Ch.1 What came before…

The first in a series on Mens Wellbeing’s history, researched by Rod Smith.

Beginnings

It is reasonable to assume that what is currently known as Mens Wellbeing Inc had its beginnings with the Brisbane Men’s Festival held at Mt Glorious in October 1992.

Early activity

However, it is quite pertinent and intriguing is to consider what was taking place in relation to men’s work in the Brisbane region that prompted this event to take place. Such activity could well be considered foundational for what was to come.

Many men had been undertaking various avenues of personal growth work which, no doubt, led them to become interested in the emerging arena of men’s work.

Sydney Men’s Festival.

The Sydney Men’s Festival (SMF) is the first and oldest formal men’s organisation in Australia. It was formed in 1983 by Men Opposing Patriarchy (MOP) and in 1984 changed its name to SMF. It has played a significant role in the development of the men’s movement in Australia. SMF was a week-long event in late January at the Minto Bush Camp, in Sydney’s south-west, on the banks of the Georges River. The site was formerly owned by the Communist Party of Australia and was subsequently administered by Tranby Aboriginal College. Paul Whyte was one of the founding members of SMF also serving as secretary of the Sydney Men’s Network linking various men’s groups around the city.

Relevant to Queensland is that various men from Brisbane and environs had been attending the annual Sydney Men’s Festival (SMF) during the latter 1980s.

Re-Creating Masculinity

This program was instigated in 1989 by Mal McCouat, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Queensland. Mal undertook a sabbatical in Vancouver Mal became involved in men’s work. When subsequently in private practice in Brisbane he devised an 8-week course called “Re-Creating Masculinity” drawing from men’s own experiences as boys and men. The framework set out in his chapter “Working With Defences Against Vulnerability” in the 2001 book Working With Men In The Human Services. Some seven or so men participated initially. There were about two programs a year through to the mid-1990s. One participant, Ronno Heard, recalls:

I learnt to be more comfortable in sharing feelings and learnt about the issues of the men’s movement. The course involved both feeling and thinking.

At the conclusion of the last course a core group, including Mal, wished to continue and the Annerley Tribe of Men (ATOM) was constituted meeting at Mal’s professional rooms in Stones Corner. Participants included David King, Michael Yelland, Robert Ah Hoon, Don Gibson, Jeremy Ward, Ron Heard and Mal. Some men from ATOM are continuing to meet in current times as the West End Men’s Group.

Wildman Weekends

In late 1991, Kerry Davison and John Shepherd staged a Wildman Weekend at Aratula in the Scenic Rim region.

Brisbane Men’s Equity Network

Tony Verner recalls:

There were ongoing links with other men’s-oriented groups in Brisbane. An umbrella organisation called Brisbane Men’s Equity Network operated for some time and included, at various stages, John Shepherd’s Co-Counselling group, Mal McCouat’s groups and a Quaker’s men’s group.

Journeymen’s Group

In 1991, after attending a John Bradshaw video session called “Where Are You Father?”, Tom Laffan and Tony Lillicrap reached out to other men to address this topic and related matters. Ultimately a regular group ensued with meetings at the Brisbane Central Primary School in Spring Hill. In a short time Tony moved on and Tom continued on his mission of supporting men under the banner of Journeymen’s Group.

Journeyman suggests a man who has knowledge and skills, yet is open to learning new ways based on experience. A Journeyman has moved beyond the Apprentice or beginner stage, but is not yet a Master Craftsman. He is on a journey to find a better way of life.

It was publicised as a non-profit, non-denominational, self-help group for men to promote honest, open communication between its members – during and outside of meetings. The meeting format was simple, the rules few and the purpose was to create an environment where men may:

  • Talk openly and honestly about themselves by expressing their innermost thoughts, feelings and emotions.
  • Tell their own story, free of interruption, criticism, ridicule or judgement.
  • Listen and support other men as they tell their story
  • Develop deep relationships with men.
  • Discover more of who they really are.

Operating as an open group, over time many men passed through the fortnightly meetings including Peter Rohan, Trevor Ozanne, Arthur Bricknell, William McGurk and Prem Pravas.

Tom continued with the group for about ten years during which time he initiated another three Journeymen groups is various parts of Brisbane.

