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Parkland students: Gun reform movement about people ‘wanting to stay alive’

When gun reform activists Ryan Deitsch and Sofie Whitney spoke to a jam-packed audience in a Yale classroom, their message had a special resonance for the visitors in town for Bulldog Days, the three-day program that gives admitted students a taste of Yale.

Deitsch and Whitney are also high school seniors, but their senior year — at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — was marked by a tragic shooting in February that left 14 classmates and three teachers dead. Deitsch and Whitney have become two prominent activists with the #NeverAgain movement, urging Congress to enact measures designed to prevent gun violence. Their visit to Yale — capping off speaking engagements at two other schools in Connecticut — highlighted the role young people can play in making change in this country.

We have so much power in our generation with our vote that if we want to see things changed, we actually can do it, as long as we actually go and vote,” Whitney told attendees of the April 24 talk, hosted by the Yale College Democrats and sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism. “A good 800 kids at Douglas will be voting,” Whitney added, “and I’m sure plenty of the seniors across the country have been inspired to vote.” Many audience members nodded their heads in agreement.

Deitsch and Whitney spoke about the policy goals of their movement — specifically, a five-part plan to regulate access to firearms. “It’s just nice to see people come together for something so simple as wanting to stay alive,” said Deitsch. It’s not about partisanship, he stated repeatedly throughout the event.

Both students expressed awe at the attention their cause has garnered. “We’re probably from the most normal town ever,” Whitney said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Your voice matters and your vote matters.” She and Deitsch credited Twitter with helping them spread the word to millions of people about last month’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and its over 700 sister events nationwide. They helped plan the event with fellow students.

In response to a question about the movement’s next steps, Deitsch acknowledged that making change is hard — and it takes a really long time. But he’s in it for the long haul, he said, and he is committed to calling out politicians’ hypocrisy and forcing them to act. “As long as we continue to see it, as long as we continue to point it out, it will eventually happen less and less,” he said.

Still, Deitsch and Whitney note they are just kids. “Just to put it all in perspective again,” Deitsch said, “Sofie acts in school plays. I used to be a busboy at a fancy restaurant. Now we’re doing this.” They are the generation after Columbine, Deitsch said, and 9/11 happened when they were infants. “From our perspective, we’re tired of being afraid,” Deitsch said. His goal, he explained, is to turn that fear into action, with the hope that “the older generations understand that.” He advised adults to talk about the issue of gun violence with their friends, and tell them “I agree with those kids.”

Whitney and Deitsch are quick acknowledge that their position is one of privilege, and said they’ve tried to use that position for good. “We can’t just be privileged white kids forever. It’s not a good business model,” Deitsch said, “and it’s not gonna work.” Whitney recognized that “the reason we got all the coverage is because we’re from a privileged community, and since we can’t really help that, we’ve been doing everything we can to share the spotlight with other communities that don’t get this kind of coverage.” She mentioned that Liberty City, a predominantly black Miami neighborhood with high rates of gun violence — including recent shootings that left several high school students dead or injured — is often ignored by the local government. “These are people that we’ve made friends with,” Deitsch said, adding that those people will continue to deal with daily gun violence in a way that students in Parkland will not. “All we have to do is work together and come together to actually solve these problems regardless of who we are, regardless of where we’re from,” Deitsch added.

Deitsch and Whitney said they have accepted their new role as activists, but their community is still grieving. “There are 3300 students at Stoneman Douglas and every single one of the went through something that day,” Whitney said. “It’s so important that we spoke out because a lot of people couldn’t, and a lot of people still can’t because they’re so traumatized by what happened.”

Ultimately, they said, they see their goal as pretty straightforward. “If more people are alive because of what we’re doing,” Whitney said, “then we’ve accomplished something.”

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