The 2018 Wallenberg medalists and student activists from March for Our Lives and The B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders joined about 30 University of Michigan students from the Michigan Community Scholars Program and 85 students from 11 high schools in the greater Detroit area for an event focused on youth empowerment Wednesday.

MCSP, a U-M living and learning community dedicated to diversity, community service and social justice, hosted the event in conjunction with the 2018 Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program. 

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program awards outstanding humanitarians, and is named after U-M alum Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives while working as a diplomat in Budapest during World War II.  In September,  the Wallenberg committee announced it was awarding this year’s medal to youth activists from March For Our Lives in Parkland, Fla. and The B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders from Chicago, Ill. to honor their fight against gun violence.

The student attendees were chosen by their high schools, which included Cesar Chavez Academy, Western International, Detroit Cristo Rey, Skyline High School, Pathways to Success Academic Campus, Cass Technical High School, Martin Luther King Jr. High School, Fordson High School, Edsel Ford High School, Lincoln High School, Dearborn High School and Ypsilanti Community High School.

Some MCSP students have been planning the event for over a month, according to LSA freshman Jade Ebels. David Schoem, MCSP director and member of the Wallenberg Committee, and MCSP Associate Director Wendy Woods reached out to the students with the idea of collaborating with the Wallenberg program to do a workshop with local high schools.

“The planning process and how it was run was very much student-led, which I think fits with what the workshop is,” Ebels said.

LSA freshman Chloe Halprin, another MCSP student who helped organize the event, said she hopes the event provided the students with networking opportunities and tools to tackle social justice issues in their own high schools.

“I think one of our main things was a combination between networking, because these are a bunch of students from a bunch of different high schools … and also taking these broader goals and making them more tangible,” Halprin said. “Like, ‘Oh, you had this problem at your high school, here’s how we solved it at mine.’ Just bouncing ideas off of each other.”

The panelists for the event included March for Our Lives co-founders Sofie Whitney and Alex Wind, as well as the B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders, high school students Rie’Onna Holman and Ke’Shon Newman. March for Our Lives is a student-led movement to end gun violence in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which Whitney is a graduate and Wind is currently a senior. The B.R.A.V.E. Youth Leaders, which stands for Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, is a program for Chicago youth to come together to promote peace and combat gun violence.

The panelists discussed their motivation behind their activism and how they balance their roles as both activists and students. Wind said by traveling and meeting with students, their message can ripple throughout younger communities.

“I think what’s important is that when we’re traveling, when we’re doing all of this stuff, we’re meeting with students like you guys,” Wind said. “What happens is that when we come here and we talk to you guys, what happens is that you go and talk to your friends, and they go and talk to their friends, and they go and talk to their friends, and it creates a chain effect.”

Holman, a high school junior, said balancing activism with her duties as a student is a matter of priorities.

“At the end of the day, the young people’s lives are the ones being lost, and if I have to miss a Spanish test to come and talk to more young people so they can understand their voices are being heard, and if that’s what it takes, then I’m all for it,” Holman said.

The panelists also discussed how they maintain momentum for their movements. Whitney said she finds motivation in knowing her work saves lives and has had an impact on state and local legislation and organization.

“We’re saving lives, no matter what,” Whitney said. “What we do is saving lives, and it’s going to save more lives when there’s federal legislation passed, but there have been state laws passed and there have been local laws passed and there are gun violence prevention groups working all across the country and lives are being saved.” 

Newman has a deep personal connection to the issue, as he lost his older brother to gun violence. He spoke about the fear that wears on him knowing how prevalent gun violence is in his community, and how it could affect anyone he knows at any time.

“I don’t want to lose another brother to gun violence and I don’t want my mother to lose another son as well,” Newman said. “I don’t want to lose my little sisters because they were inside of a community that can’t even keep them safe. I want to make that community safe so they can live an everyday life, go to the park, have fun and not have to fear that an idiotic person can come with a gun and take someone’s life. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

Horus McDaniel, a student from Ypsilanti Community High School, asked the panel if they had any plans to expand their platform past gun violence to areas of suicide prevention or mental health, given their resources and visibility.

“It’s an average of 3,041, as you said, teenagers from grade 9 to 12 are attempting to suicide, there’s bullying going on still, there’s mental awareness, do you guys have anything to add on to (your platform) or is it just non-gun violence right now?” McDaniel asked.

The B.R.A.V.E. panelists discussed having trauma centers and better mental health resources in Chicago, and the March for Our Lives activists talked about advocating for better federal funding to mental health services for youth.

“The lack of mental health care, especially for students in high school and middle school even, is definitely something that we definitely need to address as a country as a whole and that is definitely something that we are looking for in the future because gun violence is definitely connected to mental health in multiple different facets,” Wind said.

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