“Don’t wait for something like what happened to us to happen to you,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts, survivor of one of the country's worst mass shootings.
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 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.
The session opened with panelist Rey Junco, director of research at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
He asked the audience, “How many of you have heard that young people aren’t politically engaged and don’t vote?” All the high schoolers raised their hands. “It isn’t true,” he said.
According to polls between 2016 and 2018, there was a three-fold increase in Gen Z participation in marches and demonstrations, he said. Gen Z is not zombied out in social-media-land, they’re alive and well and using social media to mobilize their peers.
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 AP government teacher at Stoneman Douglas. Nearly all the students advocating for gun reform in his high school were primed in his classroom. Arnesen noted that there are thousands of students who aren’t AP students and whose schools don’t have the budget to offer civics classes.
In fact 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, reminded students that you don’t have to be involved in marches and give public speeches to be an activist. You can be an activist by educating yourself and educating your peers.
“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 mass shootings…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 went on. “They don’t look at our generation and say, ‘How are we going to keep them safe?’” Change is going to come from kids who witnessed the carnage.”
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.