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By Kelly Cresap, Himalayan Wildcat
What do our circles miss out on because they exclude women?
I’ve been asking this question off and on for a while, and have brought it up with a few women who know about our work. Two recent events—Oprah’s May 5 “Fatherless Sons” broadcast, and a play I saw at the Arena Theater in Washington, DC–took me a step further in my thinking.
Besides Oprah, the only other female in the “Fatherless Sons” studio audience was the featured guest Iyanla Vanzant. What a formidable presence she made! Vanzant used scalpel-sharp facilitation to get past men’s wishy-washiness, numbness, disempowering words, and self-compromise, and lead them to a better place. Together with Oprah, the two women served as a kind of emotional literacy rescue squad. I noticed at Vanzant’s wikipedia entry that she’s a Yoruba priestess. During the show I thought, What if she brought that degree of authority and clarity and compassion to my I-group as a visiting wizard? What if I brought that to my I-group?
This issue surfaced in the Arena play I saw as well. “The Mountaintop” by playwright Katori Hall imagines an exchange between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a beautiful black woman named Camae. Their interaction occurs at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the night before Dr. King is assassinated. The play treats him as a flesh-and-blood human being, not the iconic Dr. King of popular imagination, such as is promoted a few miles away from the theater at the national MLK Memorial. Much of the tension in the first half of the play is sexual.
Camae begins the play as a maid and—through the magic of theater–ends it as a shaman. She confronts Dr. King with the fact that although he’s irreplaceable, he’s neither invincible nor physically immortal. To her prophecy that he has less than a day left to live, he responds with denial in the form of listing out all his plans and ambitions. Using grounded wisdom instead of mockery, Camae challenges Dr. King’s male bravado and bluster. With her guidance, in one of the most moving scenes of the play, Dr. King faces up to the appalling reality of his imminent death, and directly grieves the loss to himself personally and to all the other people he might have reached had he lived past the age of 39.
The question I’m asking about Camae parallels my question about Iyanla and Oprah: who’s on hand in our I-groups to challenge our male bravado and posturing? In MKP we work on mission and shadow mission, SMART goals and stretches, accountability, sacred ritual, smudging, and so on. I don’t want to discount those things, or all the other aspects enabled by all-male circles. However, there’s no process I know that deals head-on and cleanly with the problem of male bravado and bluster, as Camae does in the play. Nor do I often see in our men’s circles the authority and incisivenes that Iyanla Vanzant brought to the “Fatherless Sons” event.
Obviously, not all people—men or women–are as shamanically gifted as Iyanla and Camae are. Also, women are not constitutionally fitted to perform this shamanic function instead of men, because of some supposed female “essence.” Still, I sense that women do in fact perform this function more often than men do. And that our men’s circles need more of it.
Here, as I see it, are some of the downsides of our lacking someone to challenge our MKP-related male bravado and bluster:

  • Opening cast-the-circle rounds, personal affirmations, and closing blessing rounds that leave us drifting in a psychic ozone, slightly intoxicated by our own inflated rhetoric.
  • Choices made or voiced in I-group that are forgotten the next day.
  • Clearings that are motivated by men wanting merely to be seen, to be grandiose, to bellow at another man from a bully pulpit, or to take the easy route to the power position in the room.

The updated PIT manual includes the suggestion that I-groups might consider doing a co-gender event from time to time. I get the sense that this rarely happens, which may permit certain “boys only” shadows to fester in our circles:

  • men at I-group get to blame and psychologically wallop the women in their lives without fear of fact-checking or reprisal
  • woman-hating behavior (misogyny) goes unchecked at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels
  • I-groups become places to hide out and avoid empowered women like Iyanla and Camae.

Working in all-male circles began in MKP as a conscious principle–an enlightened response to what was happening at the time in all-female circles. 30-plus years on, has our “guys-only” policy devolved into a mere force of habit, a matter of convenience? Without care and vigilance, it can degenerate into the kind of “boys only” logic that governed the clubs that we formed (or were excluded from) in adolescence.
Of course, the two incidents I selected above aren’t reducible to a single multicultural dynamic. The fact that Iyanla and Camae are African-American also raises issues of race. This is somewhat muted in the play because both characters are black; however, a few questions come to mind: What messages do white men (such as myself) tend to ignore in all-white or majority-white settings? What fear or anger do white men project onto black men (whether or not they are as empowered as Iyanla and Camae are)? How well are black men served by white men who behave this way? How long can men of any color in MKP go without doing work on race?
I haven’t reached a workable stopping point on either the gender or race issues raised here. However, I do have some new guiding questions to bring to I-group and elsewhere: What would Iyanla do? What would Camae do?

Kelly Cresap, Ph.D., is an MKP co-leader based in the Greater Washington area. An author, storyteller, literature scholar, and former NPR commentator, he teaches professional writing and storytelling therapy in Maryland. His first podcast appeared earlier this month at Learn more at

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.