Over the summer of 2021, 15 teen volunteers from across the San Fernando Valley collaborated with StrengthUnited and the Los Angeles Public Library to develop a graphic novel to share their reflections on teen dating violence. The graphic novel, titled Teens Leading Change: The Domestic Violence Awareness Project, features visual definitions of intimate partner violence through youth developed comics, essays, and a guide to accessing sexual and domestic violence resources. StrengthUnited, an RPE funded organization leading a Close to Home project in Canoga Park, facilitated the education for youth leading this project through their Close to Home Youth Orientation. The mission of Close to Home is to foster community-wide responsibility to prevent interpersonal violence by providing education and utilizing community mobilization strategies. This project, and other Close to Home efforts, address the prevention of multiple forms of violence, including sexual violence, through the utilization of primary prevention strategies. Community-based prevention strategies, such as creating protective environments and teaching skills to prevent violence, are key in curbing sexual assault before it happens in the first place. Alejandra Sandoval, the Outreach and Prevention Coordinator who oversees the Close to Home organizing at StrengthUnited, provided some more insight into this innovative project.

First and foremost, Alejandra says that the goal was to develop a graphic novel created for teens, by teens, that really linked interpersonal violence to young folks’ lived experience by reflecting on the ways that it has directly impacted their communities.  During orientation, youth were challenged to think about these issues in connection to their everyday lives. In addition to sharing stories and resources that highlight the nuances of gender-based violence, every graphic novel includes a QR code that is connected to a pledge. Readers who scan the QR code will be led to a page that includes questions about healthy relationships and actions they can take to prevent violence from happening in the first place.

In order to recruit teen volunteers, design and produce the graphic novel, StrengthUnited’s prevention educators partnered with librarians from the Los Angeles Public Library. The project emerged from an already existing relationship as StrengthUnited had already been utilizing the local library as a community space for their Close to Home work and collaborating with the library staff who do youth programming. The library had done graphic novel projects before, and was interested in facilitating a summer project that focused on domestic violence. In spite of some expected challenges around youth organizing, Alejandra agrees that the project benefited from having a clear beginning and end with an established production goal in mind. In addition to providing the orientation education to motivate youth, another helpful strategy was offering different ways to contribute to the graphic novel. Alejandra shared that several youth struggled to process all of the intricacies of intimate partner violence and distill it into a single comic strip, so the facilitators created an essay section for contributors who wanted to write out their thoughts. What emerged from this, is a final product that includes many of the nuanced aspects of interpersonal violence, such as manipulation, sexual violence and financial abuse.

StrengthUnited was also intentional about keeping this project youth-led, which generally means relinquishing some control over the content. Many agencies facilitating youth work struggle to do this, especially when the product is branded with their logo or information. To ensure that young folks had their work honored,but that important context was still provided to readers, the prevention team added some framing information after each story as well as a list of resources where teens can get support. Mostly, the three adult facilitators which included two Young Adult Librarians and StrengthUnited’s Prevention Education Specialist, stepped back and let the youth direct the project.

The Teens Leading Change graphic novel project concluded in the fall, and is now available electronically on the Los Angeles Public Library’s website. The graphic novel is going to be distributed across the county and will be carried in each library branch. Alejandra shared that there has been some dreaming about a mini library book tour, but with teens back in school, coordinating schedules is challenging. For now, the project facilitators are celebrating this major success that really showcases the potential for creativity and collaboration in prevention community mobilization.