I’d like to start this article by thanking Mobilizing Youth Project and Women’s March Youth Empower for inviting me to speak at the Town Hall For Gun Violence Prevention. The first anniversary of the National School Walkout is approaching. It’s a student led movement that “protests congressional, state, and local failures to take action to prevent gun violence”. I’d like to share my story of being on the organizing committee of Richmond, Virginia’s National School Walkout and convey why it’s important to listen to Black youth in this fight for gun violence prevention.
I was given the opportunity to deliver a speech at the March For Our Lives in Richmond, Virginia, which led to being quoted in multiple local news outlets, being invited to contribute articles to the ACLU of Virginia’s website and to organize with a group of student activists. In the midst of these opportunities, I faced racism and online harassment as a Black student activist.
It started when I called out two white students for their insensitive comments regarding racism in schools, police brutality and school shootings being intersecting issues. When they suggested the murder of Stephon Clark is a separate issue from the Columbine and Parkland massacres, I asked them if they genuinely believe in Black voices. I was accused of being “rude,” “disrespectful,” “inconsiderate,” “throwing shade,” “clashing,” “fighting,” “attacking” other people, “not exchanging my opinions peacefully” and changing the subject of who they [March For Our Lives] are trying to help”. I was told that I shouldn’t be working with them if I was going to address the disproportionately affected demographic, instead of “all lives, American lives and not Black lives”. Just to name a few, messages in the group chat read:
“Can we please not make this about race? This is meant to be about the condition of our communities and the character of our country.
“… If you don’t like it here, maybe you shouldn’t be working with us if you’re going to be fighting with other people and attacking us online.
“I worked over 477 hours for Governor Northam’s campaign and I led some rude, disrespectful and inconsiderate people, but I have never encountered…”
“While she’s being close-minded, selfish, and inconsiderate by changing the subject of who we’re trying to help here, we’ll be busy doing things that actually accomplish something.”
“Stephanie, we 100% respect all of your opinions, but we also believe that the main point of this chat is to talking about how gun violence and how it affects us, as well as what we can do to stop it. How we go about it, whether it [would] be an emphasis on black females or whatever you want is completely your choice…We love the power of Black female voices.”
“The Instagram stories and group chat arguments offended everyone and it has nothing to do with your race or your gender.”
“The point of this is to come together for a common cause regardless of race, sexual orientation or political opinions.”
I was consequently turned away and excluded by the organizers from participating in the Virginia National School Walkout Protest. They waited until the day of the Walkout when I had arrived to deliver my speech to tell me I was no longer wanted. After sharing my story on social media, at two town halls, one youth summit and one speak-out, that organizing group in Richmond, Virginia no longer exists.
As a Black girl, I was heavily stereotyped advocating for gun violence prevention, while white youth were showered with praise for doing the exact same thing. Black youth have been combating gun violence for generations. It’s upsetting to me that the media credits white students for doing something Black students have been doing for a long time.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, gun violence is the leading cause of death for Black youth. They are also 14 times more likely than white children to lose their lives to gun violence. Despite these statistics, Black youth don’t usually have school walkouts across the country and thousands of people showing up to our marches in our support. The March For Our Lives in Richmond drew over 5000 people, while demonstrations organized by Black youth attracted much fewer people.
Amplifying our voices means showing up to demonstrations that challenge issues that may not directly affect you, like racism and the school-to-prison pipeline. Amplifying our voices also means speaking with Black youth rather than speaking for us. I’ve learned to speak for myself as Black girl who is light skinned, who doesn’t identify with the LGBTQ+ community, who hasn’t attended underfunded, or heavily policed schools and who doesn’t live in poverty.
My call-to-action for all of you is to show us you care about Black youth by giving us the same attention you would give to white youth affected by gun violence.
Written by Stephanie Younger, a 16-year-old student activist, organizer and writer who advocates for Womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, the abolition of youth prisons and gun violence prevention