Bright Idea: A Chicago Project Gives Youth the Reins in Domestic Violence Prevention

Young people from ALSO

Jenna Musselman-Palles and her colleagues at Chicago’s Alliance for Local Service Organizations, known as ALSO, knew that teen dating violence had become an epidemic in the city. But they didn’t have anyone on staff who knew how to talk to youth about the tricky and personal subject of relationship abuse.

“We wanted to know more about the youth perspective,” says Musselman-Palles, a program director at ALSO. The key to learning more turned out to be obvious. ALSO let youth from their own programs lead the way, through a pilot program designed to get out on the streets and make sense of the issue.

Beginning last summer, five young people from ALSO conducted dozens of peer interviews and led multiple focus groups on dating violence over the course of a year. Their efforts culminated in a new biannual magazine, The Teen Zeen, aimed at helping Chicago teens confront abuse. The project gave adults at ALSO some much-needed insight into youths’ attitudes and behavior, and offered the young surveyors a chance to become experts on a pressing issue.

Each young person knew about dating violence firsthand, either through friends or from experience. But before embarking on their project, they received training from experts on the topic. And to help their youth leaders cope with the emotionally wrenching subject matter, Musselman-Palles and her co-director Darrell Johnson made sure to schedule regular meetings where the youth could discuss their feelings in a nonjudgmental group setting.

“I saw a lot of my friends get beat up all the time,” says Gina, one of the youth leaders. “And sometimes the boys would make me feel like it was cool to beat up girls. It became normal to me.” The surveys revealed that Gina’s attitude was widespread among her peer group, which only deepened her commitment to improving the situation.

Ariana, one of the pilot program participants, says that her peers “want to know about clinics, and where can they go to get free testing.  People can't ask each other because they're ashamed.” She hopes that the Teen Zeen will provide answers to those questions.

Musselman-Palles, whose background is in social work, says she and Johnson helped the youth structure their project, but left the specifics up to them: “We would talk about the objectives of the grant, and present the kids with the specifics, the things we had to do. We’d frame it. But then we’d open the floor up to them.”

As the project grew, encompassing multiple rounds of written surveys and continued focus group meetings, the youths’ goals and confidence grew, as well. Accordingly, Musselman-Palles says her expectations went from “Can these youth do this?” to “How can they use all their information to help as many people as possible?”

“They’ve said, ‘I couldn’t see myself doing this a couple years ago,’” says Musselman-Palles. “Now they bring friends to events, and share the work with their families.” But it’s not just their parents who are listening to these young people: They recently got their biggest platform yet when they presented their research to a youth summit hosted by the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority earlier this month.

Listen to NCFY’s podcast on this project, told from the youths’ perspectives.

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