In the wake of the recent March for Our Lives rally and the shooting in Florida that prompted it, a growing body of stories has pointed out that young people have traditionally been at the center of social change in America, particularly the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Yet the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. this week serves as a reminder that lasting change is never easy, nor does it come without personal cost.
This is a lesson the students at Thurgood Marshall Academy have learned well.
Located in Southeast Washington, D.C., the predominantly black public charter has lost two students to gun violence this year, Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown, and current students remain affected by their deaths.
“Lately, I’ve been worrying if I’ll see my friends the next day at school,” said Jasani Briscoe, a 17-year-old junior at Thurgood Marshall Academy. “The issue just makes me very nervous and vigilant, makes me aware of my surroundings.”
One student I spoke with lost a family member to gun violence when she was six or seven, and the others said even if they haven’t been immediately affected, they’re constantly aware that it could happen. “You never know,” said 17-year-old Destiny Young.
“It’s made me numb,” said another junior, 17-year-old Sydney Campbell. “It’s numbing to know that I can get shot. I’ve become so accustomed to situations like this my whole childhood. I’m not that worried about my life. I mean, I don’t want to die. But if it happens, it happens. I won’t be scared.”
Despite their frustrations and their losses, they remain hopeful and committed to sharing their voices and ideas about what it takes to stop gun violence. “We shouldn't lose hope at this point in time because Martin Luther King didn't lose hope, and neither did Rosa Parks,” Briscoe said.
“Losing hope would just prove that we are weak,” he continued. “Something will change, and something will get better for the next generation, and then the next.”
“I Want to Feel Safe:” What Students Want to Change
One of the things that’s captivated the public’s attention about the Parkland students is their ability to clearly and effectively communicate what they think should change, which some have credited to their participation in their high school’s debate team. Thurgood Marshall students have also had practice advocating for their causes as part of Mikva Challenge, an America’s Promise Alliance partner and youth civic engagement organization. Through Mikva Challenge D.C.'s programs, Thurgood Marshall students have explored their communities from an asset-based perspective, identified issues that are important to them and their community, researched the issue, analyzed power, and are developing a plan to take action on this issue.
Some of their demands are specific and tangible, like stricter gun laws, more accountability from politicians, and less influence from the National Rifle Association. “Our politicians should be the ones to step up and actually talk about [gun violence],” said 17-year-old junior Michelle Malette.
They were also clear about what they don’t want, speaking out adamantly against President Trump’s initial suggestion to arm teachers with guns. “If my teacher has a gun strapped around her waist or her shoulders, I'm not going to feel safe,” said Young. “I'm not even going to want to come to school.”
But much of what the students are after is broader and more systemic. “What we want is our safety to be the government’s first priority,” said Young as she reflected on a recent Town Hall she attended on safety in her community. “I want to feel safe when I leave from home and go to school. I want to feel safe in school.”
Moving beyond immediate threats to their safety, Thurgood Marshall students also want to see change in a variety of issues that disproportionately affect their community, from mass incarceration and police shootings to inequities in healthcare, such as the time it takes for an ambulance to arrive.
“When it comes to bringing ambulances in black communities, they come fast in white communities,” Campbell said. “You know how many deaths would be prevented if they got there faster than they did in white communities?” (You can see the differences in average wait times for ambulances in D.C. here).
“We're not trying to sound like charity cases, but things do need to change,” Campbell continued. “This isn’t, ‘Oh, help the little black kids in Southeast.’ We're not complaining. We're just trying to make action.”
“The change I want to see is bringing more awareness to black communities that are being affected by gun violence every day,” said 17-year-old Phina Walker. “We see a lot of it in white communities—every time a shooting happens in their community, it’s a big thing. It’s huge.”
Uniting for a Common Cause: “This is about everybody expressing a certain amount of pain.”
When survivors of the Parkland shooting started receiving waves of media attention for their calls to combat gun violence in schools, it didn’t take long for racial bias in the news coverage to become painfully apparent to the students at Thurgood Marshall, as it did for critics and commentators across the country. Black kids and teens have been dealing with gun violence for years, these stories pointed out. Where was their microphone?
“When you hear about white communities, they seem to live in high-income places, and you rarely hear about high-income places being shot up,” said Walker in explanation of the bias. “But when it's low-income communities you're like, ‘Oh you just hear that every day.’”
“I do feel as if people think predominantly white areas are more important than black areas,” said Malette. “But I don't understand that. If I have the same education that somebody else has, we should be equal. We should have equal opportunity to have a platform and use it for a good cause.”
A few days before the March for Our Lives rally, survivors of the Parkland shooting joined forces with Thurgood Marshall students for a #NeverAgain rally, a moment they found encouraging because it demonstrated the unity they feel is central to the march and the movement’s success.
“I hate the fact that this world is so based around race,” Young said. “But when we have marches like [the March for Our Lives] for whites, blacks, Hispanics, whatever race you are, and come together, that's a powerful movement…This is how we work as a community. This is how we unite. This is how we get along.”
“This is not about being black. It's not about being white,” Malette said. “It's about everybody expressing a certain amount of pain. It's about us coming together and trying to find a solution.”
Though they see the recent march as a symbolic moment, they know that long-term change takes time. After all, their school gets its name from the first black supreme court justice and the man who fought discrimination for years before his victory in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which made school segregation illegal and challenged the separate but equal doctrine on which it stood for more than half a century.
“Change doesn’t come overnight,” said Malette. “But if we continue to stick to a plan and if we continue to push through, it can happen eventually.”
“It's really, really going to take time,” Young added. “You have to take baby steps.”
Still, she’s not discouraged. “Gun violence is an issue that needs to be dealt with, and no matter how hard we have to march, no matter how long it takes, this generation will fight until we get a change,” she continued. “We’re a powerful generation. We're smart, we're creative, and we will find ways to get the job done.”
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