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Leading with Humanity: University of Minnesota

  1. Katie Eichele, Bronte Stewart-New, Alexa Paleka, Chloe Vraney and Demi Adediran at the Aurora Center

  2. Alicia Leizinger, Health Promotion Specialist at Boynton Health

Location: University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Camille, Katie, Bronte and Alexa are taking a selfie smiling while holding a laptop with Chloe and Demi on zoom.
Left to Right in person: Camille, Katie, Bronte, Alexa. Left to right on screen: Chloe, Demi

Aurora Center

I felt extremely privileged to meet Katie Eichele and her wonderful team of passionate staff working to create a culture of safety and respect on campus at the University of Minnesota. The Aurora Center has been delivering holistic advocacy, prevention and support services for the whole university community surrounding sexual violence and related harms for more than 36 years. To facilitate this, the Center has four pillars of work:

  1. Direct service to victim-survivors, including crisis counselling, advocacy and support to access the criminal justice system or medical system.

  2. Prevention education that is underpinned by a public health model and anti-oppressive framework.

  3. Volunteer leadership program to upskill students to assist with Aurora's programs.

  4. Policy reform at the state, institution and campus levels.

Along with the team I met (and a few who were unable to join us), the Aurora Center also employs student-staff to work directly with students in their direct service stream and assist with administration of the Center's activities. Outside of the Center’s paid staff, many student volunteers work across all streams. To become a volunteer or student-staff member, there is a mandatory training period of 40 hours. This training includes content on what sexual violence looks like, the effects of trauma, how to respond to disclosures in a safe and trauma-informed way, intersectional language and much more. This rigorous training is mandated by state legislation – all sexual assault crisis support staff, including volunteers, must undergo this training so they are equipped to provide the best, most trauma-informed support possible.

I also reflected on the fact that the Center itself hires people based on their student activist efforts – something I rarely see in an Australian setting. Rather than viewing student activists as people to avoid, they actually see them as experts in their own right and people they want to learn from and employ.

Eichele and her team spoke about how they work closely with the student governing body each year and seek to support them with their initiatives. They see the value in collaboration across campus to ensure that all parts of campus are aware of their service, resources and know that support is available. While the Aurora Center supports initiatives by student activists, they are more directly involved in individual and systemic advocacy as they are a part of the university system and work from within. They ensure university staff regularly contact parts of the university to foster positive relationships that are built on trust, communication, expectation setting and welcoming feedback. The Aurora Center team believes that the more they grow their social influence, the more change they will create across the community.

The Aurora Center also believes in the power of storytelling and amplifying student victim-survivors' voices to create change at scale. They connect victim-survivors with senior leaders of the university to share their stories publicly, with Aurora Center staff and volunteers by their side, committing to changing the university culture for the better.

Everyone on the team emphasised how integral it is to partner with students to address their needs and see them as equal partners. They do this by working alongside students in collaborative and supportive ways across all of their streams of work. It's not about ‘teaching students’, but doing community-specific prevention activities.

I asked, what does engagement with the Aurora Center look like for a male student at this university?

Firstly, their prevention education programs cover topics such as social norms, bystander intervention, healthy relationships, empowerment for victim-survivors, how to create social environments that reduce violence and a new specialised psycho-education program on reintegration for respondents (perpetrators of sexual violence). Their approach is to ‘call out’ harmful behaviour by ‘calling in’ the perpetrator to discuss how they might be feeling and why. An important element of this is making clear that the intention is not to judge anyone or call them a bad person, but to instead invite them to be a part of the solution. This psycho-education approach seeks to connect feelings and emotions to behaviour and actions. 

The Center facilitates training to all student athletes at the university and is delivered by peers trained to have these conversations. This program includes presentations, workshops, events and a specific men's engagement group. They also deliver specific talks to fraternities on false rape accusations and do work to debunk the myth that false accusations are common.

There is no formula for buy-in.

– Katie Eichele

Eichele emphasised that there is no formula to gain buy-in from university leaders, but that anticipating resistance and having these conversations regardless will lead to change. I completely agree that the unique characteristics of each university determine whether students are listened to and sexual violence on campus will be taken seriously, usually dependent on who their President or Vice-Chancellor is. This is why I believe that in order to create more consistent changes across the sector, government intervention through legislative reform is necessary.

