By Arianna Huffington
March 10, 1997
The same week that gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in Los Angeles, public service announcements featuring superstar rappers like Coolio, KRS-One and Method Man are airing in theaters showing "Gridlock'd," starring another slain rapper, Tupac Shakur. In urgent cadence, they warn the viewer: "Avoid the drama. Squash it." "Live to tell about it. Squash it." "Walk away. Squash it."
The level of disgust and revulsion at the senseless violence across the country is rising, and sales of gangsta rap are plummeting. The Squash It campaign, relaunched this month by the Harvard School of Public Health under Jay Winsten, has the perfect message for a post-gangsta rap world. It takes its name from a street phrase for walking away from a confrontation before it escalates.
It's all the more important that the Squash It campaign is happening right now because after youth homicides declined by 14.4 percent in 1995, media mavens and policy-makers have been getting ready to move on. Forgotten in all their self-congratulations is the fact that homicides among the young are still 90 percent higher than they were 10 years ago. And that thousands of young lives are being cut short for tragically trivial reasons.
"What makes me optimistic," Winsten told me, "are the findings from our research which show that both for white suburban kids and for black inner-city kids there is a disconnect between their social norm that says it's not cool to walk away from a fight and their privately held beliefs. Secretly, they think that it takes more strength and self-control not to fight than to fight. So what we have to do is validate what they already believe."
I met Winsten only a couple of months ago in Boston, but he has been a hero of mine for years. As the architect of the extraordinarily successful Designated Driver campaign, he demonstrated beyond any doubt how much dysfunctional behavior can be changed if people use their creativity and imagination to send the right messages through popular culture. Between 1988 and 1992, fatalities from drunken driving were reduced by 30 percent, 40 percent of Americans served as designated drivers, and the term had found its way into the dictionary.
Remember the colorful wall poster that appeared each week in the bar scenes of "Cheers": "The Designated Driver is the Life of the Party"? It was through hundreds of placements like this that a new social norm -- the non-drinking driver -- emerged.
The Squash It campaign is in search of a similar miracle, a shift in the behavior of a critical mass of at-risk teen-agers. What makes the miracle feasible is that, for better and for worse, we are all very susceptible to what our culture is telling us.
Biologist Lewis Thomas describes the human brain as "the most public organ on the face of the earth, open to everything, sending out messages to everything." Which is why we succeeded in less than a generation to turn cool smokers into outcasts and convince an entire nation to exercise or at least feel guilty about not exercising. The goal now is to make walking away from a fight as socially acceptable to inner-city kids as drinking Diet Coke at a cocktail party is to suburban adults.
"Eighty to ninety percent of these kids," Winsten said, "are reachable if, as a society, we figuratively and almost literally tap them on the shoulder and show them that there's someone who cares for them. These kids are yearning to connect with something larger than their lives." He described one of the teen-agers during a focus group: gold chains, swagger, mean face. "I could pump lead into anyone here and be back on the streets in two weeks," he told the group, leading Winsten to make a mental note about metal detectors at the door. By the third week, the teen-ager was telling them that what he and his friends needed were "more groups like this."
With a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Winsten is that rare breed -- a brilliant scientist with an instinctive grasp of how to reach people through mass culture. As TV executives are discovering, it is very difficult to turn him down. Squash It is being featured in Fox's "New York Undercover" and ABC's "Dangerous Minds," while Fox affiliates in 45 of the 50 top markets have agreed to air the PSAs. If all goes well, the Squash It campaign will one day -- it could be sooner than we think -- reach critical mass. Each time a producer chooses to write the concept into a script, each time a singer chooses to give voice to it in his music, we come an inch closer to that day.
Winsten knows that the message has to be simple and direct, and the language and the spokespeople credible with the target group. "Ultimately," he says, "the campaign is not about getting kids to say 'squash it' but about showing them that they have the option to walk away."But it is not enough to help kids walk away. We need to help them find something to walk toward. Which is why Winsten is planning to launch a parallel media campaign to recruit volunteers to be caring, responsible adults in the lives of kids who have none. Only with local, community-based support will the kids who make the right choice on a dark street in the dead of night find it easier to make the right choice again and again. Because, finally, they will have something left to lose.
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
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