By Stephanie Younger •
There were good and bad experiences that I had as a young Black gun violence prevention (GVP) activist between then and now, leading up to where I am today. When I was 15, I was taught to maintain resilience in the face of an empowering, defining moment in my activism, followed by a horrible experience. I highly recommend thoroughly reading this article for the full context.
My activism started with addressing police shootings of Black people, leading into juvenile justice reform, but I first heard about the local March For Our Lives rally through Richmond Youth Peace Project. For nearly a year and a half, I had been working with them by performing original spoken-word poetry about police violence against Black people, and helping other young people apply non-violent conflict resolution to reduce gun violence. At the local March For Our Lives rally, I spoke in front of over five-thousand people about gun violence, but my primary mission was to raise awareness about the importance of including the voices of people disproportionately affected by this. I was one of the few speakers who addressed intersectionality, but I was very surprised to see my name and a quote from my speech in the press for the first time.
“Speakers also emphasized the greater impact gun violence has on the African-American community, tying it to historical acts of violence against minorities.
“How many more black families will be devastated by gun violence – threatened or killed by the people whose job it is to serve and protect?” Stephanie Younger, an activist with the Richmond Youth Peace Project, asked the crowd.
“How many more times do my parents have to give me that talk explaining to me that I’m 10 times more likely to become a victim of gun violence because I am black?””– Irena Schunn and George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service
On my way home from the rally in Richmond, VA, I saw a viral video of Naomi Wadler’s incredible speech she delivered at the national March For Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., about saying the names of Black girls affected by gun violence.
I cited her speech in an article I immediately wrote from my heart for Black Feminist Collective, about the significance of listening to Black youth, and especially Black girls, in the fight against gun violence. About a week later, the ACLU of Virginia not only offered to republish the essay, but also the unforgettable opportunity to write more articles for them.
I was on Cloud Nine. I felt seen and heard, until I faced anti-Blackness by a group, mostly comprised of white Central Virginia high school students, when they invited other young people who spoke at the Richmond rally to lead a city-wide walkout with them on April 20th, the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine massacre. From the very beginning, the students gave a very questionable first impression during a conversation about racism in schools. Even though I spent nearly three years attending elementary school, with a white male then-high school student’s classmates, he said,
“[Your experiences] were in the past. There’s no racism or bullying at my school.”
They also had a funny way of giving Black Lives Matter the same solidarity they have given to the #NeverAgain movement. At the time, Black Lives Matter has spent nearly five years taking action against state-sanctioned gun violence against Black people, and #NeverAgain was a movement comprised of mostly white people, many of which became gun violence prevention activists in those recent weeks.
“It’s not about race. It’s because the kids in Parkland protested in a way people are open to.”
In the group chat, we often exchanged posts about gun violence prevention, and I came across an Instagram post that resonated with me by Unapologetic Street Series that read, “Police brutality is gun violence. Gun control must hold the state accountable.” Out of the frustration that stems from what has been said to me earlier that day, I shared the post with the group chat. I added that police shootings of Black people are not separate from school shootings, and therefore must be acknowledged the same way. The other group members, including the few other young people of color, agreed and suggested that racism, community gun violence, police shootings, and their intersections, were separate issues from what should be addressed in the gun violence prevention community. I was asked to “not make this about race,” and told that “this is about gun violence in schools.”
Because those statements contradicted with what they said days earlier, about the importance of standing in solidarity with Black and Brown youth affected by gun violence, I asked the white group members how they follow through with those actions, and they accused me of “questioning their activism.” That is where I got into it with them, and became vocal about the significance of intersectionality in the gun violence prevention community, not only on social media, but also with those around me. As a result, I was labeled with stereotypes that are often linked with Black women and girls — rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate and hypocritical; complains, throws shade, exchanges opinions violently, antagonizes and clashes with other people.
