouraging people to speak up about their problems, but there is very little discussion, or skill transfer, about how to support our peers and hold space for them when they do open up.

If you’ve got a best mate who shares something with you, and you have the ability to just listen and be with them in that moment, that’s special. Some people don’t want to be fixed, they just want to be heard, right? And if we can start cultivating that with young men, there is so much that can open up. We talk about it like a glass bottle of emotion, every time you feel rejection, loneliness, guilt, pressure, shame, it’s putting these rocks in this bottle. And eventually, if we don’t learn to take the lid off that, what’s going to happen? It’s going to explode. All we need to do is look at the violence statistics and mental health statistics. If we can start creating the space to let a bit of that out, our young men will be better, their relationships will be better, their communities will be better.

This is the work that I’m doing and learning now as a 33-year-old. So the fact that these boys have access to this is really a game changer.

I agree. The design of the program is very much getting them to feel safe and become enrolled in the importance of this work, not just for them but their relationships too. That also comes from the vulnerability of the facilitators, just opening up a little often gives permission for others to do the same.

A lot of these guys haven’t seen men open their hearts.

And you never quite know when someone will begin dropping into a deeper place within themselves. Sometimes it might be in the beginning of a workshop or it might be in the final session where a boy’s been silent all day and he stands up and reads really powerfully about the man he wants to become. It depends on the program we’re running as to the level of intimacy and sharing that goes on. I think the honesty can take place in different ways. So

a lot of them haven’t experienced that real magic moment where someone opens up and time stops. The fascinating thing about authenticity is it often changes the particles in the room and people lean in.

We run an activity called, “Good Man, Real Man,” where we get the boys to answer on Post-It notes, “What does it mean to be a good man?” Usually it’s, “To be honest, to be kind, to be courageous.” Then we go, “Okay, what does it mean to be a real man? What are you seeing around you, what are the pressures you’re feeling? What’s actually in your world?” And we’ve got thousands of responses now, very interesting, things like: “Have a big dick, don’t be gay, don’t be a virgin, crack a cold one with the boys, be buff, just deal with shit, facial hair,” all this stuff. And they’re laughing their heads off. ’Cause we read them out. I go, “But in all seriousness, what’s going on here?” They’ll say, “Well we know what we’re supposed to be but if we look at what’s actually going on, it’s different.” So I’ll say, “Who’s ever felt pressure to be any of these things before?” Fifty hands go up. And they’re like, “Whoa” as they look around and recognise they are not alone. For the first time they question their social conditioning. And someone will always put their hand up and go, “You know what? I get called ‘gay.’” Another one’s like, “I’ve been dealing with my sexuality. And when I hear ‘that’s so gay’ in the playground, it ‘others’ me.” We’ll go, “Okay, in that moment, who knew he felt this?” All hands are down. “Do you mind just sharing the impact of that on you?” And he’s like, “I don’t want to come to school. I feel like I can’t be my full self.” So I’ll ask the rest of the group, “Okay. I’m going to throw it out to you guys. Who’s ever said that word around him? And you’re not going to be in trouble, I just want to know.” Hands go up and then they stand up and apologise to him for what they specifically said. They’ll acknowledge the impact on him and the different behaviour they are committed to going forward. So that’s like conflict resolution, it’s stepping outside the behaviours of being a bully. A lot of these boys just get trapped in that identity and don’t know how to get out. And if you can create a space where we’re not moralising or shaming boys for their behaviours and attitudes, they can then explore this stuff and engage with their mates about it and it changes the trajectory of their lives. Our facilitators know how to gently build respect into the space so the boys get value out of this. They feel held and safe, but also challenged in a way where they know it’s for their benefit.

I’d love to hear now how you came into this work. What drew you to it initially and what that journey has been like. I mean, maybe even your earliest moment of understanding the complexities of gender?

