A Man



August interview with Snake Bloomstrand

Take Back the Might

If you say the name “Snake” in The ManKind Project, odds are people will think you’re talking about Craig Bloomstrand. He’s one of the original pioneers in this organization.

When I first met Snake Bloomstrand a few years back, he was leading a basic staff development training (BSDT) in New York City. I remember him leaning back in his chair and talking about the “early days” of the work.

So it was a shock to some, and not to others, when Snake resigned his certification as a full leader last month. His email note came across a number of chat lists. It was raw and edgy.

“The last several years I have signed the leader covenant with great reluctance, watching as a philosophy of control, mandate and policy threatens to undermine the very lessons we teach on the training.” [Click Here For Snake’s Letter.]

For whatever intensity there was on paper, Snake’s approach to our conversation was measured and his tone was calm. He spoke to me from his home in Minnesota as he described the day as “steel-grey and windy.” At the outset, he said he wanted to follow the theme of “take back the might.”

“I’ve always had a raw masculine respect for men being different,” he said. “This community has represented men being different yet together in a way that I hungered for all my life. We are affecting adults and children all over the world with this work. The 'might' I want re-claimed is what I left my initiation with … that men care for one another, will challenge one another with compassion, and cut through the bullshit with love and acceptance. I left my initiation feeling proud of being a man. I felt humbled yet “mighty” powerful to go forward and make conscious choices.

Snake said if we come from a “fear place to protect our butts” on the NWTA, then we are demonstrating a “deep insecurity.”

“It’s the same shadow that follows us around asking for money,” he continued. “If we come from that place, we’re really saying we don’t trust its value, or that we have don’t have value enough.”

Snake said “The weekend is inherently risky and we must do everything in our power to keep staff and initiates safe, but we must not deceive ourselves by believing endless structures and policies will keep us safe. Personal integrity and individual discretion keep the weekends safe too, and this is developed within each of us by doing our personal work. I see an ever widening canyon between the work accomplished on NWTA and the development of MKP as an organization. I have wondered for years why we have not been successful approaching funding agencies to forward our work in the world. Men have supported scholarship funds to get men to the weekend, yet seem reluctant to support the organization financially. Does this mean we see the value of the weekend clearly but mistrust MKP? Are we insecure pitching MKP to outsiders because of this divide?”

According to Snake, men join MKP because they want accountability in their lives.

“When I stand on the wall doing accountability, I see men terrified of being held accountable, convinced they will be shamed or discredited. By the end of accountability these same men are raising their hands and saying ‘Me too! I want to be accountable.’ I find this humbling and I see clearly how many men want this for themselves - it signals the beginning of trust. For those initiates, the man on the wall is the guy they hoped would pat them on the shoulder and say, ‘Damn you’re good, flaws and all.’ Its an archetypal energy. It’s the King, or uncle, or elder…no matter how hard he came down on you, you loved him because he asked you to show who you are and he accepted what you showed. This enormous and universal archetypal energy is what the world is missing today. Our challenge is how to create an organization that mirrors the path of men on the weekend. An organization congruent with what we teach. “

I met Snake again in Montreal in the mid-1990s at a national MKP summer retreat. He carried a unique mixture of friendliness and power. He’s a tall, thin man of Norwegian heritage.

“It’s totally against everything in my blood to bring conflict to a head,” he said. “It’s my stretch. A clean clearing process has always been the way that’s helped me grow. I’m real conscious of my decision to resign. There’s a fine line … I didn’t put that out simply to stir the pot, even though that’s where I find my self right now. It was real hard to choose to put my certification down. It has been a big part of my life and given me access to men around the world. It’s given me a huge venue where I can teach.”

Snake said he felt “compromised” because he believed MKP’s organizational structure “has become more sacred than the heart and soul of the men.”

