Mankind in Lawrence
Men interested in the ManKind Project can go to "Introduction to Men's Work" at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.
Mark Zwahl is tired of men making lame excuses for not being responsible - such as being late to dates.
"If I choose to meet you and I'm 15 minutes late, the consequences, they're not huge, but the consequences are that you won't trust me as much," the Lawrence resident says. "What's the message that I'm probably sending? Well, I'm sending a message that you're pretty far down my priority list. We say one thing and do something else."
These are the sorts of priorities Zwahl deals with as part of the ManKind Project, which has a chapter in Lawrence and has created controversy in other parts of the country.
The project is an international nonprofit educational and training organization for men. More than 30,000 men from at least nine countries have completed the group's initiation weekends, called the New Warrior Training Adventure, according to the program's Web site, www.mkp.org.
Charles Gruber, a Lawrence resident and the center director for the Kansas City area, says 300 men from a region including Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City and Wichita have completed the initiation weekends with the group. There are 100 active regional members - including 18 in Lawrence.
Lawrence's 18 members are split between two "Integration Groups" - or "I Groups" - that meet weekly.
Generally, members extend personal invitations to join the group. But as it seeks to become more visible, Gruber and Zwahl, the "leader body" for the Lawrence group, will lead an "Introduction to Men's Work" program at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.
Gruber says the group deals with issues of parenting, finances and, generally, how to be a better man. For Zwahl, this means taking responsibility over his own life - his relationships, feelings and emotions.
"In some ways what we do is somewhat of a departure from ordinary life. That's the point," Zwahl says. "There are some things that are missing in our culture, and I like to think that the men's work we do adds something back in that is really valuable, that is otherwise missing."
Becoming a man
Men who want to become involved with the local ManKind Project and the men's work group must first be initiated during a weekend event at a camp near Parkville, Mo.
The initiation weekend costs $675 per person, though Gruber says payment plans and scholarships can be available.
"The weekend is a portal to the community," says Gruber, who went through his New Warrior Training Adventure in 2003. "Now there are many boys and men who have never been honored in their transition from being a boy to becoming a man. And we try to fill that gap."
The ManKind Project and its members are secretive about what happens during the initiation weekends. Participants sign a confidentiality agreement as part of pre-weekend paperwork that includes a standard injury waiver. Gruber says the confidentiality agreement works in two ways. He says it protects the identities of the men involved as well as the experience of the weekend, which he says could be destroyed without the mystique.
Zwahl says the weekend is meant to be a challenge, and those interested in initiation should be prepared for a tough time emotionally and physically.
"It's not a spa," Zwahl says. "I didn't have a clue. I was all ready for a little bit of conference stuff during the day and (to) lay back in my cabin and read a book at night. I didn't know they were going to keep me busy the whole (darn) time. That's why we make sure people know it's an initiation and not a conference workshop."
Making that distinction clearer has become more important to the group after a 2005 incident in Texas. Michael Scinto committed suicide after attending an initiation weekend.
Scinto had been struggling with alcohol and cocaine abuse and claimed the weekend unearthed a traumatic childhood memory, according to a 2007 Houston Press article. The suit against the Houston chapter of the group is pending.
"There was a tragic incident where a man committed suicide two-and-a-half weeks after he went through his NWTA weekend," says Gruber, adding Scinto needed outside help for his problems. "I have since talked to the men who ran that weekend, and (the claims in the suit about the weekend) were just ugly, perverted, twisted lies."
Zwahl, a former volunteer grief counselor with Headquarters Crisis Center, 211 E. Eighth St., says as a result of the Scinto case, he and other group leaders are more careful in screening men for the initiation weekend.
"We're going to try to screen out somebody who is significantly troubled or depressed or seems to be in a really fragile time in their life," Zwahl says. "And that's going to be a crapshoot, just like any kind of screening would be."
Zwahl says "becoming a man" is more about psychology and less about morphing into a stoic John Wayne-type character.
"For men especially, culturally, stereotypically, we're encouraged not to show our emotions. 'Boys don't cry.' 'Buck up, be a man,'" Zwahl says. "The phrase 'be a man' means tough it out and don't show your emotions. That's dangerous because those emotions are there, we bottle them up and, quite frankly, they come out anyway."
To work on showing emotion, Zwahl says that as the men meet in their weekly I Groups they are as honest as possible - even when it comes to each other.
"Sitting in a circle of men who are being 100 percent honest with each other is a pretty rare event," Zwahl says.
The involvement in the group has been important to Zwahl, who got involved with men's work in 1990 and the ManKind Project in 2004.
"Men aren't particularly good at looking for help, let alone ask for it," Zwahl says. "You see the uphill battle we've got? We have a men's organization that involves men helping men and the convention of the culture is that men don't ask for help. For me at least, but I know for some men, it has been a real life-changing event."