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A ‘life-changing’ program creating student activists: URi-STANDers at the University of Rhode Island

A visit to the University of Rhode Island to speak with the team behind the URi-STANDers Bystander Intervention Program. I met with Keith Labelle, who leads the impressive Bystander Intervention Program - URi-STANDers, and students Shawn, Drew and Nadia. Labelle is a former student athlete at the university and decided to create the URi-STANDers program to empower students from across all facets of campus to STAND together against all forms of sexual violence.


Location: University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island, USA


Five people are standing in a hallway holding up a banner that reads: 'Bystander Intervention Program (URiSTANDers) i-STAND Community, Equity & Diversity
Left to Right: Drew, Nadia, Keith, Shawn and Camille holding a URi-STANDers pledge banner

Learning from Labelle and his students about the extensive violence prevention programming at the University of Rhode Island was a highlight of my trip. It was clear from the outset that Labelle approaches this work by building trust and mutual respect with the whole community - notably with students, staff, other sector organisations and the broader community. His collaborative and enthusiastic approach was also demonstrated in how he welcomed me for the day so I could best understand the inner-workings of all of the violence prevention programs and classes he coordinates.


So, what does Labelle lead at the University of Rhode Island?


1. Classes

The program that Labelle teaches at the university consists of four classes - two that are focused on sexual violence, one on public speaking and the internship program (minimum of two semester commitment).


Labelle’s Bystander Intervention Training class has been described as a class that changes lives. It teaches students about sexual and gender-based violence in the United States and internationally, including relevant laws, facts and statistics. Throughout the semester, students engage in weekly journals, readings, class discussions, independent research, exams and an action project where they have to complete a practical activity, such as a social media campaign or presentation, outside of class to an audience of at least 25 people. This holistic approach to learning subject matter that is not usually taught in higher education allows students to engage in self-reflection about their own ideas of gender and violence, and undergo intensive and meaningful self-examination.


Instead of using standard assignment grading, Labelle implements a 'points' system where students receive credit based on action to educate the community. This includes giving presentations, being on shift at a URi-STANDers booth, attending meetings and completing action projects. This points system rewards students who turn up and commit to the process of prevention - which includes being present, active, engaged and committed.


Some of the students I spoke to agreed that this course was life-changing for them. It not only gave them the knowledge about gender-based violence, but it also launched them into action to want to do something about it.

“The class lays the groundwork for them to be activists, then with the action project they have to be activists.”

- Keith Labelle


2. Internship program

After taking Labelle's Bystander Intervention Training class, students can become a URi-STANDer and receive internship credits for two semesters. URi-STANDers earn points each semester by participating in activities related to violence prevention. For example, interns earn 5 points per workshop facilitation, 2 points per office hour and 4 points for each hour completed staffing a booth. In this way, Labelle encourages active participation. This is what makes this unique internship program stand out - it is a truly action-oriented initiative that empowers students to gain skills in how to prevent and respond to all forms of violence on and off campus.


To date, the URi-STANDers Internship Program has supported more than 300 students (100 of those being men) to advocate for sexual violence prevention and educate others on how to be effective bystanders against harmful behaviours. It is rare to find a program where many men are also engaged as leaders in this work, which is another aspect that makes this program stand out.


Based on a model of positive role-modelling and collective action, interns become a part of a leadership team that assists Labelle with teaching, mentoring, training and research of students undertaking his classes and the wider community. Interns not only engage in education and awareness-raising, but are also trained to be able to provide support, resources and referrals to victim-survivors of sexual violence. This peer-support and mentoring element of the role contributes to a community of care and support after people have already experienced harm.


3. Educational talks and training sessions

All-year-round, Labelle and his URi-STANDers group are available to deliver educational talks and training sessions to all parts of the university. Labelle reflected that each semester, he and his student-interns are regularly providing educational sessions to staff, faculty and students to promote a community that is safe, secure and free from sexual misconduct. Specifically, he spoke of the sessions they deliver to various athletics teams, Greek life and residential halls. These sessions not only occur when requested but are also embedded into the university systems. For example, each student in athletics programs must do a session each year, and all Teaching Assistants must receive bystander intervention training. The aim is for each first-year student to have participated in a minimum of three sexual violence prevention initiatives, facilitated by members of the Bystander Intervention Training Program, by the end of their first semester.


4. Community building

It was clear to me that all of the work that Labelle and his students do throughout the year is widely promoted and highly visible across campus. This is done not only by focusing on large events, but also by ensuring that the URi-STANDers messaging is visible to all students. Displaying this messaging at most events (including induction sessions, plays, movie nights, sporting events etc.), by having their merch widely available, and Keith's office being located in the Athletics Centre has resulted in a recognisable brand. Everyone on campus knows about the program and who the URi-STANDers Interns are. 


What struck me was the way in which Nadia, Shawn and Drew spoke about how much they had learned during Labelle's classes and their realisation of how desensitised they were to daily acts of violence and discrimination. They also told me how invested and passionate they had become in advocating for a more safe and equal society, and how they contribute regularly through individual actions.

“I am an activist. Anyone can be an activist and do small things. People need to realise that the small things can make a big difference.”

- Shawn


There is so much more that I could write about the sexual violence prevention and response programming at the University of Rhode Island, but I would need to write a book chapter just to cover the surface. 


A few recommendations for the Australian context based on this model:

  1. Embed sexual and gender-based violence education and bystander intervention into the curriculum. One-off sessions are not good enough, as is done at most Australian universities (where this education is offered in the first place).

  2. Link student action to class credit, like the point system.

  3. Engage students meaningfully and proactively to engage in anti-sexual violence activism on campus to build a culture of respect.

  4. Create a recognisable brand that the whole community identifies with.

  5. People leading any violence prevention work should be visible on campus and act as role models. Stop hiding from students and community groups, refusing to meet with them. Treat them as your equals.


In summary, we need more people like Keith Labelle. Let's bring this program to Australia - it's essential that universities hire experts to deliver a comprehensive education program like this - one that educates students on the facts and empowers them to take action together.


In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel


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**I took a break from my Churchill Fellowship research due to unforeseen personal circumstances and this is my first blog back! Thanks for your patience as I return to focus on my fellowship findings and sharing them with the world.

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