MenToR Kings - dialogue with Ebony Hope

23rd August 2016

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I’m pleased to introduce Ebony Hope, a fellow graduate and previous colleague/tutor on the BA Applied Social Science, Community Development and Youth work programme at Goldsmiths, University of London, and now founder of MenToR Kings. In our dialogue Ebony shares some of her experiences and reflections that led to her taking action to establish MenToR Kings and we both reflect on what 'fatherhood' can mean for communities. (Find out more about the project by clicking here)

Hi Ebony! So we’ll jump right in. What led you to establish MenToR Kings?

Ebony: MenToR Kings is actually a title that captures the concept of Men To Our Kings (Men-To-R-Kings). It has stemmed from becoming a single mother to a son, I have 2 daughters previously however raising my son and seeing the difference in our dynamics forced me to reflect not only on my interaction with males but also provide positive experiences for my daughters. I grew up around friends and family from single aren’t homes and was also raised in a single parent home although my parents were married.

Growing up I didn’t really understand the purpose or role of a man in the home or outside in society. It was quite challenging for me. I felt that as a mother there were some things that I couldn’t offer a child that a father possibly could. It made me become quite resentful and I wanted to change that. I chose to dig deep and look within myself. I reflected on my past, my relationship with my father and my experience of growing up within a strong female black household and considered the impact that had on me. I felt I had to find an alternative. 

I realised that for the men that I’ve been around, or grown up around, they don’t have much self-belief, they don’t believe in themselves. They haven’t had many positive influences around them and no one is really ‘speaking life’ into them. So it's common to hear from both males and females “all men are the same”, “there are no good men” etc. So if you hear that from a young age, as a boy, then you’re going to grow up thinking that about yourself. As women, sometimes we look at these men and think why are they not doing this? Why aren’t they stepping up? I concluded that one factor is growing up to believe that they serve no purpose. I’ve made it my daily duty to challenge myself to give positive affirmations and try to encourage men. This alone has been like a key to unlock the potential they did not know they have.So that’s really the foundation of what MenToR Kings is about, it’s about encouraging boys and men to bring back alignment for the whole family.

What kind of activities do you do?

Ebony: We run a fathers day BBQ every year to celebrate father’s day (we hosted our 4th BBQ this year), in the past we've also run a 6 week programme called Man Cave (which subject to funding we'll run again) and in future we hope to curate a photography exhibition (click here to view project details)

When you say father’s day – is it about celebrating the qualities of fatherhood? Or is it something more than this?

Ebony: I especially encourage single mums to bring their children – boys and girls. It allows them to experience fatherhood – even when it’s not from their own personal point of view they are able to experience and witness it. Also, I encourage godfathers, uncles, cousins, older brothers; they all are celebrating within that dynamic. So we don’t keep it specifically just for biological fathers. Everybody is included. Even if you don’t have a biological child you’re still somebody.

Gemma: I’m quite interested in this inclusive approach to father’s day and what fatherhood can mean. I really appreciate the sentiment of the African (Nigerian) proverb ‘it takes a whole village [community] to raise a child’, for example, I don’t have any biological children but I believe I can develop the qualities of a parent to care for and respect others, and that informs the heart or focus with which I engage with people in communities, like you I’m a qualified youth worker. I find this approach really empowering both in my work and in life generally, I’m sure you do as well [Ebony agrees].

The concept of fatherhood can bring up all sorts of definitions; does creating a space to explore fatherhood together create any positive change?

Ebony: I feel what it does, it gives men a platform. Sometimes men can feel misplaced, around what is my role or my job. The BBQ makes men feel more accountable and involved. I felt it was very important to also have a professional that works with fathers and charities, to run a workshop. David Mullings from Father Figures for Children, facilitated a workshop. He looked at absent fatherhood and the impact it has on children and the mum but also he looked at when the father is present in the home but still seems absent. Sometimes men feel like 'well I’m there, I pay the bills, I do this or that' but there’s no love, affection or warmth. There needs to be a clear balance. And also mothers that try to hinder or use their children as a tool so their father can’t see the child. Just looking at the sense responsibility and ownership by everyone.

I do agree with you that as a youth worker, often we take on that role when the father is absent, and we garner sometimes more respect than the parents do because there is consistency. That’s something that I’m trying to keep up with in terms of what I’m delivering.  I want this programme to be consistent and not just a fad.

When you talk about fatherhood do you have a set definition of what that is?

Ebony: I don’t think I do. My father was married to my mum but he wasn’t around. So I wasn’t really raised with my father and he’s still alive today but he isn’t a father to me. So as a child I always looked for fathers’ in other people whether it was my head teacher, the corner shop man, my uncle. I always looked for glimmers of what I felt a father should be. In general terms I think they should be able to protect their family, to be able to show love, be committed by making the family a priority and best of all show love to the mother whether they are together or not.

