The 2022 midterms were yet another example of how Black and brown women’s organizing pays off in a major way. And while the promised “red wave” was more like a “pink puddle,” both political parties have long coveted the culture’s vote, with it mostly helping Democrats in recent decades.
Gen Z is mobilizing in similar ways. As mass shootings and gun violence have continued to rise over the past year, it’s become a significant issue for both elected officials and the advocates belonging to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Last weekend’s attack on the LGBT-friendly Club Q, where five people were killed, shows how pervasive gun violence continues to be. In a movement of nearly 10 million everyday Americans working to end gun violence, the youth in that collective have taken the baton from elder generations to address gun safety.
ESSENCE sat down with Angela Ferrell-Zabala, Senior Vice President of Movement Building at Everytown for Gun Safety, plus young Black activists Makayla Jordan, Ade Osadolor-Hernandez, Taina Patterson, and Jayla Hemphill about their dedication to the cause, being first-time voters, and how they decompress throughout all the stresses that come with being on the front lines.
ESSENCE.com: How did you come to join/participate with Everytown for Gun Safety?
Angela Wilson: Everytown for Gun Control is one of the country’s biggest grassroots organizations representing gun violence prevention. When I stepped in, it was really important that we had a representative supporter base. What this means is that most people impacted by gun violence are Black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Everytown for Gun Control is central to crafting strategies to address the problem directly. And for that, this partnership was critical. We could not do any of this alone. Yes, we are a large grassroots organization, but we need to work in partnership and community with others. Many organizations on the ground are putting their bodies on the line to stop these cycles of violence.
That was my initial thought coming into the role. I’ve still maintained that it’s really important to build these partnerships to make sure that we’re working in an ecosystem. But also, we’re all bringing our expertise to this problem. This requires us—all of us—to solve it. And we’re going to do that with organizations like Everytown for Gun Control to prevent the ongoing violence in this country.
We’re thinking about that and criminal justice, democracy, and other frontline issues that intersect with the gun violence crisis in America.
What was the pivotal moment for you that led to you becoming a gun control/social justice advocate?
Taina: The pivotal moment for me was when Moms Demand Action came to see if people were interested in starting a Students Demand Action in our community. At first, to be honest, we all didn’t know if we were interested. At the time, none of us identified as gun violence survivors. But when they defined what that meant and who falls into that category, I realized they were talking about me. It made me realize that there was a need for people to advocate for those like me and encourage measures that would result in more gun violence prevention.
Jayla: The pivotal moment began when I involved myself with gun safety advocacy while a junior in high school. Moms Demand Action had also come to where I was, as we were doing interviews for a Global Politics class. In looking at those surrounding us who were already doing advocacy work, I called [gun violence] a global issue and immediately signed up with Moms Demand Action.
I wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere, but shortly after, there was a follow-up, and I started my Students Demand Action chapter at my high school. It was founded by myself and my best friends. That was my pivotal moment, to be honest. But more importantly, getting into gun safety work tied very nicely with the racial advocacy I was doing then. In looking at how the school systems in the United States affect Black children, specifically, the issue of policing within schools — I believe that all of this is worthwhile and just.
Makayla: I got involved with Students Demand Action in 2018, about a month after the Parkland shooting. Where I’m from—Birmingham, Alabama—a young girl named Courtlin Arrington was shot and killed in her class. Nothing happened. The school is a block away from my mom’s salon. It’s the high school [that] my dad graduated from, and students returned to school the following Monday. I was aggravated. I needed something to happen, so I decided to take some change and speak up about it.
Ade: I also got involved after the Parkland shooting, which was around my sophomore year of high school. Also, at that time, one of my classmates committed suicide by firearm, and I looked up the gun violence statistics and discovered that suicide by gun occupied a big chunk of the pie chart. Knowing that students like myself and others struggle with mental health, it is important for me to be involved in the gun violence prevention movement to bring awareness to that side of the issue.
The more I became involved, the more I learned about what was going on in Chicago, where I live. I’ve decided to continue my work here because I live in Hyde Park. We struggle with gun violence every single day, and I want to foster a healthy community and environment where everyone feels safe where they live.
Makayla, Jayla, and Ade are first-time voters, with the latter also recently becoming an American citizen last year. How impactful has it been to aid in supporting these young voices as advocates against gun violence?
Angela: It’s always incredibly exciting and inspiring to see our young leaders address issues. They are our future. And when we’re talking about these topics, we’re also talking about a long movement that has to remain sustained in order for us to talk about it and pull away from this culture of gun violence in America.
These voices—Makayla, Ade, Jayla, and Taina—are incredible human beings, and this was a great opportunity to have them speak directly to the issues impacting their day-to-day lives. They are invaluable when you think about what it takes to disrupt the culture of gun violence while also showcasing their skills in translating these complex conversations and getting information through to their peers.
