Start Strong Teaches Youth How to Build Healthy Relationships

    • November 3, 2010

A four-year initiative under way in nearly a dozen cities and states across the country is helping thousands of young people understand what makes a healthy relationship—before they enter their teen years and become vulnerable to intimate partner violence and abuse.

Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The program has already raised significant awareness through its preventative work with 11- to 14-year-olds. Many of its projects address African-American and Latino communities, where intimate partner violence often is more prevalent.

The Boston site, for example, developed a “Sound Relationship Nutritional Label.” Modeled after the standard label found on food packaging, it helps students identify healthy and non-healthy relationship ingredients in song lyrics and music videos.

And in Austin, through the Changing Lives Youth Theater Ensemble, high school students have created their own plays about teen dating violence and taken their productions to area schools.

“We want to find the most promising ways to prevent teen dating violence because we know that the earlier that young people get relationships right, the better chance they’ll have to make their lives better over the long term,” said James Marks, M.D., M.P.H, RWJF senior vice president and Health Group director. “By addressing healthy relationships in middle school students and encouraging communities to embrace this idea, we’ll give those young people a strong advantage.”

Research suggests that intimate partner violence is a learned behavior, and Start Strong seeks to break the cycle of violence. The issue is more prevalent in certain communities. The 2009 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among girls in ninth through 12th grade, dating violence was higher among Blacks (14.8 percent) and Hispanics (11.4 percent) than Whites (7.2 percent).

RWJF and the Blue Shield of California Foundation are investing $18 million to create and evaluate comprehensive prevention models through Start Strong. RWJF chose the Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF), one of the nation’s leading organizations working to prevent domestic and sexual violence, to serve as the initiative’s national program office.

With support from the FVPF, all of the 11 sites are employing four strategies in their efforts: implementing a healthy-relationship curriculum in local schools; encouraging policy and social changes needed to support healthy relationships; utilizing and engaging teen leaders, teachers and parents to mentor youth; and employing social media networks to reach youth.

A distinctive feature of the initiative is its research and evaluation element. “As we look at this initiative, we’re going to evaluate what is most effective—for instance, which messaging resonates more with African-American and Latino parents,” said Esta Soler, FVPF president. “Ultimately, we want to determine what we can implement on a larger scale so we can create the most effective programs to help our children.”

RWJF is funding 10 sites nationwide. The Blue Shield of California Foundation is funding a site in Los Angeles.

The Start Strong sites are:

  • Start Strong Atlanta – Emory University. Partners: Grady Hospital and Atlanta Public Schools.
  • Start Strong Austin – SafePlace. Partners: Austin Independent School District, Boys and Girls Club of the Capital Area, and Seton Family of Hospitals.
  • Start Strong Boston – Boston Public Health Commission. Partners: Boston Centers for Youth and Families, Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital, and Roxbury Multi-Service Center.
  • Start Strong Bridgeport (Conn.) – RYASAP. Partners: Greater Bridgeport Adolescent Pregnancy Program and Playhouse on the Green.
  • Start Strong Bronx (N.Y.) – Bronx Lebanon Hospital. Partners: NYC Department of Education, Bronx Borough President’s Office, and Sanctuary for Families.
  • Start Strong Idaho – Idaho Coalition against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Partners: St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and the Idaho Department of Education.
  • Start Strong Indianapolis – Clarian Health. Partners: Ruth Lily Health Education Center, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, and the Domestic Violence Network of Greater Indianapolis.
  • Start Strong Los Angeles – Peace Over Violence. Partners: Los Angeles Unified School District, University of Southern California Institute for Media Literacy and El Centro del Pueblo.
  • Start Strong Oakland (Calif.) – Family Violence Law Center. Partners: Youth ALIVE, Youth Radio, and the Oakland Unified School District.
  • Start Strong Rhode Island – Sojourner House. Partners: Rhode Island Department of Education and Young Voices.
  • Start Strong Wichita (Kan.) – Catholic Charities. Partners: Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center, Wichita Public School District, Wichita State University Department of Sociology and the Center for Community Support and Research.

About Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. Helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need—the Foundation expects to make a difference in our lifetime.

About Blue Shield of California Foundation

Blue Shield of California Foundation, one of the largest healthcare grantmaking organizations in California, has committed more than $30 million since 2002 to ending domestic violence in the state. For more information, please visit the Web site at The Foundation was formed by Blue Shield of California, a not-for-profit corporation with more than 3.4 million members, 4700 employees and more than 20 offices throughout California.

About Family Violence Prevention Fund

The Family Violence Prevention Fund works to end violence against women and children around the world, because every person has the right to live free of violence. The FVPF has continued to break new ground by reaching new audiences including men and youth, promoting leadership within communities to ensure that violence prevention efforts become self-sustaining, and transforming the way health care providers, police, judges, employers and others respond to violence. Its public education campaigns, conducted in partnership with The Advertising Council, have shaped public awareness and changed social norms for 15 years.