Gemma: What it brings up for me is like what we might learn in our community and youth work training. The qualities of fatherhood, or parenthood, stem from a sense of leadership in a way.  Not a physical leadership it’s a kind of ability to respond with compassion in your own way and with a confidence. Throughout my childhood and teens, my father was around but due to various factors he didn’t have much confidence. I often directed my anger and frustration towards him. But my focus on what he wasn’t doing compared to other men [or the stereotype of what men should be] wasn’t very constructive for him or for me.

Ebony: I agree that telling people what they’re not doing is counterproductive, what I learned to do was to illuminate what is possible. I always say now that ‘I speak to the king within’ I’m not speaking to your outward appearance; I’m speaking to the person in you that has that potential. I find that does have some kind of impact to a certain degree but I always have to question my motives, am I trying to create my fantasy dream? Or fill the gap of not having a father? I need to balance it out, reflect and make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons, and not just for my own ends.

Gemma: Self-reflection like this is so important. Society has a dominant way of defining masculinity and fatherhood doesn’t it? [Something to ponder] which can at best give something for men to continually strive for – an unattainable goal perhaps - but at worst it simply causes and reinforces a sense of failure. I feel it valuable to engage in a process of deconstructing gender stereotypes. In a way, MenToR Kings are throwing out an invitation to everyone ‘lets talk about fatherhood right now, let’s acknowledge our current strengths or qualities, and grow together’ that’s amazing isn’t it, that invites community to get together, explore and move things on…

Ebony: that’s right, its therapy! It’s very therapeutic and humbling because sometimes I want to say something, my frustration rises to the surface but then I recall my aspiration and aims for MenToR Kings. One of the things that come out of it was that a woman who attended the event felt compelled to write a poem to her dad. Even though she felt she didn’t get what she deserved from the relationship she felt he was still there for her. She realised that her hurt was coming from the fact that her mum put her in care. It unpacked a lot of deep seated issues she had that she didn’t want to pass on to her children. Even if you don’t see the effects of the BBQ and the bouncy castle straight away, it does make a difference.

What I tend to do is question peoples questions. To encourage people to find answers for themselves. One day I put up a challenge for people to post a picture of a positive male role model and asked participants if they had any and who they were. A lot of people, especially men, said ‘I don’t know any’ and I would then ask ‘ so who are you?’  Many of us don’t think beyond our own experiences. This year I encouraged participants to ask their children what they think makes a good dad. I wanted adults to hear their perspective because children have such innocence and sincerity about them. A ten year old was talking about his dad not being in his life that much, he was talking about what kind of father he wanted to be when he is older. It gives a glimpse of the void experienced in his life. I feel that some adults tend to respond better when a child speaks because of their innocence.

Part of what we’re trying to do with #MyHopeOurPlace is to collate people’s hopes for their communities. We believe that sharing hopes will inspire others to develop their own hopes too. What are your hopes for the future impact of MenToR Kings?

Ebony: In my mind it’s like a bit of reverse psychology, I looked inside myself as a single black mother, and thought I’m really tired. I’m tired of all this vicious cycle. I don’t want my children to go through the same struggles I went through. So I felt if I’m supporting and encouraging men to do what I’m having to do as a single mother, I felt that not only will this strengthen the women who are there for the children, it will also strengthen the children as they observe positive images and examples. I hope they will have role models and be encouraged to become a role model themselves. In general that’s going to have a big impact on the community. It’s like a ripple effect. So instead of feeling like we didn’t have fathers so we don’t know what respect from men looks like, we can observe respect at events like this and make better choices. I mention black because I am black and that’s my experience.

To offer a critique, some people might ask - shouldn’t the men be organising these initiatives themselves?

Ebony: Yes, I know they should be. That’s the whole point. A lot of people ask why I am doing this and I say ‘cos I’m tired!!!’ [Laughter] I want to empower men to find their rightful place, I feel that as women we sometimes assert our own power and block their progress. I’ve had to recognise that within myself and put my hands up and say I can be quite emasculating at times and I don’t want to do that because it’s counterproductive.

In a sense it often takes women to get things moving because I think we really do hold the power and the key, but we need balance. I very much want men to be at the forefront, I want young men and the older generation to be the ones spearheading this, to take the lead together. Unfortunately I feel like I’ve been thrown into doing this foundation work because it’s my passion and something that I can't let go of right now. It might sound morbid, but even when a family or parents lose a child through say miscarriage, or if a child has been murdered, the emotion or response the mother has is very different from the father. Women know how to perform in stressful times and when under pressure, whereas men may not know where to go because they’ve been told to lock off those emotions for too long. I don’t mind working behind the scenes on this project while the men are on the front line because we’ll all benefit in the end.

And that wraps up our first dialogue (one of hopefully many!) with Ebony Hope. We hope you - our readers - enjoyed it. Feel free to log-in and share your reflections and comments, why not also share your hopes over at #MyHopeOurPlace - together we can fill the map!

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