Brisbane Men’s Group

BMG met every two weeks rotating between member’s houses, to share a meal, share what was happening in their lives, and also engage in a workshop given by one of the men. Tony Verner noted:

The quality of open-heartedness and genuineness of those 5 or 6 guys divulging their personal and professional hopes and fears, their vulnerabilities and life difficulties. Here was a different ambiance in male to male relationships compared to what I had experienced before. It was about trying to be as fully present as possible, with the heart as well as with the head …. And a quality of “no-bullshit” that can make male company so special.

Tony further recalls:

A major highlight early in 1992 was a weekend away at Coochiemudlo Island where Trevor Ozanne, Tony Groom, and Ken Drew, amongst others, joined the others in a weekend of exciting experimentation with different ways of being. There was a spirit of breaking new ground, of spontaneity, of non-conventionality, of inspiration, of being “pioneers “.

Other men involved in BMG included Eoin Meades, Russell Iffland, Kerry Davison, Paul Wildman and Yaro Starak.

Men Against Sexual Assault- MASA

MASA was a pro-feminist group that originated in Sydney and was the main initiator of the pro-feminist men’s movement in Australia. It got underway in Brisbane in 1991 with a broad aim to encourage men of all backgrounds to begin taking responsibility for, and action against, the assault of women and children.

Men At The Edge – MATE

The men’s group MATE commenced early in 1991 on the Gold Coast. Ross Buckley along with Gary Phillips had been members of a men’s group in Connecticut (USA) in 1989-90. They both found themselves on the Gold Coast in 1991 and teamed up with Haken Sandgren to found MATE. The group took a while to build, but typically would attract between twelve and fifteen men to the fortnightly meetings and became a huge source of support and enjoyment to all those who regularly attended. Meetings were held in a member’s home and on occasion with a fire on the beach. Other members included Graham Smith, Dudley Nichols, John Bolger and Ken Vesperman. They continued to meet fortnightly for four years.

Suncoast Male Emotions Resource Initiative – SMERI

A group of men and women from a variety of backgrounds and an underlying interest in men’s wellbeing first met in September 1991 following a request from Maroochydore Police to “do something different” for men in crisis and trauma. The outcome was to establish an organisation to meet the emotional needs of males on the Sunshine Coast.

SMERI was officially launched in April 1992 as an independent community initiative, providing a diverse range of services to assist males to resolve disputes and emotional issues without recourse to control and power. It set out to promote respect and co-operation between men and women. Non-separatism was a basic tenet of the organisation.

SMERI’s mission was to:

  • Provide confidential, continuing services appropriate to the needs of males seeking social, economic or emotional support.
  • Give males options and choices for their personal growth, development and change
  • Help males arrive at workable solutions to their economic/social difficulties and emotional distress
  • Ensure voluntary access to a friendly, supporting forum for sharing mutual hopes, fears and problems with others in similar situations
  • Assist other community organisations with advice and support in common problem areas

The initial public activity was the establishment of a telephone counselling service for men – arguably the first such service in Australia. Training of the male telephone counsellors was conducted in-house by skilled trainers with Lifeline background and experience. Each on-line counsellor had the phone diverted to his phone for the overnight shift (6.00pm to 6.00am) and had a female back-up or referral person to assist with any difficulties and debriefing.

Helping men to resolve disputes and emotional issues without recourse to power over and control of others.

Further activity included individual counselling, men’s support groups, courses and workshops, participation in public events to raise the profile, seek support and funding. Three days of Suicide Awareness Seminars with a renowned Lifeline expert/author and auspice of the first Sunshine Coast Men’s Festival were significant undertakings.

A further Police request saw the placement of an unpaid support worker at the coalface in the Maroochydore Domestic Violence Court on a weekly basis to provide information, support and counselling for men appearing in court.

The telephone service continued for more than five years and assisted many along the way.

Foundation members were Willie Clarke, Lou (Louise) Hogg, Trudy Owens, Heather Page, Carolyn Dean, Richard Giles and Rod Smith. Additions along the way included John Brinnand, Warren Kuskopf and Tony Clunies-Ross (QuAC).

It was a certain sense of honest innocence and willingness to be of service that brought together a diverse group of people to be pioneers, acting on a wing and a prayer to provide assistance where it was needed.

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