Emma Gonzalez did not speak for what seemed like an eternity during the “March For Our Lives” gun control rally in March. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior was a survivor of a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members.
She stood silent for about six minutes with tears streaking her cheeks. She was commemorating the six minutes it took for the shooter to kill.
Emma was one of a resurgence of teens who are involving themselves in politics, particularly around the issue of gun control.
“It’s our future,” said Matthew Docalovich, a 16-year-old from Granby High School who has volunteered for several democratic campaigns including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run.
“It’s important that we’re involved even if we can’t vote because it’s the only way we can influence politics.”
Young people are leading the debate about gun violence in the U.S. in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, according to civicyouth.org. Their words and actions underscore the diversity of young people’s views and experiences and have resulted in a national conversation about how this activism could impact election outcomes in 2018 and beyond.
Teens have always been involved in politics, however. For example, in 1960, four African-American students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. African Americans were not allowed to eat at the store’s counter. The teens refused to leave after being denied service and the sit-in movement spread to many southern cities. Students were arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct, but their actions forced businesses to change segregationist policies.
The difference between teen activism then and now is social media.
“Social media equals exposure and exposure to political issues results in enlightenment and provides people with knowledge,” Matthew said. “Knowledge forces people to take action. Exposure equals action.”
During the Parkland shooting, for example, students were tweeting during the shooting.
“Our school is having a shooting,” tweeted student Heather Martin. “I’m not even kidding I’m about to die.”
The weekend following the shooting, the “Never Again” hashtag flourished on social media as students were sending the message that they did not want another school shooting. Other hashtags became popular, such as as #MarchForOurLives” and “#IWillMarch.”
The hashtags unified teens nationwide to stage walkouts on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting.
Several local teens say they are getting involved in politics because they feel they can learn from the experience or that they can impact others.
Sydney Haulenbeek, a 16-year-old student at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, volunteered on Rocky Holcomb’s 2017 campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. Sydney canvassed door-to-door.
“I had a lot of people stunned to see young people going out and working on the campaign,’’ Sydney said.
Claire Belesimo, 17, attends Grassfield High School in Chesapeake and attended the 2017 Virginia Girls State. She met the attorney general and several house members of the state government.
“Participating definitely shaped me or helped me as a person because it gave me a view inside the political process of Virginia,” she said. “It also opened my eyes on other people's views and their opinions on what is important locally and statewide.”
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research surveyed 790 teenagers ages 13 to 17 going into the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential contest. The study found 9 in 10 said that they have become active like volunteering for a cause they care about or raising money for such a cause.
“I feel like there a lot of student-driven movements in the media right now,” Claire said. “I believe students and all young people can make an impact.”