Representatives from anti-gun violence groups Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere and March for Our Lives were presented the 26th annual Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan Wednesday night.
The medal is presented in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, a U-M alum who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during World War II. The award recognizes the honorable actions of humanitarians reminiscent of Wallenberg’s bravery.
The University chose to honor two groups pioneering change in the fight against gun violence. Rie’Onna Holmon and Ke’Shon Newman accepted the award on behalf of B.R.A.V.E, an organization based in Chicago that focuses on training youth to be peacemakers within their communities. Alex Wind and Sofie Whitney accepted the award on behalf of March for Our Lives, an organization created after 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., were killed by an active shooter on Feb. 14. Wind and Whitney were both students of the school at the time.
University President Mark Schlissel presented the awards, commending the honorees for their commitment to improving society. He stressed the importance of tackling all types of gun violence, from mass shootings to everyday firearm assault.
“The tragedies of this epidemic go far beyond the shootings that grab the headlines,” Schlissel said. “Gun violence is an everyday reality in many neighborhoods around our nation. It steals life from our families and communities, affecting innocent youth as they walk to and from school and as they gather with their friends.”
After Schlissel presented the awards, each panelist got the chance to introduce themselves. Wind began by addressing the crowd and thanking them for their commitment to this cause. He said since the Parkland shooting nine months ago, he has been inspired by the hope he has seen around him.
“Since that day, I’ve had a lot of time to think,” Wind said. “And what I see everywhere I go is hope. What I think is most important for me to be here today to tell all of you is that you are the hope that I see. And I want to thank all of you for coming out tonight because it means that you care. It means that you care enough about gun violence to try and stop it. And I think that is the most important thing, is that we are here to stop gun violence.”
Wind followed this up by urging the audience to act on their empathy and call their congressmen.
“I want to give you all a little job,” Wind said. “When you go home, and it doesn’t have to be today, just this week, even if it’s this month, and I want you to call your congressman and I want you to say that you want gun violence legislation to be passed … The next step is making sure that the people that we vote for are actually representing our views, and we will not get anywhere unless we take that initiative, unless we actually pick up the phone.”
Sixteen-year-old Ke’Shon Newman, one of the representatives from B.R.A.V.E, shared his personal gun violence tragedy with the audience.
“On May 2nd 2016, my brother was shot nine times and killed due to him being in between crossfire,” Newman said. “That day brought my family so much trauma, not just because of his death, but because of fear that another day my mother might lose another son, because of where we live and because of the way that the conditions are right now.”
Newman said he was unwilling to allow his brother to become another statistic. He decided to join B.R.A.V.E to make a change in his community so another tragedy doesn’t have to happen to another family.
“I’m tired,” Newman said. “I’m tired of losing loved ones, I’m tired of fear inside of everyone’s heart. I’m tired of people portraying a Black man as a threat or portraying them as a gang member, or saying that they were inside that incident because they were inside of a gang. I’m tired of someone being pulled over and shot because they thought they had a weapon, when they were really trying to brush their hair.”
Wind shared this sentiment, also illustrating a frustration with the dangers Americans have to live with every single day.
“We should not be afraid to send people to school,” Wind said. “We should not be afraid to send people to grocery stores. We should not be afraid to go to a bar, to a nightclub, to a movie theater. We should not be living in fear due to gun violence in this country, and we need things to change.”
Whitney described to the audience the day of the Parkland shooting, and the sheer disbelief she felt when she heard gunshots inside of her own school.
“We live in a very privileged community,” Whitney said. “So I was in denial, I was in shock. I obviously ran back into the classroom, and in my head the entire time I was thinking, ‘This isn’t real. This would never happen to us. This is our school.’”
Whitney described the sadness felt by her community the day after the shooting, and she said she knew in that moment that something had to change.
“We woke up the next day and we went to a vigil,” Whitney said. “More people than I have literally ever seen, I think the entire city of Parkland was there, and that’s a lot of people. And it was just so sad. Like, I’ve never experienced such sadness, and it was just, there was so much of it, and we needed to do something.”
Following the introductions, the panel took questions from the audience, and audience members asked what they could do to help.
Panelists stressed the need for well-placed support from adults, and the challenges they face when adults don’t listen to them. Holmon expressed disappointment in the coverage she felt the B.R.A.V.E organization has received from the media.
“Being heard is a big challenge for us, because they don’t listen to a bunch of Black kids that are advocating for themselves,” Holmon said. “With Parkland, they’re passionate about their movement and what they’re doing. But media, they look at us and we’re just angry Black kids.”
Overall, the panelists pleaded with the audience to put pressure on their elected officials and use their voices to the best of their ability.
“Everyone is realizing that change-making doesn’t have an age limit,” Whitney said. “As long as you’re passionate about something, and as long as you truly believe that you’re doing the right thing, then quite literally anything is possible.”