“I traveled all over bringing our message to the world and I’ve not been expecting any medal, it was my personal work,” he said. “And when the multicultural mandate came up last year, I went to Glen Ivy and argued against it … my voice was heard, yet I felt misunderstood. I support the multicultural work. I support the work in Folsom prison as well, but mandating men to enter the prison because I believe it, is inappropriate. I believe as hard as it is to see each man as an individual with a unique path, we are committed to this value by our teachings on the weekend. Within the structure of MKP we have marginalized men’s opinions in our politics and structures. I also understand that ‘target’ groups want me to build trust by agreeing to do the multi-cultural work.. I have been told that white men can’t be trusted to show up for this work, therefore the mandate is necessary. I do trust many of the men I’ve met on weekends. In good conscience I can not betray them. Some I trust, some I don’t. I have to sort through this, see men as individuals, and practice what I preach as a teacher.”

Snake led an LT1 Training in Rochester, NY, where I saw first hand how he worked his magic with men. He stood toe-to-toe and spoke his truth about the man in front of him. He was beautiful.

MKP is not that far behind the multi-cultural curve because “we’ve been bringing men together, holding a space, for more than 15 years,” Snake said.

“Men find the weekend because of a trusted friend,” he added. “How many of us have a huge community of black men we can invite? There’s a cultural difference. It’s very risky to be a white man and say ‘trust me, this weekend is powerful … but there are no shortcuts. I have to stand up and face the mistrust with authenticity. I have to step beyond my fear of rejection and deliver. When I started working in South Africa I shared a dream of creating common ground where men can be seen as unique and valuable. The common ground is that we want to be better fathers and men. This dream appealed to black and white, though it didn’t solve the racial problem. In the three days of a weekend, we challenge hard-held personal beliefs. The NWTA weekend itself has created a common ground to begin to help us see each other as men and not targets.”

The NWTA is a good “first step” in resolving cultural issues, but not the last step, he said.

Since his resignation, Snake said he has received many emails and phone calls.

“I read a very telling email,” he recalled. “The man writing the note said the problem he had with I&I is that there is no ‘we.’ I’m not trying to say that I&I is bad – that kind of cultural education is important. It’s the mandate that crosses the line. With the mandate, I don’t feel seen for who I am. It feels like I’m being treated as unsafe until I learn the multi-cultural language. The emotional message I get is that no matter how much work I’ve done on myself, or how I see men in other cultures, I won’t be safe as a leader unless I learn the language of I&I. That goes against the grain of what I grew up with to see each man as an individual. I&I teaches that men should to be sensitive to other cultures and be open in different ways. I don’t see that happening.”

Many men in this network know Snake. I got to know him better last year when he sent me a poignant story about him putting down his dog who was struggling with cancer.

“I can go back to the core - my initiation in 1988 during the What’s At Risk Process,” he recalled. “I’m sitting on the floor with the other initiates, frightened and considering what was at risk for me. When it was my turn, I said I was totally full of shit and had no substance as a man, convinced all the staff men could see it clearly …. that was huge for me to recognize my belief system. The consequence is that over the years, many men have convinced me that I do have substance. I have come this far down the line because of their feedback. The mandate represents me going back in time.. My head can take it other places, but that’s the message I get … no matter how much international or multi-cultural work I’ve done, ‘you still don’t have the substance required to lead a training.’ I’ve fought too long and hard to get where I am inside, I won’t betray myself anymore.”

Asked why he believes other men resonate with his resignation, Snake said he is speaking words other men are fearful to say. And, his choice was not about “standing for men who feel disenfranchised … although, there are lot of men thinking what I am, and are not articulating it,” he added.

“I hear men say they are not respected as a man when they are forced to swallow rules and requirements. Many men want MKP to be the place where they’re seen as assholes, to be in grief, to be whatever we are. We want to be encouraged to do that, and not inhibited. That’s the way NWTA weekends work, and I-Groups too. This principle has weakened in the MKP leadership and its political structure. The roles of leadership behavior are compromised. It’s like a fatal flaw. We build a machine that works and then we tinker with it endlessly until nobody can work it. We’re creating layer upon layer of hoops to jump through with what we’re doing – it is ensuring a quality of diminished heart and soul. Now there are specific requirements for the leader track, including LT1, LT2, and LT3 and sending in your $100. In the old days, there was no structure. You had to fight your way through. The old way damaged men and often refused to bless individuality. Today, the way a man negotiates through the structure has become more important than the work within the man. By creating these structures we are still off the mark and damaging men. I believe we’ve used structure and the fear of liability as justification to compromise the very foundations of the work.”

