There was plenty of applause as Matt Deitsch, Ryan Deitsch and Sofie Whitney took the stage at Cranston High School East Wednesday evening. About 150 people were in attendance to hear the three survivors of the February 14th shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida which left 17 students and staff dead. Since the tragedy, a group of students from the school have mobilized one of the largest youth movements in history to take on the challenge of gun violence. One of their biggest achievements was March for Our Lives and the school walkouts in protest of gun violence that took place all over the world.
The three students on stage in Cranston were there to promote a book, Glimmer of Hope: How Tragedy Sparked a Movement that “tells the story of how a group of teenagers raced to channel their rage and sorrow into action, and went on to create one of the largest youth-led movements in global history. 100% of the authors’ proceeds will benefit the March for Our Lives Foundation and the ongoing fight for gun violence prevention in the United States.”[note]The full list of contributors, in alphabetical order, are: Adam Alhanti, Dylan Baierlein, John Barnitt, Alfonso Calderon, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, Matt Deitsch, Ryan Deitsch, Sam Deitsch, Brendan Duff, Emma González, Chris Grady, David Hogg, Lauren Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Jammal Lemy, Charlie Mirsky, Kyrah Simon, Delaney Tarr, Bradley Thornton, Kevin Trejos, Naomi Wadler, Sofie Whitney, Daniel Williams, and Alex Wind.[/note]
Halima Ibrahim, a student at the Islamic School of Rhode Island, moderated the discussion with the students. You may remember her from the March for Our Lives event at the Rhode Island State House where she read her poem, “Wake Up!!“
Below is all the video from the event, broken up by question.
Halima Ibrahim describes her own experience with gun violence, during the Arab Spring in Egypt as a child. “I just came back from an almost war torn country to realize I wasn’t safe here either,” said Ibrahim. “I didn’t think much about. I kind of accepted how everything was. So when the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas spoke up about this issue, the anger and fear I felt back in 2011 resurfaced, but so did hope for a safer future that I wanted to help make happen.”
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This movement basically started with a few people in a living room. What was the first meeting like and when did you first come up for the idea to March?
“We all just had this collective sense of hopelessness and anger,” said Sofie Whitney. So, “five or six of us, all night long, trying to figure out a way for people to listen. Because we had this platform now… We knew that the American people needed a specific task to do, or all of this would be for nothing. So that’s why we came up with the March.”
In the book it is mentioned that the Women’s March was an inspiration. What other movements inspired you?
Immediately in the aftermath of the shooting, Matt Deitsch began researching other school shootings, such as Columbine and Sandy Hook. “We studied what people have been able to do before us. Whether it was the Civil Rights Movement, with the March for Jobs and Equality that Martin Luther King led or the Women’s March the year before – We took these blueprints and we’re like, How can we make this work for us? How can we make this ours? … We studied the Freedom Riders. We studied the labor movement…
“We copied these change making blueprints, and we adapted it to 2018.”
You have all these activism icons that paved the road for this task. Do you have any specific heroes that inspired you?
“Representative John Lewis, who led protests in Selma,” said Ryan Deitsch. “He was 19 years old organizing a protest just for equality. Just for the right to be seen as another human being in this country.”
After the shooting, Ryan Deitsch helped organize a lobbying trip to Congress. “John Lewis was the last meeting we had. He was the only Congressman who came to the door and met us right away. Everyone else made us sit and wait… He was right there. He opened the door. He shook our hands, gave us hugs… He was definitely one of my personal inspirations.”
Matt and Ryan were not at the first meeting of students that took place in the aftermath of the shooting. How did they get involved?
In the aftermath of the shooting and its attendant trauma, how did you deal with your mental health while simultaneously starting a movement?
“I think activism, and all the things we have done since the shooting was our way of grieving,” said Sofie Whitney. “I know, speaking for myself, that if I didn’t do anything I probably would have been in a lot worse of a place than I am.”
Do you have any advice for teens dealing with this sort of trauma?
“I can’t pretend that we’re all like, super healthy and great and everything,” said Matt Deitsch. “We’re exhausted a lot of the time. But we understand that we’re incredibly privileged to be able to do this work. And we’re incredibly privileged to have a platform that we can actively fight to save lives.”
There’s a quote in the book that I find absolutely amazing. “People in America need a specific task or they won’t do anything.” Would you elaborate on that?
