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Going against type: Non-traditional occupations

Starting in high school, Marvin Askew, now the executive director of Buffalo City Ballet, bucked stereotypes to become a professional dancer.

In the days of disco, the Village People struck gold with their farcical twist on what it means to be “manly.” Costumed as a cowboy, a police officer, a construction worker and a seaman, they sang “macho, macho man”…and we ate it up.

Times have changed. Just as we now have more women among the ranks of police officers, construction workers and the enlisted, the list of roles deemed appropriately “manly” is also expanding in our cultural consciousness.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines non-traditional occupations as those employing 25 percent or less of a gender. Included in that statistic locally are men like danseur Marvin Askew.

Today he is executive director of Buffalo City Ballet, but he started in tights at age 14 with his basketball buddies. Looking for ways to improve their conditioning, they started ballet classes at what was then Buffalo’s Clinton Jr. High.

“We were really going in there just to be around the girls,” said Askew. But soon, word circulated of several capable boys trained in the fundamentals of partner work, and other schools paid them to practice with their girls.

Askew earned $400 some weekends: Good, easy money for a teen in the 1970s. “Coming from a poor family, it made sense,” he said. Contributing to household bills gave the youngster a distinct sense of manliness, even if the tights and slippers didn’t.

He got serious, and got offers from ballet companies right out of high school. He started with Baltimore’s Maryland Ballet. Early on at social gatherings, Askew found talking about his job made other men uncomfortable.

“I’d just say something like ‘I used to play a little ball, but now I’m trying to find my niche.’” But once esteemed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov catapulted to icon status, circles formed around Askew at those same parties.

He has advice for young men looking to begin ballet.

“You’ll be stereotyped. You have to be strong and not allow those things to discourage you,” said Askew. He also encourages them to master another sport as a back-up life plan if dancing doesn’t pan out as a career. “You’re already an athlete.”

The librarian

The image of an elderly woman with glasses, her hair in a neat bun, saying “shush” is what may come to mind when you think librarian.

Now picture tattoos, a nose ring and large, wooden earlobe extenders.

Meet 34-year-old Rochester native Joshua Mitch of the Buffalo & Erie County Library system. After finishing his undergrad studies, he tooled around at construction jobs, “which I’m not really suited for at 130 pounds soaking wet,” Mitch explained. Then a friend invited him to hear about UB’s graduate program for Library Information Sciences.

“It just blew my mind. They were talking about libraries transforming people’s lives, and how the smallest interactions can have a ripple effect...and I thought, ‘That’s what I want,’”
said Mitch.

Mitch loves the idea of libraries being democracy in action, a level playing field where literally everyone has the same access to anything on the spectrum of human curiosity. When people ask why, as a male, he chose the profession, he uses it as an opportunity to invite others to think about their own gender assumptions.

“I’ll ask why are they asking that question, and what does that mean about what you think people should be doing,” said Mitch, who is his family’s primary breadwinner. While attitudes are changing, he still finds “when I’m working with a female, [people] generally ask the female first.

The nurse

RN Kenneth Brown, 45, started washing pots at Buffalo General Hospital at age 18. Years later as a CNA checking vital signs, he found a patient not breathing. Senior staff shoved him from the room, wheeled in the crash cart and initiated the frenetic revival protocol. Adrenaline, a recognition of how precious life is and being that close to bringing someone back from near death made him say, “I need to be in that room.”

“At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a nurse,” Brown said.

Brown didn’t let stereotypes discourage him, and adds that he has gotten the most shade from older women nurses.

“I saw that a lot in school with the older instructors,” said Brown. “But what helped me a lot was that I was in the military.” He’d joined the National Guard to help pay for nursing school.

Brown’s greatest source of contentment is being in a position where he can model something aspirational for other young black men. He keeps in contact with the kitchen staff and others.

“If I can be an orderly, I can be a nurse. I want them to see you don’t have to settle for where you are. It’s not about how you start, but how you finish,” said Brown. “Get in the door and keep going.”

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