31 Jul 2021

Matt Brown: the barber helping break cycles of violence

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 31 July 2021

Barber Mataio (Matt) Faafetai Malietoa Brown, who gained recognition for his anti-violence movement, She is Not Your Rehab, has now co-authored a book of the same name along with his wife, Sarah.

The book – which will be given to all male prisoners - recounts his own story and those of his clients.

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Photo: Supplied

Brown has previously spoken to RNZ about how rough his childhood was, to the point that he and his eight siblings thought Once Were Warriors was a comedy.

But his mission all started with My Fathers Barbers shop, his Christchurch-based haircutting business. He says no-one comes in just for a haircut anymore.

“Barbering became a vehicle for me to have these conversations with men," Brown told Saturday Morning.

“It is a vulnerable space into walk into, you’re trusting another man, or person, to make you look good ... and the feeling good comes not just from the haircut, it comes from the conversation you have with your stylist or hairdresser.”

There are 12 people working in his shop, all trained to listen and respond, he says. They even spend time each week, asking each other hard questions and having guest speakers.

“My job is not to convince people, my job is to ask the questions and they can dwell on it themselves. Sometimes I’ll ask a hard question and the guy will come in for his next haircut and we’ll carry on for where we were.”

He says he forgave his father publicly when he symbolically gave him the first haircut at the barber shop's opening.

“It’s been the best option for me [to forgive]. Victimhood has never served anyone well.

“I think you see it in his face, the regret that he has to live with and that’s something I can’t take away from him and I choose not to remind him of the horrific memories we were subjected to.

“But my goal is to carry on loving him, because I understand his story. It doesn’t excuse or condone what he did to us but for me, I want my children to know that ‘our dad had the power to forgive and carry on loving and was compassionate and empathetic despite all the stuff that happened to him’.”

The couple's children are aware of their parents' line of work and elements their father's past, Brown says that's because they want them to grow them up in environment of hard conversations.

In fact, it was his youngest son who triggered a response from The Rock Dwayne Johnson, when he voiced a letter for a White Ribbon campaign they did.

“We always ask ourselves how we can engage people to have hard conversations in palatable ways, and my own mother’s story was close to my heart and I know hers is similar to many other Polynesian women.

“So we just felt it was time for men in the Pacific and in our communities to stand up and say no more, and who better than the most successful masculine man on the planet than The Rock himself to lead that conversation.

“We didn’t know The Rock was going to engage but heaps of New Zealand artists [and] sporting stars, tagged The Rock on our post.

“Then Dwayne eventually saw it and we got a private mention, saying him and his wife and family were all in tears and how it reminded him of his story, watching his mum go through that, and he wrote to my son and now my son proudly calls him ‘Uncle Rock’.”

Although, Brown says some are triggered by his work or just the phrase of his campaign, accusing him of being anti-male.

“We cannot deny the statistics of the violence that happens at the hands of our men.

“The thing is, I’m pro-male because I want our men to heal, and us healing and doing the work … you’re helping your whānau, you’re helping our women, you’re helping your children, you’re helping young boys who will one day be men.”

He says toxic masculinity is denying people of a natural human experience.

“Asking for helping, having hard conversations, diving deep and being courageous about things that are uncomfortable, being vulnerable ... these are all things that men are s—t scared of.

“We can’t just bottle it all up and say men are angry. Underneath anger … is usually a lot of men who are still grieving – their fathers who went to prison, or their fathers who didn’t watch their rugby game, or didn’t come to their school prize-giving.”

And through his new book, he hopes to help other men break free from a cycle of abuse and to heal from their trauma. 

“The book is our invitation to men to take responsibility for their own crap and their trauma and pain so they stop transmitting onto their children and partners.

“But I think when women read it, it’s also a handbook for healthy relationships or healthy boundaries, saying no, and learning how to navigate with your partner these hard conversations or their childhood trauma.”

Brown says it will go alongside a programme they were collaborating on with the government.

Matt is speaking at the Word Christchurch Festival on Friday 27 August. Head to the Word Christchurch website for details and tickets.