Safe Spaces: Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez and The Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group

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“The first goal is to create a space where Black men can come together and talk expansively about masculinity with each other, says Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion at Phillips Exeter Academy, and founder of the Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group (BMRRG).

“As Black men, we’re inundated with messages that our emotions are not important, that we should focus on ‘doing what we have to do.’ So much of our life is wrapped up in surviving and trying to create safety in a world that doesn’t guarantee our safety at all. Black men have a particular relationship with the world that I would like to capture in the most authentic way possible.” – Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez


Committing himself to creating a safe space for Black men of varying self-identifying orientations, to explore and reevaluate the idea of masculinity, is the aim of Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion of Phillips Exeter Academy and founder of The Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group (BMRRG).

“The first goal is to create a space where Black men can come together and talk expansively about masculinity with each other. The group is open to Black heterosexual, queer, and trans men. As Black men, we come together to build community and think about how we can embody masculinity in more inclusive and transformative ways,” Mariñez explains. “The second goal is to really think about how the conversations that we’re having about masculinity position us to do better by and for Black non-men. Black non-men often extend a level of care to Black men that goes unreciprocated. BMRRG offers a space to process that dynamic both critically and meaningfully.

In its fifth cohort, the BMRRG holds meetings in a virtual space, bridging the gap and unearthing common ground. As it often happens, Mariñez found that unlocking the door to dialogue led to a deluge of hidden emotion, masked by social norms. “I think it’s surprising to me that people choose to share the information that they do and trust us to hold that with care and love,” states Mariñez.


CC: How was BMRRG created?

KM: The Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group came about in June 2020. I was in Florida at the height of COVID and had lots of time to reflect on myself. I have done lots of work around diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout my academic and professional career. While I had a firm theoretical grasp of social justice concepts, I struggled implementing them in my own life–especially around my lack of meaningful relationships with Black men. I think the pandemic exacerbated the anxieties that people already had about connecting to other folks in person. For me, the pandemic amplified a fear I had about being alone and not having other Black men, in particular, to be in community with. I used that fear as the motivation to create the BMRRG syllabus. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of building community with about 20+ Black men.


CC: In the syllabus part of the curriculum is to journal. What is the importance of journaling?

KM: The point of the journal entries is to have the Black men in the group be more critically reflective of their experiences after we have a conversation. I know that they will be reflective when we talk, but it’s important to have that commitment be applied outside of BMRRG. I want Black men to be able to capture what they’re feeling and put words to those feelings and establish a consistent practice of doing so. It’s a way for Black men to get into the habit of trying to make sense of our emotions. Patriarchal masculinity constantly tells Black men that exploring our emotions subjects us to ridicule; you’re not supposed to have emotions because your goal is to embody a version of masculinity that prioritizes, for example, being an “alpha male.” We know that these ideas put a pressure on Black men to perform gender in ways that are often damaging to ourselves and others that we claim to love and care about. BMRRG has become a healing space for Black men to have conversations with other Black men they did not think was possible.


CC: What has happened that has been most surprising to you?

KM: The most surprising thing, honestly, is the level of vulnerability. Growing up, I did not have many examples of what vulnerability could look like–especially among Black men. There are moments when I was young where I remember how my vulnerability was made fun of, disregarded, or told that it was “too much.” While I did expect that our conversations in the BMRRG would be in-depth and reflective, I was not prepared for how trusting Black men in our group felt to share intimate details of their lives. Those moments cemented in me that building meaningful relationships cannot happen without trust and vulnerability. As a person, I’ve learned I tend to stick with intellectual abstract thinking as a defense mechanism to protect me from folks who might otherwise judge me. What BMRRG has shown me is that what I believed to be a defense mechanism was holding me back from creating the connections I longed for with other Black men. Once I made that leap to be more vulnerable, it was apparent that there are Black men who want to show me unconditional love and care.

CC: In your syllabus, you have a section that deals with weight. What is the relationship between weight and masculinity?

KM: That’s a really good question!

Growing up, I was bombarded with so many messages (on tv, from family members, and loved ones) about what it meant to be desirable. For me, I was told on countless occasions that if I wanted women to find me attractive and make sure I would not be ostracized, I should always aim to “be healthy,” which I contextually understood as don’t be fat. In conversations with other Black men, I found that this was a common experience that, on so many different levels, made it difficult for us as Black men to process the relationship (or lack thereof) we have with our bodies. As Black men are subjected to the constraining expectations of patriarchal masculinity, we are not allowed to think about our bodies as more than vehicles that produce or take on violence. When you ask Black men intentional questions about how their body has been subjected to unacknowledged trauma, hurt, and shame, you allow for Black men to think more expansively about their bodies as worthy of unconditional love and care. 

I decided to include this section in the syllabus because in past cohorts, the reflections and vulnerability because of this topic, have been both gut-wrenching and heart-warming. It can be painful to hear Black men having only ever associated their bodies with things that have negatively impacted them. However, those moments have also allowed for a genuine embrace and affection I have never experienced or witnessed with Black men in genuine ways.

We live in a world where notions of desire, fatphobia, and damaging ideas of what defines “health” have material, social, and mental/emotional consequences for all people. BMRRG makes room for the conversation to be centered on the experiences of Black men.

CC: What would you like BMRRG to become?

KM: I want BMRRG to keep being a sustainable healing space that gets Black men together to have conversations that push us to think more transformatively about masculinity. BMRRG will never be a group that charges a fee to Black men seeking deep relationships. I do not believe in the idea of gatekeeping which could be the first model of vulnerability, trust, and meaningful connections for Black men. I want BMRRG to plant the seed in Black men that we are worthy of love and care from one another.

I am always open to collaborating with anyone. I would love to support Black men and other men of color in how to facilitate critical dialogues in their own communities. I am open to sharing the tools, reflective questions, and strategies I use so that Black men and men of color can lead these important conversations about masculinity with other men in their lives.


For more information about the Black Men’s Reading and Reflection Group, contact Kevin via email at kpajaro02@gmail.com


 

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Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.