Damond Brown '21, CAPE Project Director Suzannah Rogan and Travis Handler '22
Senior Damond Brown, CAPE Project Director Suzannah Rogan, MSc and junior Travis Handler

The work that Doane students and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are doing to reduce gender-based violence on campus drew national attention earlier this spring.

Two student-athletes and CAPE Project Director Suzannah Rogan, MSc were presenters in the National Healthy Masculinity Conversation Series — a virtual lecture series hosted in late March by Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR). During the lectures, Rogan shared an overall picture of her work with CAPE and the Engaging Men Campus Athletics Project (EMCAP).

Senior Damond Brown and junior Travis Handler spoke about their efforts to share healthy masculinity education with Doane athletic programs, and how EMCAP has impacted themselves and the university. 

A key component of the program is how healthier masculine ideals can be used in relationships and in leadership roles, taking a stand for a safer community.

But sometimes, the students pointed out to their audience, it’s just as important to clarify what the program isn’t about.

It’s not:

  • Accusatory.
  • Negative.
  • Against men.
  • Talking down to fellow athletes and students.

“We’re just empowering people to be better humans,” Handler said — and in doing so, creating a safer campus culture.

Brown and Handler are two of four student-athlete peer educators who work directly with Doane athletic teams, leading workshops and exercises that demonstrate empathy, active listening, bystander intervention skills, the difference between false or unhealthy ideals of masculinity versus real life, and much more.

“It (EMCAP) provides an educational platform and the language to teach that sexual assault is a result of power dynamics and ways to battle that within our own communities,” said Handler, a political science and international studies major and a former player on Doane’s baseball team. Rather than drill lessons into students, it lays out a blueprint they can follow, added Brown, an exercise science major and four-year varsity football player, who took on the peer educator role in part because of his family. 

“How I was raised — having a single mom and a bunch of sisters — I learned that the women in my life come first. If I can do something in the world that can help them feel safer or more protected, by all means, I’ll do that.”

A little background

In 2016 Doane was awarded a campus grant to help prevent, and better respond to, gender-based violence on campus. Its overarching goal is to reduce sexual and relationship violence and stalking, explained Rogan, who began her role as CAPE Project Director in 2017. The grant also made Doane eligible to apply to join EMCAP, an initiative started by the organization Men Can Stop Rape and the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women and Positive Coaching Alliance. EMCAP works to specifically engage college athletes as allies and leaders in its cause. 

Like many other small universities, Rogan said, it was important to engage the athletic program at Doane because of its size and influence. Athletics make up a large percentage of the student body “and hold a lot of social power as well.”

The strong support she received from Doane coaches plays a direct role in the success of the program to date, she said, including former Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Matt Franzen. Both Rogan and Franzen completed program training and reviewed its curriculum, deciding to pilot the program with the 100+ member football team. In 2018, additional coaches were introduced to the program. 

Another important decision followed in 2019 when Rogan formed a peer educator team to help with the program. The 13 peer educators represent a swath of campus life, including four male student-athletes: Brown, Handler, junior Bobby Mercier and senior Grant Hrabik.

Each peer educator completes 35 hours of initial training, ranging from how to engage a variety of populations in difficult topics to the impact of interpersonal violence on a campus and broader community. One of the key lessons peer educators share with male athletes is how to deconstruct some of the dominant ideas of masculinity in our society, Rogan said, in order to learn healthier ideals of masculinity.

Turning point

From the start, it was easy to see the difference the dedicated team of peer educators made.

“We started to see an uptick of students taking the info to heart and really identifying with what their peers were sharing with them,” Rogan said.

The peer educators put the student perspective into the curriculum, which is shared in engaging and thought-provoking ways.

For example, the “Real Man” exercise pits pictures and stereotypes of famous and successful men in today’s society against students’ own perceptions. When students are asked to describe the ‘Strongest Men’ in their lives, they talk not about looks or money, Rogan said, but about dedicated men who made sacrifices to take care of them and their families. 

Rogan hopes each lesson, whether it’s about consent or bystander intervention in a dangerous situation, plants a seed of knowledge. “...Recognizing when something is unhealthy or abusive is the key to ensuring our students stay safe,” Rogan said.

In their lecture, “Athletics in Prevention: A Community Conversation,” both Brown and Handler said the work they are doing to better their communities has made them better as well. 

“I was nervous at first,” Brown said. “...I thought I was the coolest dude in the world...to set that aside and be vulnerable and have these conversations was hard at first.”

“...But I can’t even put into words how grateful I am that I took that opportunity and seized it. I gained a lot of knowledge and I’m so excited that now I get to spread it. Now only with people I work with and the kids I might coach, but to my own family and later in life, to my own kids.”

For Handler, the process “has been remarkably humbling on a number of fronts,” especially in learning patience. He has found that many of the program’s lessons apply to other situations in life, including his work as a legal clerk for a law firm that handles civil rights issues in his home state of New Mexico. 

Being a peer educator on a small campus takes a thick skin at times, he said, as it draws its share of criticism and skepticism. But he felt like he was making a difference after two male student-athletes came up to talk with him after he spoke on mental health advocacy in a presentation. The students thanked him for being open about the topic and said they identified with what he shared.  Some of the steps ahead include broadening the program to include all athletic teams and, eventually, Greek Life. The recent national lecture series and its feedback gave their cause a boost, Rogan said.

“It (the lecture series) felt like the culmination of what we are doing. Seeing the students on the national stage, seeing what they have learned and how much they’ve grown, was a very proud ‘boss moment’ for me. They are doing incredible work with their peers and having a huge impact.”