Was Harvard's Heavily-Hyped 'Squash It' Swiped?

Bill Howard
July 1, 1996

Jay Winston, an academic super salesman, flew in from Harvard to pump the media at the unveiling of his newly-coined national campaign to avert youth violence — what he calls "Squash It."

He told of plans to insinuate the "squash it" phrase and an accompanying hand signal into the nation's urban street culture as a social norm that would allow kids to walk away from conflicts rather than settle them with bullets. Billboards were unfurled advertising the campaign's start. Public service announcements (PSAs) hit the air waves.

The concept was an instant hit with local politicians and Kansas City community leaders whom Winston had convinced to back a project here as the pilot for the national campaign. That was in October 1994.

Today, the local fanfare has long subsided. "Squash It's" budget has dropped from a first year, four-person $170,000 to a one and one-half person $85,000. (All of the money is locally subscribed; none of it comes from Winston who controls $1.2 million in foundation grants for "Squash It" from his Harvard School of Public Health roost.)

No Kansas City evaluation has been performed, nor is one in sight – although project leader Catherine Stark-Corn said she felt the "Squash It" presentations she and former Chicano gang leader Michael "Mickey D" Ruiz make to Kansas City teenagers were gaining currency. She has no idea when, or if, the community program will be expanded.

"I really don't know what the plan is," she told YOUTH TODAY, "Jay just keeps saying it took nine years for his designated driver campaign to catch on."

While youth worker Stark-Corn struggles in the corn belt, Winston has been concentrating on gaining more national visibility and more national foundation grants for "Squash It" through PSAs on MTV and by staging forums on youth violence with celebrities and national figures such as one in Washington. D.C., in April featuring Vice President Al Gore.

He's also battling some devils in the form of a growing chorus of critics who say the campaign will enhance Winston's national reputation but do little to lessen violence among youth. Plus, he's dogged by questions about whether he came up with the idea and hand signal for the "Squash It" campaign himself, or lifted them from New York City's "Choose to De-Fuse" program.

Some Kids Dig Hand Signal

Of one Winston talent there seems little dispute. The associate dean of Harvard's School of Public Health, who heads its Center for Health Communication, is an ace at selling ideas and raising money. So far he's wangled a total of $518,599 from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and another $700,000 from Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.'s MetLife Foundation in New York.

The grants from these gullible foundations were awarded largely on the high profile Winston has gained nationally by transforming the designated driver sobriety concept of the 1980s, which was devised by others, into a household phrase via Hollywood and popular entertainment media.

Winston said it was the Joyce Foundation which approached him first in February 1993. He was asked to apply his talent for obtaining free media for a cause (and himself) and getting a message included in television shows, movies and other forms of popular entertainment to the nation's rampant and increasingly lethal wave of youth violence. He received an award a few weeks later.

The date is important because it fell several months after New York City associate mental health commissioner Jane Zimmerman had already started developing the "Choose to De-Fuse" program.

Questions have been raised whether after launching the Kansas City pilot program Winston has abandoned It. Not so, says project leader Stark-Corn, a former elementary school teacher. He is in regular contact with the program and helps with the training and development of PSAs, she said. That he didn't fund the pilot was part of the deal. Winston said, to determine whether a community could support a strong program on its own — a question still not answered in Kansas City.

Former gang leader Ruiz, who signed on after attending a "Squash It" workshop, deserves much of the credit for the Kansas City program's success, Stark-Corn said. His background gives him the credibility to walk into a school and hold a skeptical audience's attention.

Stark-Corn and Ruiz said that when shown the clips from Beverly Hills 90210, Family Matters and other television shows where Winston has succeeded in getting the "Squash It" message incorporated into the scripts, teenagers know that the scenes don't depict reality.” They know that's not how it is," said Ruiz.

But those videos, along with the PSAs featuring rap artists, spark discussions of what the youth believe would work to curb violence, and Stark-Corn said they eventually come back to the "Squash It" program, and its hand signal. "Fourth, fifth and sixth graders think the hand signal is cool," she said,” but not older kids. So we're not married to it."

Rap Artists at Work

At the April forum, Gore responded to a teen's question on what was being done about violence by ticking off a list of Clinton Administration efforts to get guns out of the hands of youth, put more resources into prevention programs, keep families intact, create jobs and hire more officers for community policing.

“The main thing is to take the kind of suggestions you all made here and put them into programs in the communities," said the vice president, who chairs the ill-fated President's Crime Prevention Council.

