Developing and supporting future fathers

UNI’s Alan Heisterkamp would tell you he’s not providing training to be a good father, but he will argue he has a hand in it on campus and statewide.

Heisterkamp is the director of the Center for Violence Prevention, a program housed on the UNI campus created to support schools and organizations with implementing violence prevention and evaluation strategies.

Heisterkamp and Wm. Michael Fleming, an associate professor at UNI, are aiming to change the culture in male-dominated circles by reaching out to leaders in fraternities, athletics and military organizations like ROTC.

“Historically, we as a nation, see this as something women are fighting for, so one of the intentions is to have men challenge the behaviors,” Heisterkamp said. “Men don’t admit weakness. You never ask for directions. You never admit you’re sick. We learn that and model that and teach it to our boys and pass it along.”

The center’s programming impacts about 40,000 high school students each year and has been added to UNI’s orientation sessions to help break a cycle.

“When we start to remove those pressures, men are freer to be who they are and show a nurturing side,” Fleming said. “Oftentimes men haven’t been given that permission or have these types of conversations. Men are not trained to talk or given the platform to talk.”

He admits it’s a slow shift, but Fleming said the program Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) is creating that platform for discussions for young men.

Alan Heisterkamp
UNI's Alan Heisterkamp leads a group of students in Mentors in Violence Prevention training.

Heisterkamp started working with the model nearly 20 years ago as a school administrator. He noticed prevention had lost priority in secondary education.  

“We saw the value of this and decreased incidents of physical aggression in our buildings and students were wanting to do this,” Heisterkamp said. “After 18 years of doing this, one of the things I feel most proud of is sticking with this knowing this can be a very positive component to the social and emotional development, particularly in secondary.”

He said most teachers are focused on teaching the subjects they are trained to instruct, not the emotional and social aspects of their students.

“They were just supposed to learn the math I was teaching them, right?” he said. “Then we kind of departmentalize ‘You’re the school counselor or you’re the school nurse. You’re supposed to have these conversations. Not me.’”

Heisterkamp emphasizes everyone has a responsibility in violence prevention by paying attention to early warning signs.

“Even kids watching out for each other in terms of mental health. Think about all the times kids disclose to other kids, their friends, their peers, teammates about serious situations,” he said. “We try to demystify and create some pathways and structures and really address the culture by getting kids to challenge and confront behaviors that are sexist, homophobic, disrespectful, misogynist, racist, any of those behaviors that are the beginning stages of a continuum or spectrum of abuse. It can really elevate and ramp up if it’s not confronted at the very beginning.”

The center partners with several majors on campus like social work, family services, human services and education to increase students’ understanding of how it can manifest itself in work settings and how to facilitate the conversation to correct the issues.

Presentations are done in classroom settings and with UNI athletic teams to encourage others to speak out. Trainings are done in the fall and spring with community members and UNI staff and faculty.

“The trainer-to-trainer type of training brings different people together from different sectors of the campus or community,” Fleming said. “So you have a sophomore student sitting next to a community person sitting next to an administrator sitting next to a faculty member having a conversation as equals, and each brings a different perspective.”

The center has been a catalyst in eight community colleges and at least 18 private colleges in Iowa by identifying leaders to be spokesperson and facilitators with younger peers.

“We approach it from the aspect of leadership values and connecting the dots that this is what it means to be leader,” Heisterkamp said. “If you see yourself or want to see yourself as a leader, these are the types of things that leaders say and do. You take on some responsibility.”

This message spoke to a student active in UNI’s Greek system. Now a graduate, he recognized the need for the MVP program in his former high school and was instrumental in its implementation in Waukee, Iowa.

Waukee’s first session trained 30 teachers who went on to teach more than 100 mentors, and the MVP program has been working with more since its inception there about five years ago.

“And you think of those mentors and how many young people they reached,” Fleming said. “Bringing in a program that has a core component of leadership, that’s more palatable than other types of programs and opens the door for discussion with men. I think that opens the door to have men reflect on what resources they have to help be part of a conversation for healthy environments whether it’s school, community, workplace or home.”

UNI’s CVP is currently working with 30 schools to offer free programming that includes bullying and hazing prevention. Recent grants are expected to push that number to 72 schools in the Midwest.

“My work through the Center for Violence Prevention includes working with men and boys to redefine what it means to be a man - particularly in our relationships with others,” said Heisterkamp. “While I work and train a lot of men who are fathers, uncles and grandparents, I do not focus specifically on fatherhood. I'd like to think I help develop and support future fathers.”

Fleming and Heisterkamp see the programming seeping into all areas of students’ development.

“After training them in high school, we are finding them on campus and looking for ways to use them,” said Heisterkamp. “That’s an untapped resource for any college in Iowa that is the beneficiary of those students. I’ve always thought that these campuses we work in are only as safe as the kids who show up.”