Last week I was working on finalizing a contract agreement when, I heard voices and cars honking. I got up, walked to the corner window of my office and I saw a group of young students gathered around the intersection holding up signs and cheering each other on in protest of the lack of significant action regarding gun control. As I looked up the street I saw more groups marching towards the intersection. This must have been the demonstration meeting point.
Several of our team members heard the demonstrators, too, and in no time my office was filled with staff. A conversation started. Some team members decided to go out, greet, and encourage the demonstrators. Others engaged in a conversation about how inspiring this youth action is but pointed out that we, as adults, should do our part, as well. Team members started sharing their stories.
One of our team members shared how clearly she recalled hearing gunshots for the first time one night outside of her Cleveland home. The gunshots became background noise. At night, the field across the street from where she lived became a war zone. One of her friends was shot several times and has been in a wheelchair since age 14. Yet, her friend was considered a lucky kid because most didn't survive the walk through the field. She shared: “I still to this very day cannot stand the sound of firecrackers or balloons popping.”
Another team member reminded us of Fernando’s story. Fernando is a young man who participated in one of our programs in California. Here is the story in Fernando’s voice: “There was a lot of chaos in [San Bernardino] on the day of the shootings. I didn’t hear the gunshots, but it was really scary not knowing what was going on. The streets were closed off, the sirens were really loud, and police and helicopters were everywhere. This was all happening a block away from where I live.”
As I reflected on the many stories from our team members and youth we serve at IEL, I thought about the students in Parkland, Fla. after experiencing one of the deadliest mass shootings. These are all stories of unnecessary trauma and pain caused by gun violence. This is not a black and white or political issue. It's an ideological problem that is destroying the very fabric of America. The impact of guns go beyond school violence. We even see it in our organization programs. Recently, I was in Chicago at one of our sites where we run a mentoring program for opportunity youth. The young man sitting to my left was shot in the arm the day before. On his way to school. Just minding his own business.
The number of U.S. mass shootings this year reached 48 this past Monday. There have been 3,081 deaths related to gun violence this year alone, and 584 teens have been killed or injured between the ages of 12 and 17. When does this madness end? When do we as a country say enough is enough and begin to listen to the voices of our youth who are demonstrating and asking adults to pass laws that will protect them from being killed while trying to learn? Living in fear is not what being young is about.
Hands without guns. Hearts with love. That is what we need. So, how do we get there? We could ask Congress to enact sensible gun laws. Australia did it in 1996 and has only seen a handful of mass shootings since. Why can’t we? The House of Representatives voted last Wednesday to approve the STOP School Violence Act, which trains teachers and other school staff on violence prevention and funds programs to help stop incidents like the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. I wonder if this will be enough to ease student’s fears of gun violence. As we continue to find a solution here are some things communities have done:
- Launch gun buyback programs;
- Create gun-free zones;
- Expand afterschool programs;
- Run gun safety classes;
- Offer mental health counseling and treatment at schools or youth programs;
- Establish violence-prevention programs.
These solutions require us as a country to stand up for our youth and not for the adults who have other motivations than our children’s and youth’s well-being. This is about guns and gun violence but, as someone reminded me recently, there is a broader set of related, if not intertwined, issues such as bullying, brutality by various enforcement agencies, and the inadequacies of many of our current criminal justice approaches. As a result, too many lives have been lost; too many futures cut off.
I am done with having to be reactive. Let’s switch to prevention and change our culture and policies to prevent the cycle of violence. This does not involve rocket science. It involves adults letting go of their self-interests. We should be able to send our children to school and walk in our neighborhoods and malls without the fear of being shot.
This is why IEL, is hosting the March for Children and Youth Month, March 1-31. We also ask that you join us in Washington, D.C. as we March For Our Lives on March 24. If you cannot make it in March, join us April 20 for the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools, along with the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, The Network for Public Education, and others.
Unite with IEL today in asking elected officials at the local, county, tribal, state, and national levels to take action to protect individuals everywhere from senseless acts of violence.
Let’s join our youth. They get it. Hands without guns. Hearts with love.