In an emotionally charged session at the Education Writers Association’s national seminar, student activists from Parkland, Florida; Newtown, Connecticut; and Chicago urged the media to keep gun violence in the national spotlight and not let their tragedies fade away.
The young activists – Emma González, David Hogg, Alex King and Jackson Mittleman – unveiled statistics on gun violence and shared how they became the faces of a national movement during a panel discussion moderated by Education Week Writer Evie Blad at the University of Southern California here on Wednesday. (Video of the hour-long conversation is embedded below.)
“It’s not just an issue that’s very close to our hearts, it’s a part of us now,” said Mittleman, a Newtown High School junior and co-chair of the Jr. Newtown Action Alliance. He was 11 when the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings killed 20 children and six educators. “You do it for the people who are gone, … you do it so people never have to go through what you did again. … We will always keep pushing [to] encourage young people to express themselves and use their voice.
In fact, several young activists will spend the summer “moving from community to community” having conversations about how to prevent gun violence, said González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. , where a gunman killed 17 people on February 14.
The conversations will be with “young people who need their voices heard because for so long they have been crushed,” she said.
The first stop on the tour will be Chicago on June 15, said King, a senior at North Lawndale College Prep High School.
King is a member of the Peace Warriors, a group that provides support for students who have lost loved ones to gun violence. King, whose 16-year-old nephew was shot and killed a year ago, said the Peace Warriors had met 160 students in North Lawndale this school year.
“I have to do that [activism work] because a life lost is a life lost,” he said. “I know the kind of person I am – if I get on board, I can get a lot more people on board.”
This kind of advocacy is key to holding politicians accountable because it ensures they don’t forget the stories of victims, said Hogg, a Stoneman Douglas High School senior who, along with González, is one of Parkland School’s most publicly visible activists. .
While filming was taking place at her school, Hogg recorded some of her classmates on video talking about how they were feeling during the lockdown. “If we died in this classroom, I hoped our voices would carry on even though our souls wouldn’t,” he told the audience.
For too long, student activists said, efforts to prevent gun violence have not resulted in meaningful change, such as tighter gun controls. But young people refuse to “bite [their] languages,” King said: Teenagers are determined to make change.
When asked by an audience member how he became so confident and articulated on these issues, González was quick to respond, “What I like is that people sent us to high school. so we can learn things, and then we’re amazed that we paid attention,” she says.
— Emily Richmond (@EWAEmily) May 17, 2018
On the day of the shooting, González said she inquired about special interest groups and the National Rifle Association in the classroom. During an emotional speech at a gun control rally in Florida that went viral in the days after the shooting, she held up her AP government notes. She had planned to reference the Supreme Court case Tinker v. monkswhich asserted students’ constitutional rights to free speech, but she couldn’t read her notes through her tears, González said.
Hogg, also a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School, said he did extensive research on gun violence before the shooting happened for his speech and debate class.
“We’ve always been like this,” he told the reporters’ room. “You guys are just listening now.”
“A Universal Conversation”
In the days following the Parkland shooting, King and some of his fellow Chicago activists flew to Florida to meet with the surviving teens. The students have since tried to broaden the conversation beyond school shootings to encompass gun violence of all kinds.
“It’s a universal conversation. Adults looked at this unequivocally. Nobody was taking care of the whole problem,” González said. “Everyone is hurt by this. It’s not just the schools. If you only go to schools, Las Vegas is still going. Charleston too. We cannot let this happen.
Students are pushing for measures such as universal background checks, a ban on the purchase of semi-automatic weapons and the imposition of tougher federal gun laws. They also want more mental health and trauma counselors in schools.
Hogg has said all too often that people’s attitude towards gun violence that happens in big cities is, “it happens there, we can’t do anything about it.” He was troubled that it wasn’t until a shooting happened in a suburb – Parkland is a predominantly white, affluent community – that people started paying more attention to it.
For the students, “it made sense” to include activists from Chicago and other cities where gun violence is so common, González said.
Hogg echoed, “It shouldn’t be surprising that we did this – we should be expected to do this.”
Beyond the summer listening tour, activists are considering their next steps, especially since many of them will be graduating from high school this spring. They all said they felt responsible to continue this work. Hogg, for example, said he was taking a year off before college to pursue his advocacy.
He is currently working on getting a bill through Congress that would fix some of the problems. If that doesn’t pass, Hogg said, he’ll work to vote to have those lawmakers removed from office. Part of this is through the exploitation of student activism. On May 29, Hogg said, high schools across the country will register students to vote through HeadCount, a nonpartisan voting organization.
Meanwhile, Mittleman said he wanted to continue conversations about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary and other locations. For a time, Newtown residents found the shooting too painful to talk about. Now, he says, they are starting to talk about it again.
“You have to find the right time to talk about it,” Mittleman said. Still, “we don’t want to be defined by this tragedy.”
When he tells someone where he’s from, Mittleman added, he sees the look in their eyes. “I don’t want to have a tattoo of tragedy and sadness.”
It’s important not to normalize gun violence, King said. Too often in Chicago, he says, people don’t talk about those who have been killed by guns. “I’m here to bring these names out of the shadows,” he said.
The activists all said they felt responsible to their deceased friends, loved ones and peers to continue telling their stories.
“You can’t let it fade. It’s not something that should be trivial to anyone,” Mittleman said. “We just went through one of the worst things people go through. You are going to listen to us and we are going to start making changes.