"Our goal is to build support for prevention programs," Winston said later in an interview. "I'm convinced that when policymakers and decisionmakers get to know these kids, there's no way they can settle for three-strikes-and-you're-out without also supporting prevention."

"I thought the discussion could have been more constructive toward solutions and not just self-congratulatory that we're all here today," Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence, said afterward.

The forum concluded, as had Winston's other three, with media celebrities participating in a Meet the Press-style grilling of public policy officials, health agency administrators and school and justice representatives.

One of the session's purposes was to screen public service announcements featuring rap stars Coolio, Method Man, KRS One and Naughty by Nature which began airing on MTV in May. They encouraged youth to "Just Squash It" and walk away, and they are the central element of Winston's campaign to get the television networks, Hollywood studios and the music industry to include the "Squash It" message in their media.

"So here we have a script by Coolio based on Harvard research and produced by MTV," an obviously pleased Winston said of one of the ads. "Now that's breaking some new ground in public health." He added: "If we want to talk to kids on the street with credibility, we have to work through people who have credibility with the kids on the street."

Winston predicted that the event, at the very least, had heightened media awareness of the youth violence problem, even if it had failed to attract a single member from Congress located a few blocks away.

Drive-By Program?

Winston's approach has won a qualified endorsement from Marcy Kelly, president of Mediascope in Studio City, Calif., a nonprofit group that monitors television violence and its impact on youth. "Entertainment media is a powerful education tool, and for a lot of young people, that's where they get their information about all kinds of things."

But not everyone agrees that celebrities conveying messages through the mass media can alter social behavior among youth.

"It definitely can increase awareness when it's part of a comprehensive, community-based approach," says Ivan Juzang, founder and president of MEE Productions, a media research group in Philadelphia. "But definitely PSAs by themselves cannot do that. They're just competing with too many other messages that are bombarding young people."

MEE recently completed a study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that concluded the use of celebrities was ineffective in trying to reach young black men. "You still need to have an interpersonal campaign," says Juzang. "It's fine that you can tell a person to 'Squash It.' but you also have to tell a young person what to do after that, and how to do it."

Who Owns the Words?

Winston claims he discovered the phrase in use among African-American youth while conducting his own focus groups in Boston m 1993.

He said he and his research assistant, Susan Moses, devised a hand signal to go along with the phrase because hand signals are an important part of urban youth culture. The hand signal — or "cue," as Winston refers to it — requires a youth to slap his one hand, open and palm down, on top of his other, clenched into a fist, to signal his desire to "cool it."

"Our polling shows that currently large numbers of inner city teens feel they lack the option of walking away without fighting," Winston said. "But our polling also shows that 83 percent of kids already believe it shows strength, not weakness, to walk away. 'Squash It' is giving them social permission to do what many of them already want to do, but feel embarrassed to do, and that's walk away."

That poll of 2,000 teens nationwide, conducted by Louis Harris Associates in May 1995, also found that a suspiciously high 52 percent of urban African-American teens had used the "Squash It" phrase to get out of a confrontation, and 28 percent said they had resorted to the hand signals, Winston asserted.

But many who work with inner-city youth remain skeptical, and claim they've never heard the phrase used. "In all the workshops I've done with thou-sands of kids, ‘Squash It’ has never come up," said Sam Bryant of New York City's "Choose to De-Fuse."

"I'm highly suspicious of a white Harvard associate conducting his own focus groups on African-American youth, or other young people of color," said Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco.

The center, which operates out of San Francisco General Hospital, is an integral part of the California Wellness Foundation's 10-year, $70 million Violence Prevention Initiative in the state.

"I think it (Winston's campaign) in the end, is probably doing more harm than good," added McGuire. “When you have someone with the stature of Harvard behind him saying this is the answer, people will gravitate to that. It lets policymakers and legislators have the false impression that this is going to do something about violence, and then they won't do other things that are tougher to do. My gut tells me it's not going to have any impact."

McGuire cautioned that the use of the "Squash It” hand signal on the street could be misunderstood and cause others to respond violently, instead of walking away. "This is a very emotional and tricky arena this guy from Harvard is getting into."

Youth worker Akinsanya Kambon, who runs Gangs for Positive Action m Long Beach, Calif., also said he had never heard the "Squash It" phrase used, and doubted that the phrase and hand signal would be taken seriously by gang members he works with in the Los Angeles area. Winston said he was not surprised by that.

