During the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States experienced sharply increased rates of gun violence. The toll of fatalities fell heavily on male African-American teenagers in city centers. To contribute to the nation’s response to the problem, in 1994 the Center for Health Communication launched the “Squash It!” Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence (Squash It!) with support from The Joyce Foundation and MetLife Foundation. Squash It! included a national media initiative, focused primarily on reaching male African-American teenagers in urban settings to promote the social acceptability of walking away from potentially violent confrontations without fighting.
To complement the media initiative, Squash It! created a series of leadership forums aimed at mobilizing the support of policymakers for research-based community programs for youth.
To inform the development of the media campaign, the Center conducted focus groups with male African-American teens from Boston neighborhoods. Participants explained that when two groups of friends from different neighborhoods crossed paths, a confrontation could result if someone looked at another the “wrong way”– a confrontation that could escalate rapidly. Sometimes, however, the leader on one side makes a silent calculation: He doesn’t know what weapons the other side has, and whoever loses will come back tomorrow. He says to his friends, “It’s not worth it, let’s squash it”, and his group disengages. Center staff learned that the phrase “squash it” occasionally was used by African-American youth in other cities as well to signal a decision to walk away from a potentially violent confrontation. Therefore, the Center designed the campaign to build on, and strengthen, this “walk-away” element of street culture to help it become more dominant.
In addition, the Center conducted national survey research involving teens, in collaboration with Louis Harris Associates. The survey findings revealed an intriguing disconnect between the social norms and private beliefs of teenagers in urban settings. A large majority agreed with the statement, “Most people I know would say it’s almost impossible to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” At the same time, when asked about their own privately held beliefs, large majorities agreed with these statements: “It takes more self-control and more self-respect not to fight than to fight.” and “It shows strength to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” The same disconnect between social norms and personal beliefs was expressed by a majority of young people who acknowledged having been previously involved in serious violent incidents.
The survey findings, combined with insights gleaned from the focus groups, provided a strong rationale for the media campaign — namely, that publicizing and validating teenagers’ privately held beliefs would help change social norms by granting social sanction to decisions to disengage.
The campaign’s walk-away message achieved wide exposure: Television producers incorporated the Squash It! message in scripts of “Beverly Hills, 90210” (Fox), “Dangerous Minds” (ABC), “ER” (NBC), “Family Matters” (ABC), “Hanging with Mr. Cooper” (Fox), “In the House” (UPN), “Living Single” (Fox), “N.Y. Undercover” (Fox), and “South Central” (Fox). Two of the programs, “Family Matters” and “South Central,” also tagged the episodes with Squash It! PSAs featuring the entire casts.
The Center also forged a partnership with MTV, which produced Squash It! PSAs featuring top recording artists, including Coolio, Method Man, and KRS-One. For example, Coolio delivered this message: “You know when someone gets in your face and you just want to smack ’em? Check this out — you don’t have to, because you have a choice. Sometimes by walking away you can prove yourself to be the bigger person. I’m not saying don’t protect yourself, just use your brain to make the best choice. Be the solution. Squash the anger. Squash it.”
The PSAs aired frequently on MTV, Fox, and Fox affiliates. Black Entertainment Television (BET) featured the PSAs during a BET Teen Summit special on youth violence prevention in July 1996. CBS aired a Squash It! PSA during the Grammy Awards in 1997 and 1998.
At the Center’s request, the National Basketball Association (NBA) produced and sponsored PSAs featuring players with a walk-away message that aired frequently during the 1995 and 1996 playoffs. In addition, the National Football League (NFL) and Fox Sports produced PSAs featuring players with the Squash It! message that aired in prime time during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 football seasons. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored Squash It! PSAs on network television during the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (“March Madness”) regional-rounds and “Final Four” in 1997 and 1998. The NCAA also produced three spots featuring leading college football players that aired throughout the 1997-98 NCAA football season.
As a measure of the impact of the campaign, the Center’s national survey research found that 60% of African-American youths reported using the phrase “squash it” to disengage from a potentially violent confrontation in 1997, up from 48% in 1995. Needless to say, the campaign was one of many youth violence prevention initiatives undertaken in the 1990s. It was the sum total of these efforts that succeeded in sharply reducing the incidence of youth violence in the United States by the late 1990s.
Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums on Youth Violence Prevention
The Center also sponsored a series of Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums to provide opportunities for panels of students to express their views about crucial issues in their lives before audiences of influential decision makers. These on-stage discussions were moderated by senior officials such as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported: “Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to conduct a dialogue with DC young people as part of the Squash It! Campaign launched by the Harvard University School of Public Health. According to Harvard associate dean Jay Winsten, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY) are urging colleagues to attend, and [President] Clinton has been working behind the scenes to get media executives to [support the initiative].”
Each Forum also included a policy discussion in which a panel of experts on youth violence were interviewed by leading journalists (including NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC’s Barbara Walters and Cokie Roberts, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, and The New York Times’ Bob Herbert). The Forum held on May 16, 1997, featuring First Lady Hillary Clinton, was broadcast live on C-SPAN and can be viewed here: Violence Among Girls
The students expressed a strongly felt need for mentors to help them navigate present circumstances and pursue a successful future. The students’ comments raised an urgent, inescapable question for policy makers: If we are asking young people to “walk away” from violence, what is society offering as a positive alternative?
At about the same time, findings from a large-scale randomized trial of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program were published by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). This landmark study provided strong evidence that well-managed mentoring programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters provide tangible, important benefits that foster to healthy youth development.
As a direct result of experiences shared by young people at the Leadership Forums, and the findings from P/PV’s research, the Center made a strategic decision to segue from a “walk-away” media message to one aimed at recruiting large numbers of volunteer mentors to support the nation’s youth. The Center would serve as the communications arm of the mentoring movement. The Harvard Mentoring Project was launched in 1997.