My earliest memory of this was actually my first bike, a pink Power Rangers bike. I remember riding at Centennial Park in Sydney and a bunch of boys started paying me out. ’Cause they had black Mongoose bicycles and I had this pink Power Rangers bike, amazing tassels on the side and a great basket up front. I remember just being mortified when they started saying things. First experience of shame and ostracisation out of the group, right? I remember riding it over to Mum’s and throwing it on the ground. I was like, “Never riding that again.” She’s like, “You love that bike.” And I’m like, “Pink Power Rangers is a girl’s bike. Not going to happen.” That’s the policing that goes on from the first few years of life, where we tell boys to man up, don’t cry, don’t be a pussy, don’t be gay. I also went to a private boys’ school in Sydney where I saw things go really well at times and loved it. But I also felt like there was a lot of social policing around our culture and reflecting on it now, I didn’t know how to deal with it. And I do think a lot of guys wanted a different narrative but there just wasn’t one at the time. I was pretty lucky to have family values to guide me. I tried to rebel against those for as long as possible until it eventually caught up. [Laughs]. There was a moment for me when I was 14 and on MSN Messenger where I read a comment from a friend that said, “No one likes Hunter anyway.” I was absolutely gutted. But actually I thought to myself, Well if no one likes me, and if I don’t even like how I’m being, I may as well start being myself.

Brilliant!

Yeah. And I had a good foundation. Mum’s been a working woman all my life. Dad’s a psychologist. And my step-parents are fantastic supporters. “Be who you are” was always there for us. It just really landed I guess when I was 14 and has taken me a number of years to muster up the courage to live into.

So self-awareness and awareness of the dissonance in the culture, and what was being asked of men in particular, is what’s helped you step into this work?

Yeah. I think my personality is very people-driven. Connection and people is probably the thing that inspires me most. Meaningful relationships. So it was gradually getting the courage to give myself permission to follow that path. I moved from Sydney to Melbourne about six years ago and a big part of that has been curating and creating a new community. And part of that has been loneliness. I think when I’ve been lonely in my life, and there are many times I’ve been lonely, it gives me an access into myself that I don’t see when I’m just in flow and doing things. When I’m lonely I find it actually allows me also to deepen my levels of self-awareness, reevaluate my current situation and also empathise with people who are going through stuff themselves. And mentors have just been unbelievable for me. Creating a personal advisory board for my life.

What is that process?

Usually it’s people who intimidate me, that’s the criteria.

“This feels uncomfortable…”

Yeah, but “I just really respect you.” Like I had a meeting with a guy today who I am in unbelievable awe of. And I was nervous and fumbling and I just said to him at the end of our meeting, “Hey, everything aside, I actually just have such respect for you personally, professionally.”

And the experience of being vulnerable and stepping into authentic self, what else does that look like for you? Where have been the moments where you’ve been challenged to show up? It’s not easy for us to do it all the time, and I think there’s a degree of bravery in actually saying, “I don’t want to do this but I know it’s better for me and it’s better for the people around me that I do.” Does anything come to mind?

I’ve got one that’s incredibly present right now. A few of my close mates are getting married and I’ve been asked to be best man. At their bucks parties the plan is to have strippers. I had to have a conversation with some of the guys organising the bucks to say that if there were strippers I couldn’t attend. What came up in those conversations was like, “Oh mate no one’s going to film it, don’t worry,” and I’m like, “That’s not it.” And everything in my identity was like, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I just being a dickhead? Am I being elitist?” And I’m like, “No, if I take all that away, this is me just true to who I am.” The teachable moment for me here is that I want to give my mates a meaningful experience of what a bucks can be outside of your classic “get pissed, embarrass the buck and and see strippers” event—something that’s powerful and meaningful and a rite of passage that can set my mates off into the trajectory of an incredible marriage. So that’s a little business idea I’ve got: a meaningful bucks party!

I think that could be one of the most rebellious acts out there!

Yeah! What was interesting was like four guys pulled me aside and said, “Mate, I don’t actually want them there either.”

How do you think about how we got here? In terms of this culture of masculinity that seems super limiting. I imagine you’re thinking about this a lot.

Yeah all the time. I think that we’re in flux for masculinity. We have MeToo. Donald Trump as a world leader. Barnaby Joyce in Australia. Six Aussie men taking their life every day. Suicide’s the biggest killer of young men. One woman killed every week from family violence. What’s the common denominator here? It’s these particular behaviours and attitudes that men are told to exhibit. There are also all kinds of pressures in advertising, Netflix, social media, big brands infiltrating our world with these unhealthy ideals of masculinity.

