The people behind the FOXY sexual health program for young women have wrapped up their first retreat for young men — and it was a big hit.
FOXY, which stands for Fostering Open Expression among Youth, won the entire $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2014, and promptly invested the proceeds into expanding their program to reach young men, in and beyond the N.W.T.
Yellowknife's Walker Adjun, 18, was one of several young men from around the territory to take part in a recent SMASH — Strength, Masculinities and Sexual Health — peer leader retreat at Blachford Lake Lodge on Great Slave Lake.
"We learned that it was OK to show your feelings and being masculine doesn't mean having big muscles and treating women bad," he said. "It's about expressing yourself."
Adjun promptly put that learning into action.
"All my life I've wanted to dye my hair and just recently I dyed my hair blue. I never really did it before because I always thought I would be called girly or something bad. I just feel really comfortable doing that now. It was a good decision."
'They wanted it'
That's a good outcome, according to Nancy McNeil, co-founder of the FOXY and SMASH programs, who says that while the retreat is primarily focused on sexual health, it's also about identity.
"We wanted young men to feel like they were allowed to define their masculinity to be whatever they wanted it to be, not what society said it had to be but to really embraced the people that they are and I feel like a lot of the guys, they found some openness."
What surprised McNeil was just how ready the young men were to open up.
"They wanted it," she said. "They wanted to be open, they wanted to be supportive, they wanted to be vulnerable. They just needed to have a place to do it."
In all, McNeil says working with young men wasn't as different as she thought it would be. Overall, she says, young people in the North are all facing the same "stuff."
"Young people want to feel safe, they want to feel believed. They want good information, they don't want to be lied to. I think those are really universal desires and needs and things that people deserve."
She's now preparing for more girls' retreats later this summer.
And this fall, SMASH teams will be traveling across the N.W.T. delivering school-based workshops alongside the FOXY program.