At our recent Greater Carolinas Community Annual Business Meeting in January, the group agreed that we were not ready for the mandate. (There was one dissension.)

“It’s so important to be in long and endless dialogue about whether or not we are congruent with our values and ethics. I must do this each day as a man, why wouldn’t I expect the same from the organization I belong too,” Snake explained. “Some men don’t want arguments, and say ‘tough shit, this is the way it’s going to be. We can’t talk about it anymore.’ Yet, there is this dynamic tension. I know the liability is huge on who’s going to get sued. It will be the leaders first, despite the insurance. So what’s the answer? That’s what everyone’s asking. I wish I had the answer to that because I live in that world of liability.”

The issue of mandatory reporting of abuse is a “very real issue for centers to deal with,” Snake acknowledged, “with the requirement that professionals have to report issues of sexual abuse.”

Will the writing of rigid policies decrease liability? Not according to Snake.

“By writing a policy that we will adhere … it makes us more liable because we wrote it up in our bylaws. My personal discretion developed over years as a leader is overridden by the policy.. If I was to gather up a dozen of my neighbors and sit in my garage, chances are I’d be less liable than on a NWTA. I’m just a guy encouraging men to get real. If I could act as MKP Chairman for one day … and there have been some men who suggested I should stand for it … I would call for a one year moratorium on all the beaurocratic functions of MKP, and put a short crew of men in place to pay insurance and collect the fees. Then, I’d put my trust in the men running existing centers to hold NWTA and do them well. After one year, we’d meet back in Glen Ivy and share the best practices. We’d discover what parts of the structure we really missed. ”

After suggesting this radical approach to MKP's structure, Snake said the men who suggested he stand for Chairman withdrew their invitation.

“I realize what I’m saying is a very broad stroke,” he said, with a chuckle, “but it’s worth considering because our bureaucracy has grown too large. The CD’s (Center Directors) are overwhelmed by decisions. We’ve grown something that’s enormous. If it continues to grow, we’ll further distance ourselves from I-groups and from NWTA weekends.”

At home in Minnesota, Snake said he is happy facilitating a local I-Group training.. Having served in project leadership since 1991, he considered the possibility that he may have become “jaded.” A kind of “I-Group for leaders” may be essential to the growth of MKP, Snake suggested.

“We need to sit as leaders and do maintenance on each other on a personal level … instead we’ve chosen to have elections. With the business of the project, there’s no time to do self-maintenance. When leaders hold one another’s heart, a total conversation takes place. On NWTA weekends, leaders will go off with each other and talk about what we learned on previous training and what we’re going to do with this one. It rarely happens with a Glen Ivy meeting. There isn’t time, too much business to handle.”

According to Snake, Don Jones is right in line by having a conference in April for certified leaders where leaders come and “visit with one another.”

“We have created a god around structure and moving up in leadership,” Snake continued. “A circle of men is more organic. Without this ethic, a lot of men are damaged. Too many men come into the project with phenomenal leadership skills gained in life or the military … and they want to offer what they already carry with them. But we say, ‘no, you have to do basic, staff, leader 1 or 2 before we’re willing to hear your voice.’ At that level we’ve lost the ability to see the man for who he is … and many men have said ‘fuck that.’ I know it’s strong language, but what I’m provoking is not around specific men, but an ideology. Within each of us there is a policy tyrant that says ‘damnit, I know the right way, I’m going to write it up and make sure everyone does it the same way.’”

Having edited I-Group protocols as MKP’s I Group Chairman, Snake said he knows how seductive the “policy tyrant is in contrast with an ethic or value in leadership.”

