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Alex Wind and Tyah-Amoy Roberts​

In 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was the site of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The massacre prompted a student-led march on Washington for stricter gun laws and more than 800​ similar demonstrations also occurred throughout the United States. It​ became one of the largest mass protests​ in U.S. history. 

On March 25 Stoneman Douglas seniors Alex Wind, co-founder of March for Our Lives, and Tyah-Amoy Roberts, co-founder of Students Tactfully Organizing Revolutionary Movements, along with their AP government teacher Jeff Foster, who is credited with preparing all of his students for activism, joined a panel discussion at Rhode Island College. More than 500 local ​high school students were in attendance. 

Sponsored by the American Democracy Project, the discussion focused on the new generation of political leaders and activists – Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s). The discussion was moderated by Deborah “Arnie” Arnesen, producer and radio host of “The Attitude” on WNHN 94.7 FM in Concord, New Hampshire.

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From top, Deborah “Arnie”
Arnesen, Rey Junco, Musah
Mohammed Sesay and
​Rosa Ramos

​​​The session opened with panelist Rey Junco, director of research at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, who posed a question to the audience.​

“How many of you have heard that young people aren’t politically engaged and don’t vote?” The entire audience of highschoolers raised their hands. “It isn’t true,” he said, and he set about debunking the theory. 

According to polls, between 2016 and 2018, there was a three-fold increase in Gen Z participation in marches and demonstrations, he said. And as for voting, studies show that the best way to get young people to vote is to ask them to, according to Junco.

Gen Z is not zombied out in the land of social media, they’re alive and well and using social media to mobilize their peers. 

Joining the discussion via Skype, Foster noted that social media is why the March for Our Lives movement happened. Social media is able to reach the masses quicker and it’s more targeted. “Today you can literally pick up your phone and mobilize people in seconds,” he said.

Foster is the only AP government teacher at Stoneman Douglas, and nearly all of the students advocating for gun reform in his high school were primed in his class. Currently he has over 300 students in the program. 

However, Arnesen expressed concern about the thousands of students who aren’t AP students and whose schools don’t have the budget to offer civics classes. 

Panelist Musah Mohammed Sesay, a senior at Classical High School, is currently a co-plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all Rhode Island public school students because of the lack of civic education in underfunded high schools in Rhode Island. 

“Civics, to me,” he said, “means teaching people what they need to know to contribute to a society that is healthy and sustainable…If people were more educated about their rights and about what they have the power to change, they would live in a healthier society and they would live healthier lives.” 

Panelist Rosa Ramos, a community activist and impact manager at City Year Providence, said she attended a high school that was about to shut down because of the fail rate on the standardized tests. That was the beginning of her activism, she said.

“You don’t have to do activism by public speaking,” she said. “You can do activism by educating yourself, educating your peers, continuing to ask each other how you can support each other.” Ramos also suggested that they find an adult ally in the building, someone who will serve as a mentor. ​

“Don’t wait for something like what happened to us to happen to you,” said Roberts. “Don’t wait for your rights to be taken from you [before you] say that you deserve them.” 

“Two weeks after the shooting at our school a few of us went to D.C. and got to meet with legislators on Capitol Hill,” Wind said. “One of the people that we had the pleasure of talking to was former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. I said to him, ‘How do we make sure that law-abiding citizens who want to own guns ​do not commit crimes of mass shootings…And he said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.’ The fact that one of the most powerful politicians did not have an answer, didn’t even have an idea of how to stop this epidemic of gun violence was a very eye-opening experience.” 

Change will not come from the old guard, Wind said. “They don’t look at this generation and say, ‘How are we going to keep them safe?’” Change is going to have to come from the kids who witnessed the carnage, he said.​

The goal of the ADP is to produce active, involved citizens in the community. Rhode Island College is the only institution of higher education in the state that participates in the ADP. Considered one of the leading programs in the country for political and civic engagement, ADP at RIC is often used as the model for initiatives by other colleges.​