Turning Young Men into Top Blokes
15 October 2018 at 8:51 am
Melissa Abu-Gazaleh is CEO of the Top Blokes Foundation, an organisation that helps young men become positive role models and make healthy choices for their future. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Each day, six men take their own lives in Australia.
75 per cent of mental health issues develop before men hit the age of 25.
And cases of men acting violently towards other men and women dominate our news bulletins and our courts.
When Abu-Gazaleh, at the age of 19, saw the poor statistics of young male health, she knew she had to do something about it, and create positive stories for young men instead of the negative ones we see on a daily basis.
At first, people were confused. Why would a young woman want to start a foundation to help young men? But it’s her belief that this is an issue that affects everyone, so everyone should try and help.
With different programs for different age groups of young men across New South Wales, Top Blokes aims to teach young men that violence doesn’t need to be the answer, and that sometimes “toughening up” isn’t an option – seeking help is.
It’s been ten years since Abu-Gazaleh founded the organisation, and in that time she was named NSW’s 2016 Young Australian of the Year, and was named in the 2016 Australian Financial Review Top 100 Women of Influence.
In this week’s Changemaker, Abu-Gazaleh chats about how lifting young men is good for everyone, mapping impact, and shaking up existing social cultures.
What inspired you to start this organisation?
Back when I started the foundation, at the age of 19, there wasn’t too much talk about young men’s health, as a topic in general. When I came across research that showed young men were overrepresented in crime and youth suicide, as well as the fact that the majority of media articles we see on young men are negative, and how they are liabilities, I became curious about what we were doing as a community to lift up young men. How do we build a culture where young men feel empowered to take care of themselves? That’s where the passion for the project came from. When I first started Top Blokes, a lot of people were really confused. They would say to me, “what do you mean you’re starting an organisation to support young men? Don’t you mean young women because that’s what you are?”
So did you find it hard to explain to people you wanted to work on this issue when you aren’t a man?
I have never really considered the gender aspect of it. For me, I’ve always thought about how important it is, that every community member rallies behind a cause that impacts a certain group within the community, because we’re all stakeholders in this issue. We often have mothers or grandparents contact us, who are really worried about their sons and grandsons. We’ve all got a young man in our lives that we want to see do well and thrive, which is why every person who is passionate about this should be supporting it, not just one group.
You have a lot of young ambassadors from a whole range of cultural backgrounds, why was this important to you?
We are an inclusive organisation, and we want to make sure we include all young men across the board. Our footprint is across different areas of Sydney and NSW, and it makes sense to be inclusive of different cultural backgrounds, because that’s who is out there. Young men all come from different backgrounds and all have their own world experience, and it’s a matter of them taking the lessons they’ve learnt in life and using the Top Blokes platform to be positive role models and positive influences to their peers.
Male violence and mental health issues have been featured a lot in the media lately, it almost seems as though it’s getting worse. What are your thoughts on this?
Statistics are very clear in that male violence towards women and other men is extremely high. We try and work with young men, to help them understand their own mental health and to give them skills to improve their own wellbeing. Giving them the tools and the confidence to speak out when they see others make poor choices, when it is something to do with anger or violence is also really important to us. It’s a huge topic, and it’s good we are talking about it as a society around how to change this culture. Often the public’s perception is we need to start education on this when they are young so they don’t feel like violence is a choice for them, and we have a strong role in this.
How important is it that there are strong role models for young men to look up to?
It’s super important. We know that having strong role models is critical in helping young men get through really tricky periods of their life. Some young men that we work with don’t have role models in their life, which is why we show them what a good role model looks like in our team. Each young man is going to have to face a time in their life where they do need someone in their life to support them, and that’s the role that we play, helping them to transition through to the next period of their life.
There was a big focus during this year’s Mental Health Week on men’s mental health and speaking up if something’s wrong. Is that a positive sign to you that the conversation is changing?
Definitely, it’s a really exciting time for our country, because we know that one of the biggest reasons why men don’t seek help for their mental health is around the stigma. If we can all support reducing the stigma and normalising seeking help and speaking up, then in the long term we are going to see better results. When we talk to young men about mental health, their literacy in the area is so high. They understand the symptoms of depression and they know what it looks like. The next step is to make sure they have the right skills and they know how to access support when they, or their friends need help.
What’s up next for Top Blokes?
We are really focusing on expanding our social reach and impact. Controlled growth is really important, because even though we have demand that we can’t meet, it’s about ensuring that all we do is done well, and we measure our work along the way. We are about to finish a three year social impact study with Ernst and Young, and what the interim results are showing is that on average, there is a 20 per cent improvement on our key outcomes, compared to the controlled group that didn’t receive our program. So we want to just keep looking into the impact of our work and looking into how we are helping young men.
What were some of the things you enjoyed about being so young when you founded Top Blokes?
The biggest advantage of being so young was that people were very forgiving, and willing to help. I remember reading a book about business and it said the best thing to do was find a mentor, so I found two, and that really helped to kick start the journey to founding Top Blokes. I am willing to admit I didn’t know the ropes of running a business, and people really took me under their wing. From there it was really about how to build a sustainable organisation, which is a key priority for anyone. We also had to consider how to build diverse revenue streams, making sure we weren’t relying on one type of funder or one type of funding, and how to really understand social impact. You can run a program, but how do we really understand that it’s making a difference? And to what degree? I think those key areas have really been my focus while developing this organisation.
If there’s one thing you want to achieve as CEO, what would it be?
I want to see young men feel confident to take care of themselves and their friends, and see a culture where young men are challenging their culture and they feel confident to do that. That would be the ultimate goal.
Do you think there is a change happening?
I’ve heard of stories where young men who are prone to getting into school fights, will go through our program and then when faced with a fight, will make the choice to walk away, because they’ve taken that second to think about their actions. Hearing these stories are so rewarding, and it’s a testament to the mentors who work with hundreds of young men each year. You can’t just tell a young man not to be angry, obviously that doesn’t work. It’s about building a rapport with them, and giving them the right information resources to help them make their own decisions about it, and understand the physical, social and legal consequences of it.
If this article has brought up any issues regarding mental health or violence, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or RESPECT Australia on 1800RESPECT