GameChangers gives students a voice to dismantle rape culture

Sixteen high school students in Dane County are acting as ambassadors to dismantle rape culture from the ground-up, by influencing peers, young people in their lives and key adults in the community.

GameChangers is a student-driven project within the Dane County Rape Crisis Center (RCC) Education & Outreach office. The GameChangers recently finished their second year of work, which included conducting a policy summit, collaborating with WORT on a podcast, putting on an art show and presenting on how to dismantle rape culture at the Capitol.

“This project is about giving (students) a voice, and figuring out how to use it most effectively,” said Erin Thornley, RCC director.

GameChangers pairs the sixteen high school students with adult facilitators. While the students tackle most of the big-picture thinking, facilitators guide them and address the more logistical aspects of the GameChangers projects, said Eileen Zeigler, Director of RCC Education and Outreach.

For example, a GameChanger may think of a specific issue and suggest talking to state representatives, and a facilitator might guide them by asking pointed questions such as, ‘Is that really at the state level, or is it at a city level?” Zeigler explained.  

Gamechangers spent the first part of 2017 researching how social norms feed rape culture, including: rigid gender roles, sexual entitlement and misconceptions of consent, an acceptance of violence over systemically oppressed groups and cultural hyper-sexualization. They then took that knowledge to the policy summit, where the GameChangers explained these social norms and made recommendations tailored to the audience on how they could stop rape culture on multiple levels, Zeigler said. 

“Gamechangers thought the policy summit was hands-down the most important (event), because people were taking them seriously. Their knowledge and experience were valued.

Teens often feel like they are easily dismissed by adults. GameChangers overall, and the policy summit specifically, valued what they had to say, and treated them like they knew something,” said Zeigler.

Not only did the GameChangers leave the event feeling empowered, but they communicated their message to a broad range of professionals who can make a difference, such as state representatives, judges, superintendents, social workers and law enforcement, said RCC Director Erin Thornley.

Elected officials at the policy summit stayed after and talked with the GameChangers, encouraging them to bring their presentation to the Capitol.  

When the GameChangers took their presentation to the Capitol, which had bipartisan attendance, they altered the recommendations for the audience so their message could be most effective.

“(The GameChangers) could be doing any number of different things, and they chose to spend this much time with us working on this issue. Not even for themselves, but because they wanted to change the community for other people,” Zeigler said. “They took the time to present this information to people who could make a difference... They weren’t scared or nervous, they were just like ‘this is what we need to do. 

Using high-school aged students in a group like the GameChangers is crucial. Not only does it give teenagers a  voice in an important issue affecting their lives, but it also allows anti-rape culture messages to spread from the ground-up.

“I think (GameChangers) is about making [activism]  a part of who they are, and knowing that these individuals in high school are going to be in college or be out in the working world … where they will have influence over their peers…It’s likely to influence how they interact with people their entire lives,” said Thornley.

Its  mission to reach a wide range of people is one reason GameChangers strives for a diverse membership,, aiming for a range of geographic, racial and economic backgrounds.

“If we want primary prevention to be successful, we have to understand the root of the issue and the actual causes of sexual violence. We also have to have solutions specific enough to resonate with a variety of people,” Zeigler said. “If we only have a homogenous group, we’re not going to get those challenges to our own ideas. And that’s best case scenario...Worst case scenario is that we alienate people.”

The RCC works to make the GameChangers program more accessible to a variety of high-school students by paying mileage and providing food and childcare. The GameChangers are also paid, which shows the appreciation  the RCC has to its  members’ time, work and experience, said Zeigler.

The RCC is currently taking applications for the third year of GameChangers, which will begin this fall.