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Doing something small can have a big effect.
I started playing with the Wildcats first in 2015. I played Defensive End. My job is to keep the ball where it is supposed to be. Through hard work I quickly I became one of the leaders in the team. That meant showing up early for practice, staying late and working out as much as I possibly could. I wanted to be as big an asset for the team as possible so I needed to be in a good place to adapt to discomfort and to carry a good attitude on and off the field.
I would volunteer for all activities and the Wildcats had a great program. One day I got a text inviting me to attend the ACWS Leading Change training in Calgary and I leapt at the opportunity. I didn’t really know what to expect but the issue is so topical with people my age.
I heard from so many of my female friends about things which happened to them but which gets brushed over. The training was over three days during the summer in McMahon stadium with some players from the Stampeders and some teachers from different high schools.
One of the exercises I remember best was the ‘Man Box’. We drew a box and everyone offered phrases about what is deemed socially acceptable for a man to do: he can hold his liquor, attract lots of women. Some kind of 1980’s action hero. That’s what a man is supposed to be.
And outside the box would be things that we would call someone who isn’t man enough: ‘bitch’, ‘pussy’, ‘fag’. It was quickly obvious that so many of the names were derogatory terms for women as well as men who didn’t exist inside the ‘man box’.
It was eye opening, how much we malign women. I quickly connected the dots. Then Tuval, the ACWS trainer, came to train the whole Wildcats team. It was a shock for lots of the guys, some people said it made sense and some were just indifferent. For lots of the guys on the team even broaching the topic was leftfield.
But the leaders among the team moved to set a standard, especially for the young players maybe 17 years old who had no experience of this kind of thinking. We built a culture of respect where certain kinds of language was not tolerated: no derogatory terms. The training helped legitimize this culture by providing a framework and giving the leaders a chance to step up. Anyone who wanted to progress on the team was really quick to catch onto this culture.
We built better players, better people and a team full of young men with strength of character and physical strength too.
But for me I wanted to go beyond the team: in to my studies in university too. I remember in my first year in college being out on Whyte Ave in Edmonton. Some friends and I were walking along the alley behind a bar. We heard a guy being very vocal, yelling at a girl he was with. Everyone was walking by thinking ‘Oh, it’s a domestic, let’s leave them alone.’ But I didn’t think it was cool.
I decided to try and give the girl a way out so I walked up him and said “You got the time, man?” that’s all it took –in that split second she shot me a look. I saw relief on her face as she walked away. Who knows what happened after that: maybe he continued to abuse her when they got home. But for that second she was safer. Sure I was a bit embarrassed but how embarrassed does she feel? I realized that stepping up is something anyone can do. Doing something small can have a big effect in the long term. If I left it alone I would regret it later so I might as well do something positive. I think everyone should volunteer to do something small: it doesn’t take much to stand at the watercooler and talk about abuse. If everyone does a bit we can bring change in the right direction.
Zach Chomchuk is a former player on the Edmonton Wildcats and a student in the University of Alberta. He participated in Leading Change training in 2018 and 2019.
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When I was in high school, someone I was very close to was sexually assaulted. Once it felt right to speak about it, I came to realize how pervasive gender-based violence was in our culture. Through conversations with the people around me, I heard stories about relationship violence and abuse, and I realized how much violence occurred in our communities.
I began to understand that this is not a private issue, but an issue for all of us to deal with as a society. I heard and saw a lot of excuses being made for abusive behavior. People say things like ‘boys will be boys.’ When we give permission like that, we are tolerating a society that results in almost 18,000 women and children accessing shelter services in Alberta each year. Instead, we can all be leaders in putting an end to that tolerance. We can step in and support each other when we see violence.
There’s a perception, especially among men, that to be a good friend you support your buddy no matter what his action. There’s a fight in a bar; your friend throws a punch. You should dive right in and start throwing punches, too, right? But we can think about it in another way. Instead of joining the fight, wouldn’t the best thing be to pull your friend out of it? We can do the same when it comes to sexist attitudes, no matter how deeply ingrained in the culture they are.
If your friend is making sexist comments to a server in a restaurant you can ignore them or play along with it – or you could ask them to stop. It is better for the server and it is better for your friend too. That simple act of courage can stop gender-based violence in its tracks by showing the server that you care, and letting your friend know you don’t tolerate sexism. When people do our Leading Change training, we try to support them to come to that realization themselves. I can’t change how you think about the world – only you can do that.
We train players and alumni from the Calgary Stampeders to help us deliver our message in high schools and sports clubs around Alberta. The effect of having a player can be electric. The students all want to talk to them about it in a way that they wouldn’t always listen to me.
We have also worked with teams like the Edmonton Wildcats Junior Football team. Through this work, we’ve seen positive results, and heard encouraging comments from players and coaches. One of the guys on the team told us,
“I want to be part of the solution. Everyone knows someone that has experienced gender-based violence. I know a couple of ladies that it happened to. I’ve seen it happen. One of my close friends was sexually assaulted. The training helped me be more supportive to her. I want to become a leader in this not a bystander.”
When I hear comments like that it makes it all worthwhile. Although the task ahead of us is enormous and changing a culture takes time, we are making progress. In the end, we all benefit from that – that’s how a team works.
Tuval Dinner Nafshi is a Leading Change Community Developer for ACWS. Over the past decade he has facilitated workshops and delivered presentations for thousands of young people, educators and community members on issues relating to sexism, sexual violence, healthy relationships, gender equity and eliminating violence from our lives. Book a Consultation and learn more about how you can lead change.