After the shooting, many people reached out with support and love, said Sofie Whitney. “All of these people want to help. But they’re not going to go out of their way to find a task to do or find a way to help unless we gave them one and that’s what the March was, and that’s what the Road to Change was and that’s what our chapters that we’re building across the country is for. We want to give people of all ages the opportunity to use their voices, because they’re just as powerful. They just needed a little push, I think.”
Back to the March. You said you only expected about 90 people and you got a million. You also got a bunch of marches around the world. What was your reaction to that?
Social media has played a big role within this movement. Do you think you’d be able to get this much support without it?
“The short answer is no,” said Ryan Deitsch.
“Not a chance,” said Sofie Whitney.
I believe that a person’s favorite book can say a lot about a person, so I was wondering what each of your favorite books are?
What is your hope for the future of this movement and what can we do on a state level to push for change?
“I’d say that a short term goal would be having the highest youth voter turnout ever,” said Sofie Whitney. “Which I hope is on the horizon.”
After Halima Ibraham ended her interview, the Parkland students took questions from students and youth in the audience.
“What’s your feelings about the walkouts, all across the country?”
Student Miguel Figueroa organized two walkouts at his school. He presented the Parkland students with two posterboards used during a walkout and signed by the students.
How do you maintain your personal life while balancing a big project such as this?
What advice would you give to young kids, especially young girls, who want to run for office?
“Do it,” said Sofie Whitney. “Because we cannot continue to have this cycle of men deciding how women do anything any more because its gotten ridiculous. This election there are more women running for office than ever before in the history of our country.”
Most kids who are activists see a lot of dark, dark stuff. Me personally, you scroll through social media and there’s this endless feed of things that almost seems like – you’re losing hop, you know? -you see the bad upon the bad upon the bad. So what do you do when you feel like you’re at your end? How do you bring that hope back into the conversation?
“To be perfectly honest there would be times when we would just cry,” said Ryan Deitsch. But, “If we stop speaking out we are complacent with that system. We are allowing it to occur.”
Thank you. You guys are the leaders and inspirations of our generation.
Here in Rhode Island the Speaker of the House actually tweeted today that the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence was an extreme, radical organization.
“Imagine thinking being against gun violence is radical,” asked Sofie Whitney.
Thank you for the impact that your work had on how much easier it became to be treated seriously as a teenager at the State House. But I wanted to ask you specifically about legislation you passed on a state level: Did you find that talking to your legislators was the most effective course of action or is there some other action, something we’re not thinking of, that’s more effective?
The media isn’t covering gun control as much as it should be. So how are we supposed to get the media to understand that this is important to us?
“A lot of the time we mobilize and we move things through social media, through back channels, through the fact that we have this grass roots movement all over the place,” said Ryan Deitsch. “Just because you’re not seeing it on TV doesn’t mean that it’s not being discussed and it’s not happening.”
How can we implement the values of social caring and Kingian nonviolence into school societies and communities and still have people listen to us?
The Freedom Riders were able to remain peaceful in the face of violence, danger and ignorance. With all of the things you face in a day, the things that people say to you, how do you train each other in how to remain peaceful?
I experience a lot of people saying, I’m too young, I don’t know what I’m talking about and basically I’m ignorant and I’m sensitive. I am wondering how you overcome that and show that you do know what you’re talking about?
Providence has an issue with gang violence and gun violence. A kid was killed outside a school in Providence and a kid got pistol whipped in my own school. When I ask my classmates how they feel about this they seem to not care. Gun violence has become something that’s common to them. We grew up with shootings in out back yard. I have a hard time telling kids that it’s not normal, that we shouldn’t be used to school shootings. What should I do to help motivate my classmates?
Could you talk specifically about School Resource Officers, and what you think would be most effective to protect schools.
“When it comes to School Resource officers,” said Sofie Whitney, “I t might make one kid feel safe but we know that there are kids, there are minorities and there are black and brown kids that aren’t going to feel safe with more police officers in their school. What would help students more in schools are professionals that can help them mentally and help them deal with their problems and not cause more problems and increase the school to prison pipeline.”
The biggest problem in trying to get youth involved is that they’re afraid to express their opinion. What is your advice for this?
Was it difficult for you to keep momentum after the March and keep your names in people’s heads?
How do you deal with what’s happening on the Internet versus what’s happening in real life?
I am planning a walkout, soon. What advice can you give me?
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