Violence is a leading cause of death for persons under 34 years of age…

We live with murder rates of more than twice the national average in many of the largest U.S. cities. These rates are 5 to 20 times the rates of most other industrialized countries. Everyone is entitled to a safe and healthy community. Sadly, this is not the reality for all Americans. In communities disproportionately afflicted by violence the number of killings rivals those of some of the world’s most violent countries.

Jason Harrison was “close to giving someone the business.” As the young man told Chicago Defender in December 2012, “it was going to be either me or him.”

He had no real relationship with Cure Violence; there were no personal connections to any of our workers, but he had seen the movie, The Interrupters, and it had a profound impact on him. In this instance, what got Harrison to “slow it down” and walk away from the conflict wasn’t actually a Cure Violence Interrupter or an Outreach Worker, but a crucial message that surfaced in his mind just before he was going to take action. As Harrison explained to the Defender, moments before he carried out a plan that could have taken a life and cost his freedom, “something just clicked in my head. I thought about the movie and about Cure Violence (The Interrupters). I just couldn’t do it.”

This remarkable accomplishment actually represents the long-term vision for Cure Violence’s public education campaign and answers a question that the organization has been dealing with since its inception. That question, how can conflict resolution messages change behavior in the highest-risk individuals, like Harrison, when it matters most?

The Cure Violence public education component—communication with a behavior change bent—is aimed at achieving an expanded breadth and depth in our messaging efforts to help shift community norms. One of the surprising findings of a recent three year study conducted by Johns Hopkins University of our Baltimore-based Cure Violence-replication, Safe Streets, found that in addition to the statistically significant decline in either homicides or nonfatal shootings or both in four historically violent neighborhoods—McElderry Park, Elwood Park, Madison-Eastend, Cherry Hill— positive effects (less shootings and/or killings or both) diffused into the neighboring communities as well as to people not even involved in the program directly. In other words, high-risk people in the neighborhoods where the Cure Violence model is being implemented were changing their thinking and attitudes toward violence even if we weren’t directly working with them.

Research conducted by the World Health Organization and others demonstrates that cultural and social norms (rules or expectations of behavior within a cultural or social group) are highly influential in shaping individual behavior, including the use of violence (2009). From the summer movie blockbusters to realistic depictions in the most popular video games, violence is woven into the imagery of U.S. pop culture. According to the Center for Media Education, by the time children complete elementary school, they will witness more than 10,000 acts of violence on television, including some 8,000 murders. These numbers double to 20,000 acts of violence by the time these children reach high school.

The Cure Violence public education component aims to challenge and change the prevailing norms around violence. Social marketing strategies for behavior change—applying private-sector advertising, marketing and communications techniques to behavioral and social change initiatives—have played a dramatic role in public health victories over the past century.  Vaccination campaigns across the globe resulting in the eradication of smallpox and the control of measles, rubella, tetanus, and diphtheria relied heavily on effective communication and information distribution. Public health campaigns have saved numerous lives facilitating transformative social change for seat belt safety, safer sex practices, quitting smoking and promoting healthier lifestyles.

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