GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, becoming wise - how we get wisdom, how we share it and how we hold onto it - or don't.
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RAZ: Tony, did you think of yourself, like, when you were a younger man, as a wise person?
TONY PORTER: No. I was a smart kid.
RAZ: Tony Porter grew up between the Bronx and Harlem in New York City.
PORTER: I was a - you know what? Maybe, in my own way, I was wise because I was able to be a part of a lot that was going on, while at the same time always conscious of not going in too deep - always conscious of - it's like my mom. She was always in the back of my head.
For about a year, I was involved in street gangs. And I can remember going to a gang fight. And guys were just getting pumped up, slapping sticks on the ground and chains on the ground - things like that. And I would be doing that. But while I was doing that, in the back of my mind, I was saying, man, if your mother could see you right now.
So it always stopped me from crossing certain lines. I don't know if I would call that wisdom. But it helped me to still be here today and to do the things I do today.
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RAZ: Tony Porter is in his late 50s. And he heads an organization dedicated to combating violence against women. And growing up the way he did left him with this idea - that preventing violence against women isn't possible until we completely rethink what it means to be a man. Here's Tony Porter on the TED stage.
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PORTER: Growing up as a boy, we was taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating - no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger, and definitely no fear - that men are in charge, which means that women are not - that men lead.
And you should just follow and just do what we say - that men are superior. Women are inferior - that men are strong. Women are weak. I've later come to know that to be the collective socialization of men, better known as the man box.
Now I also want to say - without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man. But at the same time, there's some stuff that's just straight up twisted.
PORTER: I think back to my father. There was a time in my life when we had a very troubled experience in our family. My brother Henry - he died tragically when we was teenagers. And the burial was two hours outside of the city.
And as we were preparing to come back from the burial, you know, the cars stopped at the bathroom, you know, to let folks take care of themselves before the long ride back to the city. And the limousine empties out. My mother, my sister, my aunty - they all get out. But my father and I stayed in the limousine.
And no sooner than the women got out - he burst out crying. He didn't want to cry in front of me. But he knew he wasn't going to make it back to the city. And it was better me than to allow himself to express these feelings and emotions in front of the women.
And this is a man who 10 minutes ago had just put his teenage son in the ground, something I just can't even imagine.
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RAZ: That must have been so hard for you - like, so disorienting to see that happen 'cause your understanding was that men don't do that, right?
PORTER: It was frightening. It was humbling. It was endearing. And the thing that stuck with me the most is that he apologized to me for crying in front of me. And at the same time, he was saying how strong I was for not crying.
RAZ: And that's what Tony thought it meant be a man - to not cry. But around the age of 30, he had an experience that started to change his thinking.
PORTER: In the '80s, I moved out of New York City. And I began to work with youth who were incarcerated for selling drugs. And this was during the crack cocaine epidemic.
RAZ: And that's when Tony says he started to see the connections between drugs and prison and race and class. And his work in those areas forced him to confront a bias he barely even thought of.
PORTER: I spent five, six, seven years working with women in the community I lived in up in Rockland County, N.Y., where I'm doing this work around race and class. And women are saying, that's wonderful, Tony. But what about your sexism? And I was dumbfounded - at the same time, angry that they were challenging me.
But it was through the help of these women that I began to look. And if I'm invested in ending racism, I have to be invested in ending oppression that women and girls are experiencing.
PORTER: And I caught the fire.
RAZ: How did that realization change your relationship to your children? - 'cause you have a son and a daughter, right?
PORTER: Yeah, I have six children. I have two at home. I have a son and a daughter at home. And my youngest son is a big young man now. And he's 250 pounds. He's 6'4". He's about an inch taller than me. And I'm challenging him around, you know, the importance of sharing his feelings - not being stoic.
These are things that I would never have known to do. You know, and just being able to have authentic conversations with my children - being able to talk about fear, you know, being able to talk about love.
To be that way with my kids, to love my kids and kiss my son - we don't end conversations with any of my children without - I love you, I care about you, I miss you, I need you, I have to see you.
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PORTER: I'd like to just say, you know, my love of my life, my daughter Jade - the world I envision for her - how do I want men to be acting and behaving? I need you on board. I need you with me.
I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men - that it's OK to not be dominating - that it's OK to have feelings and emotions - that it's OK to promote equality - that it's OK to have women who are just friends and that's it - that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.
PORTER: I remember asking a 9-year-old boy - I asked a 9-year-old boy - what would life be like for you if you didn't have to adhere to this man box? He said to me, I would be free. Thank you, folks.
RAZ: You know, earlier, Tony, you said that you didn't think you were that wise, like, as a young man. But now you have become that wise person. And it must be scary, sometimes, because all of a sudden, everyone's coming to you. And you've got to transmit some wisdom.
PORTER: Right. And I don't always have it. You know, I don't always - I don't have all the answers. And I mean, I'll speak at an event. And I'm there for at least an hour later. And there are people who will wait.
PORTER: They'll wait to talk to me. They won't leave. It's that that has really brought to my attention not only the wisdom that I may have or people may feel I have. More so than that, it's brought to my attention the responsibility that I have. I think that's what really resonates with me today in my life.
RAZ: Tony Porter, co-founder of the group A Call To Men. You can see his entire talk at ted.npr.org.
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