“Where is Columbus?” the young male athlete said, looking at his coach.
“Who?” responded his coach, baffled by who Columbus was and why all these guys were asking about him.
“You know, that girl who came in and talked to us. Where she at? She coming back?”
The coach was confused by the bizarre nickname but he knew exactly who he was talking about.
“Oh. You mean, Alexis. No, she already took a flight home. But why are y’all calling her Columbus?” Coach asked.
The athlete laughed, “Yo. Cuz she showed us a world we didn’t know existed.” He caught the ball and got back to doing his football drills.
Apparently, I’m being called Columbus behind my back. I’m OK with it. It could cer- tainly be worse. There is an irony to a girl waltzing into a locker room, surrounded by alpha males and talking to them about manhood. However, that has become my full-time job—reminding men of the importance of respecting us women. This was not always how I made my bread and butter. In fact, it was quite literally the opposite. I founded I AM THAT GIRL, a nonprofit with the sole purpose of reminding girls that they are awesome. I wrote a book. I spoke all over the planet. It is not only the mission of the organization; it is a searing truth inside my personal life’s journey.
Then I got a phone call. I didn’t know it then but that call would change my life. I was asked to give a talk to the 18 most influential high school quarterbacks in the country for an ESPNU TV show called Elite 11—get this—“about the importance of respecting girls and women.” Taking into account that I had to create a completely new talk, for a completely new audience, and that it was going to be filmed on national television, I did what any self respecting professional would: I used my friend’s wedding as the perfect excuse. “I’d love to, but I can’t because of my travel schedule.” But inevitably, I was flown out three days later to Nike headquarters in Portland.
That. Talk. Changed. My. Life. As I sat there in the room with all men—with past and present NFL players, with executives from ESPN and Nike—I saw the possibility for REAL change.
It dawned on me that for the past 10 years, I had only been preaching to “half of the sky,” and the treatment of women is no longer a women’s issue or a women’s movement, it is a HUMAN movement. We just forgot to include the other half of humanity.
I looked out at that audience of men and said, “Most people think that you are the problem; I just so happen to think that you are the cure.” Little did I know that a week later everything with Ray Rice and the infamous video footage of him knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator would be leaked. Suddenly, having just been THAT GIRL in the locker room talking to boys about better treatment of women turned me into the face of male empowerment. I still laugh at that irony.
Now here’s what I believe: There is a predilection inside male DNA to protect people; it’s why every little boy under the age of 10 wants to be a superhero.
They aren’t alone. Women are also poorly influenced. Our self-esteem often comes from an unrealistic, unattainable, impossible standard of “beauty.” This “self-worth epidemic” is a human issue, not a sex issue. We’re taught to be “pretty” and they are taught to “bang girls” and tragically those two lies fuel an unhealthy cycle.
The ESPN show aired and suddenly I was hired to speak to boys in locker rooms all over the country. When I speak, I have a black and white slide with this fact: “One in four girls will be sexually assaulted on your college campus.” Eyes glaze over with the expression of “Really?! I gotta listen to a chick lecture me right now? I’m tired. I have class. I have afternoon practice. I have … ” I click to the next slide and say, “But what happens when it’s her?” Little do they know that with access to social media, I have pulled pictures of their girlfriends, their sisters, their friends, their moms. They are staring at a stranger’s presentation recognizing and loving the faces looking back at them. Their eyes quickly come back into focus and suddenly this topic is real. Suddenly, this isn’t a stat anymore. Suddenly, it matters to them and I officially have their full attention.
Not enough of them have been spoken to this way, and not enough of them have heard the message that we want to trust them to help us. The truth is, I’d be ticked off if I were them. I’d also be insulted if I were the majority of men who don’t hurt, rape, insult or disrespect women and I was lumped into the small percentage of men who do. Because, having traveled all over the country, not talking at, but listening to young men share their insecurities, their wounds and their vulnerability, I am witnessing first hand that we have a generation of boys who desperately want to be respectful, compassionate, confident men.
But how do you become what you can’t see? In order to give respect and treat people with dignity, you have to first believe you are worthy of it, and so many young men don’t. Sadly, with the lack of strong, positive role models, so many boys simply haven’t been taught what respect looks like in the first place. With youth consuming over 10 hours of media a day that overtly objectifies and blatantly disrespects women, young men are doing exactly what they have been programmed to do. I am certainly not excusing any of the poor behavior splatter-painted as headline news, but I don’t think that we as a society take a responsibly for them, and therein lies the problem and, simultaneously, the possibility for change.
There are infinite social causes appropriately capturing our attention, but much like Martin Luther King Jr.’s understanding of the pervasiveness of cancerous racism deteriorating the fabric of our humanity, so is the poor treatment of women a reflec- tion of our society’s lost moral compass. We all have a mother and a grandmother. Many of us have sisters, girlfriends, nieces and aunts. This affects us all, and, I audaciously think, may single-handedly be the lynchpin to the future of our humanity.
I’m the first person who owes guys an apology. In my cavalier pursuit to “empower girls and change the world” I drove off and forgot half of my team. I AM THAT GIRL still stands for its mission of empowering girls. However, I am now building a new movement, a new brand, a new world with a new vision called ProtectHer. My mission is simple: to redefine manhood and to inspire men everywhere to better respect and protect the girls and women in their lives and on our planet. My goal is for our digital curriculum to be integrated into every high school in the country. Every middle school. Every elementary school. Every university. Every professional locker room. Every prison. Every military base. And even when we’ve achieved that, it will still be just the beginning.
What I have learned over a decade in the activism space is that real change takes a holistic approach to how and what impacts social behavior. Education is one slice of the pie. But so are legislation and fashion, entertainment, business and major corporate brands. I’m grateful that campaigns exist like “It’s on Us,” “No More” and #HeforShe; I think they are important to highlight the problem. However, ProtectHer is an attempt at a solution because it’s an idea, and ideas have a way of changing the whole world. ProtectHer is a reminder to us all—not just men—because girls need to better protect themselves as well as each other. It is not just about raising consciousness for women, it is about inviting men into the conversation, asking them to lean in and sit up at this table.
Call me Columbus, but I have seen a world in which men and women are both taught that their inherent self worth is not found in external consumption but internally, that they are taught to respect one another and to protect one another. I may not see the whole staircase, but Dr. King reminds us all that faith is taking the first step in spite of it.
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