On the heels of the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and just hours after a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques, New England high school students gathered at the School of Public Health for a three-day Gun Violence Prevention Student Summit, held March 15-17.
The students’ takeaway was clear: Gun violence is a public health epidemic in the United States, and they remained steadfast in their mission to attain stronger gun safety laws at the local, state, and federal levels.
The Activist Lab, Stop Handgun Violence, and March for Our Lives (MFOL): Boston partnered to provide an opportunity for student activists to share personal stories, examine the intersectional issues of gun violence, and learn best strategies and practices to advance their mission and create safe communities at home, work, and school. Over the three days, they engaged with lawmakers and activists such as Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey; US Representative Ayanna Pressley; Manuel and Patricia Oliver, parents of Stoneman Douglas student Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, who was killed in the February 2018 shooting; and Paul Breiner, a 1961 Freedom Rider.
“We all know that young people are powerful change-makers, but that’s only if we have the right resources and support,” said Vikiana Petit-Homme, who is executive director of MFOL: Boston and transitioning to southeast regional director for MFOL, as she introduced the summit. “We can be that resource for each other.”
Anne Fidler, assistant dean of public health practice, told the students she was encouraged by their dedication to eliminating a “preventable public health issue.”
“Gun violence wreaks havoc and destroys families and communities,” Fidler said. “But every time I see a group like this, I feel a little bit more relieved, because I see that the world is in good hands.”
After holding a moment of silence for the victims of the New Zealand shooting, Healey spoke to the students during a conversation moderated by University of Massachusetts Boston sophomore student Fiona Phie, who also serves as outreach director for MFOL: Boston. Healey addressed Massachusetts’ role as a leader in gun reform, as well as the persistent problems of gun trafficking, straw purchasing, racial and economic disparities among gun violence victims, lack of mental health resources, and national reform of gun laws.
“It is a reality for too many in this city and state who have to worry about how kids will get to school, or if they will be safe walking to the park,” she said. “There are fears and anxieties that no family should have to live with.”
To cheers from the crowd, Healey also announced her support for lowering the national voting age from 18 to 16 years old.
“There is nothing more important than registering people to vote,” Healey said. “That’s one way you’re going to help demand accountability and bring about change. Unfortunately in our society and in our culture, there are some things, and some people, who are valued more than others, and we have to work every day to change that.”
Pressley, who recently introduced an amendment to H.R.1 For the People Act that would lower the national minimum voting age to 16, lauded the students for their unwavering activism.
“The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power driving and enforcing the policymaking,” Pressley said. “There is nothing radical about respecting youth voices or about extending the table of democracy to give you a seat.
“You’re not only our future leaders, you’re our present leaders,” Pressley added.
Over the three days, students from Hartford Communities That Care, Junior Newtown Action Alliance, MFOL: Boston and Springfield, Connecticut Against Gun Violence, Change the Ref, GunSense Vermont, Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, and Pioneer Valley Students for Gun Control shared their personal experiences with gun violence.
“For most of my childhood, gun violence was normal,” said Phie, who grew up in East Boston. “I used to hear gun shots every single night. But now I am setting myself free through the work that I am doing.”
Trevaughn Smith, public relations and strategy director for MFOL: Springfield, said that police brutality contributes to a culture of gun violence, especially in urban communities.
“If a person is killed by a police officer, it’s not counted as a homicide,” said Smith, a freshman at Hartwick College in New York. “Meanwhile, other countries are providing proper training for police officers to disarm a situation without necessarily resorting to violence.”
Between presentations and guest speakers, the students attended workshops on advocacy-related topics, including voter registration, lobbying, coalition building, and fundraising strategies. They also learned about resources in Boston for people who are impacted by gun violence as well as those who unintentionally contribute to it: The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute offers trauma resources to families, and Operation LIPSTICK educates women about the legal consequences of straw purchasing—the legal purchase of a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one.
The summit culminated with an interactive activity of art and activism with Manuel Oliver, whose Change the Ref nonprofit uses urban art and nonviolent creative confrontation to educate and advocate for gun reform. As part of Oliver’s nationwide Walls of Demand pop-up installation, students painted graffiti messages of hope, determination, and positive action on a board stationed in front of SPH’s Talbot Green. The messages surrounded a mural of Oliver’s slain son, Joaquin.
“Walls are storytellers. Every time I work on this project, I am expressing my son’s life, because he is not here to express himself, said Oliver as he sketched an image of Nelson Mandela, one of Joaquin’s favorite people, onto the wall. “I want to share with you the amazing values that my son had.”
He drilled a hole in the board next to his son and stuck a sunflower through it—the same type of flower that Joaquin had intended to give to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, the day he was killed.
“There are more good people like us in the world than there are bad people,” Oliver said. “We are making a big impact.”