What struck me as so impressive about the Aurora Center is how they were actively involved in the 2022 policy and legislative reform advocacy in Minnesota to stipulate that post-secondary institutions support sexual violence victim-survivors. Specifically, one section of the 135A.15 legislation states that universities must designate a staff member/s as confidential resource/s for victim-survivors of sexual violence, and ensure that the person who experienced violence is provided with information to make an informed decision about their next steps, including whether to report. This legislation restores choice and autonomy to victim-survivors, and denies institutions the option to determine the course of action to silence victim-survivors and protect their institutional reputations. There are other important clauses in this legislation that seek to ensure that universities must treat all victim-survivors with respect and dignity, rather than the unfortunately all-too-common response of victim-blaming and shaming.

We’re proud of the team we’ve created and the relationships we've built.

– Katie Eichele

The way that Eichele, Stewart-New, Paleka, Vraney, Adediran and their team have invested time to build relationships as a way to influence policy change and support victim-survivors is inspirational. They always show up as advocates in these spaces and meet with each office across the university at least once per year. They demonstrate dignity and pride in the work they do and I am so grateful they were able to make space for me.

“Always lead with humanity.

– Katie Eichele

Boynton Health

Alicia Leizinger is a Health Promotion Specialist at Boynton Health within the University of Minnesota. She is also the Co-Chair of the Student Education Committee that seeks to advise on improving the education experience for students. Leizinger works in the health promotion team which covers areas including sexual violence prevention, high-risk drinking prevention and mental health promotion. Leizinger and her team of six staff work collaboratively across campus, including with the Aurora Center and student groups.

As the University of Minnesota is a member of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, all students in athletics are required to receive training on sexual assault every year. To do this, they identify at least one member from each sport team to be trained as a peer educator in sexual violence prevention to then facilitate training to their teams. The most common topics they speak about is consent and relationships, and effective bystander intervention. The goal is to have multiple team sessions so that the prevention education is ongoing and helps create a culture that believes and supports victim-survivors.

Their prevention education initiatives are delivered both online and in-person and are catered to different high priority groups across campus. These include:

Prevention Advocates Program

Leizinger leads the Prevention Advocates, who are fraternity and sorority members who lead sexual assault prevention efforts within their chapter. They facilitate workshops on consent, bystander intervention, supporting victim-survivors and other relevant topics for members of their chapter. Prevention Advocates also lead other changes within their chapters to ensure safer events, more inclusive environments and healthier cultures. Leizinger spoke about how the program is introducing more content on sexual agency, sexual wellbeing, conversations on the role sex plays in people's lives and how hook up culture can dictate the way students engage in sex. This new content has come from noticing how uncomfortable many students are with their sexuality and the desire to adopt a more sex-positive and shame-free approach to this education.

Healthy Norm Promotion Program

The Healthy Norm Promotion program is about supporting students to do peer-to-peer outreach in setting positive social norms, such as respect for others and believing victim-survivors, as standard. This includes a grant program for student groups to do a social norms marketing campaign or a group program, such as workshops, discussion series or events, aimed at LGBTQIA+ students and sexual violence prevention. This program focuses on meeting specific community needs of the LGBTQIA+ communities and explicitly discusses intersectionality as part of the program.

Science-based Treatment, Accountability, and Risk Reduction for Sexual Assault (STARRSA) Active Psychoeducation (AP) Program

The STARRSA AP program is an evidence-informed initiative recently established at the University of Minnesota to work with students who perpetrate sexual violence. The program is assigned to students as a form of educational sanction following their conduct, and acts as a training course designed for people who have been found accountable through an internal investigative or restorative justice process to prevent re-perpetration. This program is one of the first of its kind being implemented to promote accountability and support behaviour change for students who perpetrate violence. It acts as a more comprehensive approach to culture change on campus.

“Supporting supporters is supporting victim-survivors.”

