Preventing gender violence on campus

It started with a pair of tweets from actress Alyssa Milano. And, really, it was two simple words from the star that brought a long-forgotten movement back into our collective consciousness — “Me too.”

The “Me Too” movement is a campaign, originally created in 2006, that aims to raise awareness of sexual violence. The past few years have seen an increase in public discourse of issues surrounding sexual assault and gender norms, due to a number of high-profile scandals in politics, entertainment and communities around the country. And now concepts like toxic masculinity — the idea that traditional ideals of masculinity can perpetuate violence, a thought that’s long been a part of feminist discussions of gender norms — have become part of the cultural conversation.

University of Northern Iowa Director of the Center for Violence Prevention Alan Heisterkamp speaks during a symposium the center hosted in Des Moines.
University of Northern Iowa Director of the Center for Violence Prevention Alan Heisterkamp speaks during a symposium the center hosted in Des Moines.

The University of Northern Iowa has long been working to prevent this type of violence on-campus as well, and their efforts — led largely by UNI’s Center for Violence Prevention (CVP) — have been aided by the increasing awareness of these issues.

“Since the Me Too [movement] resurfaced a couple of years ago, I’ve seen a huge shift in thinking,” said Alan Heisterkamp, director of the CVP. “That has brought to light … an increased awareness and a sense of accountability that has helped elevate the relevance and importance of our work.”

UNI has joined these larger conversations, taking their work off-campus through regular partnerships with high schools, and with the recent Midwest Symposium on Men’s Leadership & Accountability Around #MeToo, which the CVP hosted at the end of January in Des Moines. The symposium took the CVP’s work to a larger scale, bringing together international thought leaders with members of the UNI community and stakeholders from across the state, to discuss how the community can come together to prevent sexual assault and other forms of gender violence.

“We weren’t interested in doing anything superficially but really getting at some of the root causes of violence and abuse,” said Heisterkamp. “So we had to talk about gender, how we socialize boys and … raise some awareness of what power and privilege has provided male culture in our country.”

These ideas were explored in-depth at the symposium, with internationally recognized speakers — including keynote Jackson Katz, who co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, and violence prevention trainer and former Scottish police officer Graham Goulden. Topics included toxic masculinity, sex trafficking, current political events and bystander prevention. The discussions were difficult, but impactful.

“The symposium was a huge motivator for me, because it showed me how sexual assault is just as much a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue,” said Jacob Chaplin, philanthropy chairman of UNI’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon. “We can use this and bring it back to UNI and motivate men other than SigEp’s to speak out as well. Our generation is in the driver’s seat when it comes to shaping the world into how we want it.”

Though some people may associate these conversations with one side of the political spectrum, Heisterkamp said, these conversations can benefit people from all walks of life. In the on-campus trainings he leads, he’s seen people from various belief systems experience positive change.

“No matter what folks are thinking or believing on some of these critical issues, participants that go through our trainings all denote on a pre/post survey that their skills, their knowledge, their understanding and their awareness have increased,” he said. “Our training is something for everyone, regardless of what level you are, what role you play. That has been exciting to collect and to see that happening.”

In addition to the recent symposium, the CVP recently received a federal grant from the Iowa Department of Education to implement STOP School Violence Prevention and Mental Health Training. The CVP already works with more than 20 high schools and select middle schools on bullying and gender violence prevention programming. This grant will allow the center to expand violence prevention and mental health training for up to 42 secondary schools across the state.

“We started with one school … today we’re at about 25 schools,” said Heisterkamp. “We’ve been able to expand and will ultimately be in over 70 schools across the state.”

According to Heisterkamp, all these efforts are part of the center’s goal to improve communities by helping individual men grow into leaders of change. Whether it’s through community partnerships and outreach programs, campus trainings or large-scale events like the recent symposium, the CVP’s work is about building a supportive community where everyone feels safe.

“It’s amazing how we’ve been able to develop key partners with the department of education with all the statewide coalitions. I think there’s an increasing number of individuals… that are saying [gender-based violence] is not okay,” he said. “That’s been incredibly encouraging to see nationally, statewide and also locally — increased awakening. And that’s something on which to build and support.”