Young people who captured the nation’s attention this spring rallying against gun control brought their energy and vision to students on and off campus Thursday evening, urging local organizers to keep the movement alive. Members of March for Our Lives, a youth anti-gun violence group, and Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, a Chicago-based youth advocacy training program, participated in two events on and off campus after being awarded the Wallenberg Medal Wednesday evening: first, an afternoon panel facilitated by students of the Ford School of Public Policy to speak, and a larger event in the evening organized by Washtenaw Youth Initiative at the Neutral Zone in downtown Ann Arbor.
The University of Michigan awards the meda annually to individuals who have shown great bravery in the sphere of social justice. Student representatives from both groups were the youngest honorees in the award’s 28-year history.
B.R.A.V. E. violence prevention coordinator Lamar Johnson represented the Chicago-based youth advocacy training program at the events, and was joined by Alex Wind and Sofie Whitney from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., both survivors of the fatal shooting at their school last Feb. 14. March for Our Lives was born out of activism of students following the mass shooting, while B.R.A.V.E. was founded in 2009 by grassroots movements in Chicago united against local violence. The two organizations formed a coalition following the Parkland shooting in an attempt to take an intersectional approach to activism, and further highlighting the quotidian nature of of gun violence.
The three began the Ford event by lighting a candle in remembrance of the lives lost to gun violence. Then, they entered into a conversation about student activism: what it is, what it requires, why it’s important and how it looked when they did it.
“We like to create rooms that should have never existed and would have never existed before,” Whitney remarked.
All of the panelists emphasized the need to engage the whole of society in gun violence prevention in order to see salient change. Wind advised student activists to involve their friends, contact their congressional representatives and “keep the conversation going.”
“We need to be the people who keep talking about it,” Wind said. “We need the people who are remembering the victims. We need to be the people that are really trying to fix the things that are wrong in this country.”
Wind and the others expressed frustration at the fact that coverage for instances of gun violence too often seems to be temporary or altogether nonexistent.
Endless work on such a heavy issue makes it difficult to keep a cheery disposition. Whitney recommended “finding those moments of light” by forging strong relationships with others in the field as a mechanism.
“I can’t get the best out of you if I don’t care about you,” Johnson added. Coming from the perspective of an adult and mentor, he emphasized the need to care “holistically” about your cohort.
Wind, too, said that the work itself contributes to the betterment of his own emotional state.
“This work is very healing for me because what I do is to try and ensure that no one else my age or even younger has to go through this trauma,” Wind said.
Wind, Whitney and Johnson implored attendees of the event to continue the momentum of activism present in the world today. Citing high turnout rates in youth voters in midterm elections last week, they predict that gun violence prevention will be something young people continue to push.
“Do two things: stay loud and stay impatient,” Johnson said. “We cannot afford to wait for things to change.”
Public Policy graduate student Leah Squires, one of the event’s facilitators, said she appreciated hearing the different perspectives of the panelists.
“What I derived the greatest benefit from was hearing the varied perspectives of the speakers,” Squires said. “They represent and approach anti-gun violence activism from very different perspectives and concepts but are motivated by a shared vision.”
Just hours later, the panelists shifted down a few blocks to the Neutral Zone, a youth community organizing space in downtown Ann Arbor. There, they met with students from Washtenaw Youth Initiative who began organizing against gun violence in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline in March, inspired by March for Our Lives. WYI held rallies, a die-in and a town hall in the spring, lobbied to get out the vote in the midterms and is now planning programming to activate local youth.
At Thursday’s event, students from more than six local high schools shared strategy with the visiting activists, and then faciliated a dialogue and Q&A afterwards attended by more than 150 people.
“We’re trying to force kids from the corners of the county to the center stage, to give them a platform,” Rosie Kendall, a student at Saline High School, said of WYI’s community work.
Every organizer agreed on the importance of electoral activism, even though many of them were too young ot vote themselves. They also noted, however, their work extended beyond any campaign or ballot.
“Now, it’s time to hold the people we elected accountable,” Whitney said.
Many of the local high schoolers emphasized the intersectionality at the center of WYI.
“We have to acknowledge our predecessors who have been struggling for decades,” Zaynab Alkolaly, a student at Washtenaw Technical Middle College, shared. “This is not to erase peope, and you all do a great job of checking your privilege. But we have to lift all of us up.”
WYI organizer Mani Harrison agreed with Alkolaly, and is crafting a series of events to combat activism rife with racial myopia.
“In Ann Arbor, we aren’t centering Black and (people of color) voices enough,” she said.
The young activists connected over their shared vision nad hope for the future. It is this foresight, they agreed, that is also a driving force in organizing movements.
“You kinda gotta have infinite hope, what Dr. King talked about,” Johnson said. “Be a prisoner of hope.”