"‘Squash It' is not about influencing behavior of gangs," he said. "This is about reaching street kids who can guns and knives, and who run in groups of three or four or five." As to McGulre's criticisms, Winston replied that "Squash It" was not a panacea. "It's a complement to school-based conflict resolution programs, and other programs. To break the back of this problem, it's going to take a dozen or more approaches, each approach having a small effect.

"So if 'Squash It’ can take care of 5 to 10 percent, I’ll consider it a success," he added.

...Or The Idea?

Regarding the origin of the program's concept and hand signal, Jane Zimmerman recalls beginning the development of the "Choose to De-Fuse" program in the fall of 1992. In May 1993, she was invited to give a presentation to faculty and students at the Harvard School of Public Health, and took along a PSA to show. That PSA, which she said she left behind at Harvard, featured a clenched fist with a fuse coming out of it, and ended with the other hand, open and face down, dousing out the flame.

Winston did not attend Zimmerman's seminar, but the two met privately beforehand in his office. Winston says the meeting was a brief "courtesy call," but Zimmerman claims it lasted 45 minutes to an hour.

At the time of the meeting with Zimmerman, Winston was in the process of developing the content for such a media campaign with his Joyce Foundation grant.

But Zimmerman said he never mentioned this to her. She said she explained her program in detail, showed him the materials and demonstrated the hand signal.

"He did not indicate to me in any way that he had heard of it," Zimmerman recalled recently. "He thought it was a great idea; that's what he told me. He said he had been the originator of the designated driver concept and was proud he had been so successful.

"I thought that was great. I thought maybe we could work together," said Zimmerman, who, until now, had refused to discuss the incident with reporters to avoid getting into a fight with Harvard.

"If he already was working on anything, he never shared it with me," she said.

But Zimmerman said she never heard from, or of, Winston again until December of that year, after a friend mentioned seeing an article in the New York Times describing a Harvard program that sounded like hers. New York City Mental Health Commissioner Luis Marcos subsequently sent a letter of complaint to the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health on February 25, 1995. But Winston denied that Zimmerman had discussed her program during the meeting the year before, and the matter was dropped.

When asked about this recently, Winston responded with a personal attack on Zimmerman, saying he gives credit to those he gets ideas from, but Zimmerman deserves no such credit, and will get none.

"She's trying to position herself as the architect of the conflict resolution field, and she's just a bit player in it," he said. "The reason we didn't credit her is because we didn't learn it from her."

When Winston conducted a "Squash It" forum in New York City last February, no one from the "Choose to De-Fuse" program was invited to attend, even though the program has the enthusiastic backing of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"I know people who are afraid to talk in front of Jay because of his reputation for taking people's ideas," says one youth service practitioner, who asked not to be identified. "The problem with Jay is his Harvard cachet protects him, gives him entre and gets him money."

If that is Winston's reputation in some circles, it is not deserved, says friend and colleague Mark Rosenberg, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in Atlanta.

That resentment may, in part, result from the intense competition for limited resources among youth violence prevention groups, he says.

But Rosenberg stresses that the problem needs people like Winston who know how to work on a national level, and Zimmerman, McGuire and others who are doing good work at the state and local level.

The main question, however, whether Winston's "Squash It" approach is all showbiz or truly effective in quieting violence among youth — if never evaluated — may never be answered.


Center for Health Communication

Harvard School of Public Health

Contact: Jay Winston, Ph. D.

677 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115

(617) 432-1038

Choose to De-Fuse

Contact: Jane Zimmerman

125 Worth Street, Room 510

New York, NY 10013

(212) 788-3339

Kansas City Squash It Program

c/o Youthnet

Contact: Catherine Stark-Corn

301 E. Armour Blvd., Suite 460

Kansas City, MO 64111

(816) 931-9900, ext.230


Contact: Marcy Kelly

12711 Ventura Blvd., Suite 280

Studio City, CA 91604

(818) 508-2080

MEE Productions

Contact: Ivan Juzang

4601 Market Street, 5th Floor

Philadelphia, PA 19139

(215) 748-2595

Pacific Center for Violence Prevention

Contact: Andrew McGuire

San Francisco General Hospital

San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 821-8209

Howard, Bill. "Was Harvard's Heavily-Hyped 'Squash It' Swiped?"Youth Today, July/August 1996, p. 23-25.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.