By Kayla Sosa
A local man is hoping to change society’s view of masculinity through a new non-profit he’s calling ACES.
Awareness, Compassion, Equity, Strength. That’s what ACES stands for, and what Trey Sumner is looking to for the foundation of his new non-profit. Sumner is a veteran and Grand Valley State University alumni, and is developing his business through the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab, a program out of GVSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He said he got the idea for ACES after seeing “toxic masculinity” within the military.
“On my last deployment I did, it was my fourth one, it was the first time I’d worked with
women to that degree,” Sumner said. “I realized for the first time in medevac just what a boy’s club the military really was. Seeing that inequity, seeing that disparity, was shocking.”
Around the same time, soldiers were being interviewed about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Sumner found himself in an activist role, as an ally towards the gay soldiers he served with.
“It was a big time of social justice and I felt myself drawn to be an ally,” Sumner said. “I painted my toenails hot pink the whole deployment supporting gay soldiers, but then I realized (me) being an ally, was me trying to save the day.”
Sumner wanted to advocate for people, but he wanted to find the root of the problem in toxic masculinity, where men feel like they always have to be the strong, emotionless figure and where homophobia and sexism can come from.
“I started to evaluate myself and my own life and I realized what a mess I was, how much pain I put myself through, and the world around me, trying to be this example of what a man is that is provided by our society,” he said.
After retiring out of the military, Sumner saw the same type of “boy’s club” mentality in civilian life and realized he wanted to do something about it. Sumner got enrolled at GVSU as a “40-year-old freshman,” now graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies: Masculinity Studies and Gender Equity. He then came up with the idea to start a nonprofit that would do the work of this mission.
“My goal is to give young men and boys the tools, the permission and the freedom to demonstrate a healthy masculinity without fear or shame,” Sumner said.
The way Sumner plans to do this is to create an education program, with a final trip at the end. For the last four years, he has taught a course at various junior high schools through the Men’s Resource Center. For ACES, he plans to have an 8-week session with young men teaching “emotional intelligence, nonviolent alternatives, conflict resolution, how to develop your masculinity in a healthy way.”
“We spend that eight weeks teaching these classes and we prepare for a trip,” Sumner said. “And then I take them on a two and a half week backpacking trip through the Middle East.”
Sumner was deployed four times in the Middle East, lived in Egypt for a year and has traveled there for fun, so he knows his way around geographically and culturally.
For Sumner’s thesis project at GVSU, he did a test run of this trip with his son and nephew. For three months, he prepped them for the three-week trip. He said, “it changed them.”
Sumner plans to continue weekly sessions with the group of boys after they get back from the trip.
“I want to continue to have them meet with me, we’ll meet once a week,” he said. “I want to take these boys and teach them how to facilitate that same 8-week class I do, and then when I go to the junior highs take one of those boys with me as a co-facilitator, and have them now contribute back.”
Sumner will be pitching his business idea along with other veterans in the entrepreneur lab at the MVE Showcase and Final Pitch on November 26.