“I was leading a training in Philadelphia when a first time staff guy does a clearing with me and other men ask ‘who the fuck is this guy?’ He doesn’t know me and he says he’s going to be watching me all weekend long. I can’t dismiss that man. I get to say, ‘great, tell me what you see.’ What I gained was how I looked as a leader. He told me what he saw and now I have two choices: I can stand in my authority or I can learn, and get a gift. I want to see that kind of ethic brought into our politics. I don’t want to see insulation from men the leaders serve. I’ve sat in enough hot seats to have a pretty good picture of how men respect me and love me for who I am, and I also know men in The ManKind Project who are fearful of me, who see me as a lose cannon and a rebel! The cool thing is that both things are true. I am 52-years-old. I’ve had a lot of expectations from elders throughout my life. Now I am taking my first steps in that direction. One of the things I realize in coming to maturity is that I am a bag of paradox, and I have to live with it. Some men are going to fear me and some respect me. Taking a stand is as important as bending my knee. “

So why can’t Snake stay in and work from the inside?

“I’ve decided that being a certified leader compromises me,” he answered. “Yet my family and my friends are all warriors. I’m not going away from the warrior community. I’ve met men all over the world in my role as leader – which is just a role. Certified leader doesn’t determine my involvement in the project. I can show up as a staff man on a weekend or as a voice in Glen Ivy. I don’t need the role of leader to participate.”

In the last three years, Snake showed up to Glen Ivy without a leadership role. That didn’t keep him from arguing his positions, however.

“I’m no longer in competition with men to define who I am,” he said. “I can stand on both sides of different arguments. Leadership has helped me gain that prospective. We shouldn’t treat leaders in a way that isolates them, insolates them or projects on them, where they have to take it like bitter soup remaining stoic or refusing to be open. The story I told about the first time staffer … despite my elevated position … there have to be men willing to tell me what I look like. There should be no cultural sacred cows. I will never lose the need to be told what I look like from the outside looking in. Does leadership circumvent that? It can. It’s incongruent if it does. I’m not setting up myself as a paragon of virtue I simply want our organization to live up to the same values I hold dear as a man sitting in a circle. Maybe I’m twisted, but the guy who stands up and says ‘you’re full of shit’ … I pray those guys come to us. Isn’t that what every other guy wants to say? Isn’t that where we find out who we are? All of us want that freedom. I can’t claim I know all the shit I provoked with my resignation. I do know I put a lot of intention behind it. I didn’t want the message to be ‘you are fucked up and I quit.’”

Snake says he stands up for guys like Curtis Mitchell, MKP Chairman, and Carl Griesser, MKP Executive Director.

“I’ve sat on the executive committee and when I sat in that position my concerns were a lot different than when I was simply a man in a circle,” Snake said. “There’s all the cacophony of voices that want you to do one thing or another. The responsibility that’s been handed over to these men is overwhelming. And, the distance between those institutional roles and the men at the grassroots has grown too great. So many men are asking ‘who are these guys on Excom … and why are they telling us what to do?’ It’s adversarial stuff to want to throw everything into the harbor. There is no us and them. We’re all in this together. Let’s live with it. We still have to find our way through the forest.”

Snake said the first wave of men who called him after his letter of resignation were the men who felt disenfranchised – men who have been away from the work for years.

“Yet, these men are still on the list serve first thing Saturday morning,” Snake exclaimed, “and what that tells me is there is a whole large consistency that feels disenfranchised. They love the work enough to monitor the list. The letter provoked and spoke to them. What did I really speak? I spoke of a personal choice, apparently one that many men have had to make. My decision was not born out of the mandated multi-cultural work or mandatory reporting. These issues and how they have been handled within our structures have compromised my principles as a leader. It’s the proverbial straw that broke the snakes back. “

Snake, tell me again about the early days.

“I hate to say the old days were better, it’s not my intention,” he insisted. “There was a kind of awkwardness on the trainings. A real ‘in your face’ fuck you where fist fights happened in the staff room. As unsafe as that was, it was thrilling, it was an adventure. Over the years, we’ve becoming safer, more politically correct, and much of the wild man has disappeared. I want to see the wild man come back to the trainings and the organization - not the savage, the wild man. I’ve received the gift to distinguish between the two, and I don’t want to cheat other men out of that lesson for the sake of creating a better machine. I long for an organization with a beating heart, not a well oiled machine.”

Take back the might, Snake.

© 2008, Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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