In our work it’s not about about telling men to throw away their masculine traits. It’s about getting boys to explore more of their humanity,

and instead of demonising the feminine—“Don’t be gay, don’t be nurturing and soft and emotional”—welcome it. It’s a muscle that we need to develop. In one of our Man Cave Mondays men’s groups, which is for guys aged 18 to 35, we give men Post-It notes and say, “We’re going to give you a chance to write a question or topic you’ve always wanted to discuss, or something you’ve always wanted someone to ask. We’ll put it in the middle, completely anonymous and we’ll lean in one by one and read them out. And we’ll talk to it based on our life experiences.” It’s fascinating. Guys going, “I just proposed to my fiancée and I’m really worried and nervous about being in a monogamous relationship.” Or, “I’ve just declared bankruptcy. I’m fucking petrified.” To guys going, “I’m questioning my sexuality and my identity. No one knows this.” And, “I’m having issues in the bedroom.” And then guys go, “Oh, I’ve had that situation before,” and they’ll talk from their own experience. So there’s no philosophising or advising people, just sharing from their own experience. The really interesting thing is we’ve kept all those Post-It notes. And they are the inner lives of these men and what they are really dealing with, often by themselves. What we see is a lot of these guys don’t have the space or permission to talk about this intimate stuff. Or maybe they’ll wait ’til they have a few beers or a couple of drugs, whatever it may be.

What I’ve also noticed with some men in my life who do eventually get there, even if it’s through alcohol, talking about their emotions, they’re being quite clear with what the difficulty of their experience is, they get to a real place, and very quick they’ll be like, “But it’s all good. I’m all good.”

Yeah. Sometimes we feel pressure to save the awkwardness of the tough stuff we’ve just shared.

And it all gets swept away. We had this great, raw conversation and then, “But actually it’s okay,” and you’re back to where you start. It’s allowing men to feel comfortable in not being comfortable.

You know it’s tough for these guys too, right? Because they’ve grown up being told, “Toughen up, show no emotion, be a certain way,” and now they’re being told, “Jump off and be more vulnerable. Share more often.” It’s bloody hard to confront everything you’ve grown up identifying with. And I think that’s where real courage comes in. I do find that sometimes with my old mates, I can sense that they don’t know how to be with me when I share. What’s safe is banter and talking about stories from the weekend ’cause that’s what we do. That’s how we connect, right? And you don’t want to bring the group down because you know guys don’t get together too much as it is. So it’s courage to be able to hold that.

And so let’s keep exploring what healthy masculinity looks like. We hear a lot about toxic masculinity. What does the masculine in its full thriving form look like in your opinion?

We’re in an exciting time as a society in that we’re seeing the feminine making a very powerful rise. But because the feminine’s making a rise doesn’t mean that masculinity loses. If you look at the yin and the yang, which is what we’re all striving for, that beautiful balance, it’s not one or the other. It’s actually the intersection. I bring my feminine qualities to work every single day. They didn’t come naturally from my social conditioning but chances are I was probably an exceptionally kind and emotional and sensitive boy. Then I learned in order to survive in my social structure that I needed to act in a certain way. And what we see is that we trade our authenticity for attachment. So as a young child we are authentic in some way shape or form, that then gets shut down for various reasons, and so in order to survive, we go, “How do I behave in order to be with the group and get attachment?” If you’re lucky enough to have an environment where you can cultivate your self-awareness, then part of the journey is reclaiming the kid that got lost.

Yeah, I really believe that.

Me too. And once you can do that, you recognise your past has nothing to do with your future, that you can create your future to be whatever you want it to be irrespective of your past experiences. And instead of the stories we’ve created in our past running you, you can run that story. So to your point, I think

the characteristics of healthy masculinity are characteristics of a flourishing human being. They’re kind, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, can be strong, can be stoic. Can risk-take and be bold, for positive action.

That said, there are days when I’m like, “Fuck, I need to hold this together and keep my mask on and deal with this.” And it’s still a continued battle for me, you know, the next day to go, “I know I’ve got emotion in me right now. And to get this out, that’s tough.” Then when you open, it’s being able to sit in that. Some of these boys in our programs start opening up and are like, “I feel free for the first time. But also this is so unfamiliar.”

“And what do I do with this?”

“And what do I do with this?” And it’s like, “Cool man, everything is okay, it’s just a muscle that you learn to gain control over.” I also think the role of elders is so important. For the sharing of experience and learning. Arne Rubinstein said to me once, “The role of the elder is to create the space for the glorious mistakes of the young.” And I can tell when I’ve been in the presence of the elders: I feel held. There’s a patience there.

Actually that’s the work you’re doing. You’re cultivating young people to be elders.