– Alicia Leizinger

In higher education, lots of work tends to be siloed and there is a lack of genuine collaboration across the sector. This is something that the University of Minnesota President sought to address in 2017 by establishing Leizinger's role of Health Promotion Specialist. Leizinger was the first person to enter this role in 2017 when the President of the university launched it as a new initiative to prevent sexual violence on campus. This was the first step for the university to start taking a more comprehensive public health approach to prevention – to gain a more in-depth understanding of sexual violence, how it occurs, its different forms, and to stop siloing its preventative work. It marked the beginning of moving beyond individual education and creating a community that inhibits sexual misconduct by taking a more comprehensive and cross-disciplinary approach to prevention.

It was at this point during my travels that I started to realise that I cannot focus on prevention of sexual violence without directly addressing response too. The University of Minnesota's approach to ensuring that prevention, support, advocacy and response by the Aurora Center is supplemented by the health prevention, support and response work of Boynton Health is what we should be striving for. This model demonstrates that we can't silo prevention and response and that we also need to adequately resource the issue across various parts of the university to see positive results.

“There is no equivalent roadmap in sexual violence prevention as there is in tobacco/smoking prevention.”

– Alicia Leizinger

Leizinger emphasised that we must go beyond providing formal education to students on topics such as consent, as while this is necessary, it is not sufficient to create lasting cultural change at the systemic level. This is why all education, advocacy and support that does occur must be delivered in a peer-to-peer model as it takes into account unique community factors.

Universities tend to focus on responses to sexual violence when addressing systems, when we should also be looking at existing systems set up to reduce sexual assault from occurring in the first place.

It is SO important to focus on sexual health and wellbeing as an alternative to sexual harm. This counters the narrative of what people learn from childhood – don’t have sex, don’t rape, don’t get pregnant. Instead, the focus on sexual wellbeing means empowering everyone to be able to say yes or no to sex that they do or do not want to have and access the sexual health and wellbeing support they deserve.

How do we expect people to know how to say no if they don't know how to say yes? Flipping the narrative from being just about preventing harm to now being about sex positivity is a massive change in our society. This is why Boynton Health has a dedicated role to focus on sexual health and promote safer sex practices.

The University of Minnesota also has an undergraduate student government sexual assault taskforce which works closely with Leizinger and the team at Boynton Health, as well as the Aurora Center. The taskforce creates an advocacy agenda each year to implement needed changes, such as medical amnesty policies (protection for people seeking medical assistance even if they engaged in illegal activity). In practice, this looks like someone consuming alcohol underage or taking drugs, experiencing sexual assault, and being able to seek immediate medical care without being disciplined for the alcohol/drug use. A policy like this is desperately needed within university and residential halls in Australia. In my own experience as a peer supporter and advocate, I know the threat of disciplinary action is a common barrier for people seeking medical help. I have personally spoken to victim-survivors who experienced violence when they were underage and were too afraid to seek help because they were drinking. A medical amnesty would prevent institutions from taking disciplinary action against victim-survivors and also encourage more people to seek support and assistance in the first place.

A summary of recommendations to take from the work happening at the University of Minnesota:

  1. Amplify victim-survivor voices and celebrate student activists by taking them seriously and valuing their work as expertise. 

  2. Employ students to be a part of all streams of work with victim-survivors. Peer-led is always best with the support from experts who are committed to investing in training and support of these student leaders. 

  3. Take a public health approach to addressing sexual violence and implement this through a whole-of-institution model that encompasses prevention, support, advocacy and response.

  4. Keeping buy-in from leaders is essential to ensure this work retains sustainable resourcing. However this can be difficult to attain, so having state legislation mandating this work to continue to be a priority acts as a lever for buy-in to resource the work appropriately. 

  5. Universities should not be punishing their students or staff for engaging in broader policy agendas and instead support them to do so in their commitment to reducing violence.

  6. Building relationships and trust across the institution and broader community, while simultaneously breaking down silos will lead to better outcomes for everyone.

I am so impressed by the University of Minnesota’s work – they are so many steps ahead of Australia and how our governments and universities are addressing sexual violence on campus. A key difference being in how student voice and activism is valued and celebrated by the university, and subsequent partnerships are built. There is a lot for us to learn.

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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