April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week (SAAW) has been a part of the University of Northern Iowa’s landscape for the past 5 years. Established by the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity as a way to expand and support UNI’s existing Sexual Assault Awareness Month, or SAAM, “SAAW” is comprised of an intense, one-week collection of campus and community events such as survivor panel discussions, lectures, 24-hour see-SAAW marathon, tabling, gender violence prevention training and fundraising initiatives. Over the years, SAAW has provided SigEp members with unique opportunities to learn how to be better campus allies and advocates who will speak out against sexual assault and men’s violence against women.
I was introduced to Sigma Phi Epsilon approximately seven years on the heels of a discipline hearing resulting from a fraternity member’s serious violation of the student code of conduct. Being relatively new to campus in my role as co-director of the Center for Violence Prevention, I was invited to meet with representatives of the fraternity to brainstorm ideas and help create a set of strategies moving forward that would help get them back on track and in good standing with the university. This would turn out to be a defining moment for Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of Northern Iowa.
Campus efforts to seriously confront sexual violence at UNI took place between 2000-2004 when the university was awarded a US Department of Justice Campus Grant to Combat Violence Crimes Against Women on Campuses. This grant sought to establish campus-wide prevention programming, improve victim services, support policy revisions, and provide law enforcement and campus security with training to better support victims of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse – crimes that are committed against one in 4 college women, and one in 13 college men every year. As a result of these efforts, in 2007, UNI again pursued and secured a Flagship Initiative grant through the US Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. UNI was one of four institutions in the country to receive this three-year grant, totaling close to one million dollars.
What impressed me most about SigEp’s leadership early on was their desire and commitment to look in the mirror and intentionally address the recurring problems they faced, as well as those in Greek Life all across the country – adherence to social norms and reputations within fraternity culture that support heavy alcohol consumption, sexual harassment and sexual assaults. They were interested in writing a new narrative or script on how college men can, and should, work with women-led student organizations to prevent sexual violence and how to be better prepared to hold themselves and others accountable to challenge and confront demeaning and sexist language when it occurred.
Led at the time by fraternity president, Matt Reitz, SigEp began the process of embedding and institutionalizing the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP Strategies) model into their existing national leadership program, the Balanced Man Program – not because they were required or sanctioned by university officials to do it, but because it was the right thing to do. I have proudly served as the faculty advisor to SigEp ever since. Five fraternity presidents and executive boards later, MVP training and bystander education programming continue to be a priority in the leadership development of all SigEp members.
For the SigEp fraternity, sexual assault awareness and prevention has gone beyond the borders surrounding the month of April. For the past three years, 12-15 fraternity members have collaborated with school counselors from two local junior high schools to support a “young men and masculinities” leadership workshop – reaching over 750 eighth grade boys on topics related to healthy relationships, leadership, consent and intimacy, gender equality, sexting, and cyber-bullying. The conversations and breakout sessions are well-received, and school staff report that the events positively impact the young boys and their schools as a whole.
Additionally, SigEp members focus much of their philanthropy on raising money for local charities and service organizations, most recently, the Riverview Center based in Dubuque, Iowa, an organization established to serve victims of sexual assault in 14 of Iowa’s eastern-most counties. Throughout the past five years, SigEp members have raised and awarded thousands of dollars to agency leadership within our broader, Cedar Valley community.
Sigma Phi Epsilon has made significant strides to positively change and improve their culture from within. By including the Mentors in Violence Prevention model into their existing national leadership development program, cultivating community partners with local junior high school staff to positively impact and influence young boys’ attitudes and beliefs about women and girls, and the qualities and characteristics of healthy relationships, and targeting philanthropy efforts to support the financial needs of victim service organizations in the area, SigEp is writing a new script for Greek life and distinguishing themselves from other fraternities on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa and beyond.
Meet the Author
Alan Heisterkamp, Ed. D.
Director, Mentors in Violence Prevention Leadership Institute
Sigma Phi Epsilon Faculty Advisor