A generation of elders, yeah.

So how do you see this work evolving? Are you always responding to it in the moment or do you have visions for it?

Well the thing for us is impact first and scale second. So we want to make sure that the community group or the school that we’re working with have multiple touch-points. With their parents and their teachers. Because some schools contact us and want us to come in and fix masculinity with a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation. And it just doesn’t work like that. This takes time, which is challenging in a world that’s fast-paced, that’s about the short-term wins. But we’ve done no direct marketing ever and had hundreds of schools across the world come to us, from Asian countries, US, UK, New Zealand, which is a testament to our team and the integrity and professionalism of our programs…

But how are they finding out about it?

There was the award from the Queen which was a big platform for us, and Prince Harry is a big supporter of our work. When his mum passed away he went through his own mental health challenges.

And he talked about that in context of your work?

Yep. Yeah.

Oh wow. Okay.

And he actually shared that in Dubbo, country town where my step-mum’s from actually. It’s like a classic salt-of-the-earth Australian town. And he opened up about that on his recent trip. But then the other side of it is Meghan Markle who’s a big ambassador for gender equality and sees this work as an important part of the male voice in gender equality. So that definitely pushed us into the global sphere. I think as well, how do we get these conversations in the mainstream? Because we know there’s a lot of men’s work out there that really gets to the heart of spirituality, which is important and absolutely resonates for a lot of people. But a majority of people don’t identify with that conversation.

So talk to me about the difference there?

There’s a number of organisations who do initiation work with men and sitting in circle. But a majority of men aren’t found in these contexts, they are at the pub chewing the fat with their mates. Or at the footy club. How do we influence these communities? It’s about being able to tap into the spirituality space but then bring it to the mainstream. Not letting it get lost in, “Oh that’s a bit hippy.” I also think spirituality potentially has been pushed into the feminine basket, right? Like, my grandfather just passed away recently. Amazing man. And he was in the Presbyterian church. That was his model of community and being of service, and at his funeral one of the ministers said, “Harry represented what the church ought to be.” Essence of spirituality, of purpose, of service.

Mm.

And I’m like, “How do we get an update of that?” Because civic engagement as we know has completely dropped. There is amazing data about how when civic engagement and going to your local church, your synagogue, your mosque, your town hall, your RSL, your local club, whatever it may be, drops, community engagement drops and isolation increases. Right? And we are social creatures.

We’re part of the collective, it’s how we have evolved to survive. When we’re connected and exposed to different role models they give us different models and views of the world.

Now our young people are getting that on their phones from social media, from Netflix, whatever it may be. So how do we start bringing that back? This is what Small Giants do so well, Dumbo Feather do so well, bringing back a sense of community in a busy world. And particularly for men, we know that loneliness is the number one killer for them. Loneliness is often a precedent to anxiety, depression and suicide; the lack of social connection. A lot of data’s coming out now that the cause of depression isn’t the chemical imbalance—that’s just something the pharmaceutical companies have told us. Actually, it’s grieving. It’s a period of grief. When we’re told to take medication, anti-depressants, it may not allow the body to deal with the grief. That grief could be a loss of connection to self, connection to meaningful relationships, meaningful work, nature, nourishing food. There’s an amazing author, Johann Hari, who wrote Lost Connections and he talks about the opposite of addiction being connection. He tells this story of giving rats heroin. One of the rat’s water has heroin in it, and the other was just straight water. The rat who drinks the heroin will get addicted to the heroin and die after about 30 days. And they were like, “See? Heroin’s a bad and addictive drug, it’ll kill you.” But then, what they later revealed is that when they put more rats into that environment, the rats didn’t get addicted to the heroin. The social connection there with the other rats is strong enough to prevent it.

Holy shit! Wow.

So the connection overruns the addiction. And if you look at our culture, we create these situations where we are the rats sitting in our houses or places of work by ourselves tapped into our devices feeling like that hit of dopamine or serotonin is given to us, and we don’t have experience in intimacy. If we come back to the data, the common denominator of what’s causing a lot of hurt and pain in this world is men causing harm. Harm to themselves, their relationship, their communities. So if we can work with boys at a preventative level, focus on their strengths rather than their deficits, and develop their interpersonal skills, social connection, and give them skills and knowledge to navigate their teenage years, I think the world would be a much better place for everyone.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Hilary Walker

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