After I blocked two students, they messaged me from their alternative Instagram accounts, and new accounts they created, to further harass me in the group chat. It lasted throughout spring break, and nothing was done about it. I was not okay. Much to the concern of my close friends and loved ones, I was extremely inconsolable. Before what had happened in the group chat, I stated that I wanted to talk about intersectionality at an upcoming town hall. After what happened, another white male tried to talk me into “speaking about the importance of voting,” and a white girl told me that they “wanted more Black representation.” Taking care of myself was my first priority, even when that meant saying no. However, I was still willing to work things out.
For what I thought was the students’ attempt to solve the conflict, I was asked to Skype with them, only to be tone policed by the same white girl who said, “I’m sorry you felt attacked. We agree with you, but say it in a way we are open to.” Even though this older white teenager addressed himself as “the most progressive person you will ever meet,” he lectured, “This is an issue that affects all lives, American lives, and not Black lives. If you’re going to be talking about race, attacking us online and fighting with other people, maybe you shouldn’t be working with us. The constitution and this country was made up of compromise. If you don’t like it, get out.” Even after that, I hoped we had moved on, and asked what I can do to help, but no one in the group included me in the last meeting before the walkout. I tried to deal with it and put on a brave face until then.
Me: I hear there was a meeting on Friday that I missed, so in the future, can you remind me if there’s an upcoming meetup? Thanks 🙂
Group member: Stephanie what have you done to help us plan? Nothing? Okay, thanks! That was our last planning session[,] we wanted to spend it on getting things done, not pointless arguments.
Me: I’m now willing to help. I thought we moved on.
Group member: We did. It’s not up to me to invite you.
Me: Thanks. But I’m just curious why I wasn’t reminded about any upcoming meetings[,] even though we moved on.
Group member: Your previous actions showed a lot. You can’t pick and choose when you want to help. I really wanted to invite you[,] but majority rules.
Me: What majority?
Group member: The group. We decided not to invite you. We discussed moving forward and how we’re going to do it the correct way & playlists & speeches for the march.– A conversation with one of the group members via Instagram
Monday, April 20, 2020, will have marked two years since I arrived to the walkout on Brown’s Island in Richmond, VA, only to learn that I wasn’t speaking, and to be turned away by the same white male who asked me to “speak about the importance of voting.” When I said ”hi” to him, he walked away. I approached him again, and I asked if I was speaking. Even though the group guaranteed weeks earlier that I was going to speak, he said “we’re full.” I learned later on, that although I also wasn’t the only Black kid to have their speech cut without a heads-up, the group specifically excluded my speech from the walkout, because of the conflict, and my message, which addresses how gun violence as a whole affects Black youth, and especially Black girls. I was devastated. The fact that the group excluded me from leading the walkout with them was the last straw. Their racism didn’t stop me from walking out, but I had to do that on my own.
Since it was so obvious that I wasn’t wanted, I let the group know later that day that I couldn’t work with them anymore, and they were shocked, confused, and angry with me. As soon as I left the group chat, this enormous weight was lifted from my shoulders. I immediately realized that the stereotyping, racism, and cyber-bullying that I faced caused physical distress, in addition to emotional distress to my well-being. I couldn’t help but express my gratitude to the individual people, some who saw what happened at the walkout, and some who were already aware of what I was going through, for being supportive.
The group didn’t last any longer than a month after what happened at the walkout. I spent the day after the walkout, well into the next several months sharing my story, to speaking at town halls, open mics and youth summits, and writing articles. I saw a light at the end of a very dark tunnel when several organizations and individual people stood with me and gave me a platform. What I experienced also taught me a valuable lesson that I am not without privilege, as a Black girl who is not only light-skinned and cishet, but also benefits from classism and class privilege. My message to everyone who is going through this, is to value those who genuinely support and uplift you, and to never let anyone bully you out of standing by what you believe in.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student, organizer and writer who advocates for womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, juvenile justice reform and gun violence prevention.