Physical Distance, Social Connection: An Interview With Movember’s Todd Minerson
Todd Minerson wanted to be an income tax lawyer. University life opened the door to a different future.
“I could never have scripted this pathway, this journey that I’ve taken. I was lucky enough to be exposed to some really amazing feminist professors. I got connected into student government. I got connected into activism. And when I finished university, I realized there’s an actual career path here that I never even knew existed.”
Todd’s change-making journey since graduation has weaved through a variety of community-level organizations: HIV and AIDS, housing and homelessness, gender equality. Today, he’s Country Director of Movember Canada, a nonprofit raising awareness for health issues that disproportionately (or exclusively) impact men, including prostate and testicular cancers, physical inactivity, and mental health.
The organization is aiming to reduce the number of men dying prematurely by 25 percent by 2030.
“Coming to Movember has brought home the harmful aspects of men and masculinities, and in understanding the barriers for men taking care of themselves, asking for help, being vulnerable, addressing their mental health. Those things are my full-time, everyday pursuit right now at Movember.”
Facial Hair Activism
Movember encourages men (and creative allies) to grow moustaches for the month of November to raise awareness for men’s health issues. It’s a peer-to-peer fundraising model—and a wildly successful one at that. An estimated 6 million people have participated worldwide since the campaign launched in 2003, helping the organization to fund over 1,250 men’s health projects around the world.
Movember’s ability to cultivate community goes beyond exceptional facial hair—though a handsome handlebar like Todd’s certainly helps. Instead, it’s a perfect mix of connection, cause, and fun.
“First, it’s accessible. It takes something that is traditionally hard for men to do—to talk about their own health, be vulnerable, and ask for help—and makes it easier.
“Second, you’re not doing it alone. There’s a feeling of togetherness, of comradery, of not being alone.
“The third, honestly, is fun. It can be an excuse to have some fun and do something silly, because men don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that in a world that is, you know, socially sanctioned by the constructs of masculinity. If you go to a sporting event, it’s really the only time men can put on makeup and dance and sing and cheer without any repercussions, which is an oddity in itself.”
Facing the Mental Health Crisis
When Movember first launched in 2003, its founders started with a simple mission: to stop men from dying so young. Today, that mission has evolved into helping men live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Mental health is a cornerstone of this mission. Across the globe, three out of four suicides that are completed are completed by men—an almost universal gender dynamic that Todd suggests is left unexplored and misunderstood.
Then the pandemic struck, adding a layer of complexity and urgency to an already sensitive task.
“When COVID hit in March, we knew right away that the factors in place for this particular pandemic were going to be devastating for men’s mental health.
“We looked at past comparables, like the 2008/09 financial crisis—which is really just one dimension of what’s happening now. Male suicide rates went through the roof after that experience.
“Then we add physical distancing, social isolation, lack of access to support structures—whether it’s friends, exercise, sports, social activities. We knew right away that mental health was something we had to turn our attention to rapidly during the pandemic.”
Closeness Through a Pandemic: Changing the Narrative
Todd believes the narratives used throughout the pandemic are compounding the problem of mental health. Phrases like “social distance,” “isolate,” and “lock down,” he says, diminish mentally healthy behaviors and contribute to social withdrawal.
“The framing and the narrative has been so focused on distance, isolation, and ‘shutting down your bubble’ that we’ve neglected to remind people to stay connected, check on your friends, check on your parents, check in on your loved ones.
“We need to stay connected to people. Physically distant, but socially connected.”
While we may still be in the throes of Zoom fatigue, Todd says that we need to get back into the creative swing of getting together virtually—particularly as outdoor options begin to close down for winter.
“One of the first quick and easy things we did when things started to close down in April and May was to reach out to our communities and say, ‘What are you doing to manage this situation? Tell us about it.’
“We got hundreds of stories, photos, and social posts showing what people were doing to manage the situation, which we could then share with the rest of this community. So, while we’re the nexus in all of that, the heartbeat and the power of it all is in the people that love us and work with us. They’re everything to what we’re trying to do at Movember.”
Recognizing the power of their community, Movember launched the Social Connections Challenge: a call for technology-based innovations that combat feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection men may feel during the pandemic. The organization has committed to investing $3.22 million to scaling up and innovating as many as 75 of these crowdsourced ideas.
“We’re looking for innovative ways for people to improve their social connections—particularly in groups of at-risk men and communities that have been traditionally ignored or neglected in that regard—like older men, communities of color, new Canadians, and men in prisons.
“There’s a lot of work to do around connection, and I hope we can maintain that message in conjunction with the messaging around safety and not spreading the virus.”
The Healing Power of Community
It’s not just the community’s ideas that could have a healing impact on men’s health—being part of the Movember community could have healing power in itself. Todd points to a recent study that shows Movember supporters score themselves more highly than the general male population across a range of wellbeing indicators.
“We asked Movember participants, ‘How likely are you to ask for help if you need it? How likely are you to be aware of what risk factors might put you at a higher risk for prostate cancer? Have you done a self-check of your testicles in the past year?
“Almost universally, Movember participants reported greater awareness and better behavior change around those activities. It was fascinating for us to understand that, actually, it’s not just fundraising; it’s not just awareness. There is a health promotion benefit for our participants that we’re just beginning to understand.”
Participants also self-reported lower levels of negative mental wellbeing and higher levels of eudaimonic wellbeing (living a life with purpose).
“That was a delightful—not surprising—but delightful finding for us to uncover.”
Community Through Public-Private-Charity Partnerships
The Movember community coolly demonstrates critical mass by popular engagement. But there’s one key community that Todd thinks needs to be rallied: civic leaders.
“One thing our sector is really striving for is a modernized understanding of how social enterprise and charity can work together. Right now, the blueprint for charities to generate revenue for good causes in other ways—like through social enterprises—is too complex. It’s too murky, it’s too unknown.
“And frankly, there’s not enough liberty and freedom for charities to pursue the good causes that they are committed to in different ways. That’s an area I’d love to see a little more policy work on and a little more innovation around, for sure.”
“And I think cities and bureaucracies in general discount the level of expertise that resides in the charitable sector. We can help find solutions, scale solutions, and innovate around the sticky social issues that are out there.
“Often, it’s still seen as a kind of antagonistic relationship or an adversarial relationship in some issues. Think of climate change. It’s always positioned as a fight for the climate—not a collaboration for a better world. I think that there’s another frame that cities could take in terms of engaging charitable-sector partners in solutions for social good.”
While Movember’s namesake solution for social good will be largely covered by face masks this year, the resolve of their community cannot be masked. Participation numbers are at a record high—a reflection of a growing commitment to, and yearning for, community-based solutions to complex problems.
All this, despite—or perhaps because of—our socially distant reality.
If you’re ever worried that someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 911 or go directly to emergency services. For a full list oflocal men’s health resources, visit the Movember website.
Hannah Swinkin is a content strategist and wordsmith at REEF.