For me, seeing them in action is absolutely exciting. I’d also love to add that these voices have seen firsthand the impact of gun violence on their generation and themselves. This means experiencing drills in school, violence against their respective communities, and the day-to-day violence that happens around or in their neighborhoods.
They’ve grown accustomed to tragedy but know it doesn’t have to be like this, which is exciting. They’re not paralyzed by this. They’re moved to action. They know that our nation’s gun violence crisis is unacceptable, so they’re rising up to demand more from their leaders and us.
You all come from places that have greatly been impacted by the history and actions of racism and gun violence. How do you contend with the feeling of placing yourselves on the frontline against those who are antagonistic to such advocacy actions?
Ade: I’m Black and Mexican. In this country, the odds are against me in numerous ways. It is super important to be aware of my own ethnicity and identity, what it means to be Black and Mexican in America, and the privilege I have of living a pretty normal lifestyle. I’ve never been a victim of gun violence, but for me, it is important to give a voice to lift other people in the movement up and be a bridge for them to speak about their own experiences.
For anyone not believing that gun violence is a problem in America, I urge them to look at the statistics because they show otherwise. Black children, teens, and adults in America are four times more likely than whites of the same ages to die from homicide. Every seven hours, a Black teenager dies from gun violence. Black children and teens are also 13 times more likely than white peers to be hospitalized for a gun injury. Looking at these statistics alone should declare how important the gun violence movement is right now and the part it plays in elections.
Makayla: Similar to what Ade said earlier, it is important to recognize who you are and what you can do to stand up against this injustice. I’m a Black woman from Alabama. And while I might not have experienced gun violence, people around me have. The people in my community experience the effects of the systemic racism and oppression we’ve been going through in this country for hundreds of years. It’s returning to intensified levels now. Being able to have open conversations with people that not only look like me but don’t look like me comes with being in Alabama.
For example, most people should know that the term “gun control” is super volatile and political. It is a word people use to trigger others into reacting, while we use “gun safety” or “gun sense” to showcase how this is not a political issue—it is a health crisis. People are dying. To be frank, I don’t care about your politics—I care about the people losing their lives to this issue.
Taina: It is a lot to advocate for such a prevalent social injustice issue, but I turn my emotions into action. By being a gun violence survivor, I’m motivated to tell other people my story, to advocate for people who have been through what I’ve been through, and to encourage others to join the movement.
Jayla: I’ve personally been impacted by gun violence, too. I know plenty of people who have been as well. With that being said, it is necessary–and the most logical approach—for me to remove emotion from the issue. I remain logical and straightforward with my perspective within my work. Gun safety should be a priority. Logically, this movement, advocacy, and changing the structural rules that make this an obstacle are ways we get there. And so, in that sense, being on the front lines—especially in the grade school system for so long where gun violence is a prevalent issue—is the most important thing that one could manage while addressing the injustice.
Why are so many lawmakers and politicians in America uninterested in addressing the elephants in the room (easy access to weapons, lenient background checks, little-to-no emphasis on mental healthcare)?
Angela: Particularly with young people, but with folks in general, they see that the majority of the country wants us to address this problem. They want their lawmakers to address the public health crisis. And when I talk about majorities, I’m talking about across ideologies, political standing, and age. No matter where you live in this country, people are impacted by gun violence and prison reform.
We know that the majority of folks are with us on this. History also shows that when our young leaders do good work or get into good trouble, strong community engagement and investment can counter this loud minority of antagonizers that you speak of—who do not represent the majority of Americans. The good news, again, is that we have these young leaders and activists across the country in every state.
We are nearly 10 million strong. We partner with many other issue areas to ensure that we’re addressing this and are ready to do whatever it takes to ensure that gun violence does not continue to be the public health crisis it is. I think even after placing our votes, the accountability, and making sure from every local election to federal, we are holding people to account and educating people to get involved to speak up to ensure that our communities are safe and can thrive.
ESSENCE: What did this midterm election moment mean to all of the first-time voters?
Jayla: It’s a really empowering moment [for me.] To be able to take the future into my own hands by getting out there and voting for me is fantastic. I’ve been in the political sphere and activism since I was 12 [and] waited six years to get here. I am thrilled to fulfill that obligation I’ve wanted to have for so long.
Ade: I just became a citizen, so it was a really exciting time to vote. I moved to the U.S. in 8th grade, so I’ve always found myself believing that voting is an extremely important part of being a citizen of this country. I think setting an example and going out to vote will also give other students and activists the motive to vote because our age range typically has a very low turnout. I believe that by having the sticker that says, “I Voted,” other people will feel open and welcome to participate in voting.
Makayla: When I was 16, I helped register 100,000 voters, so to do that but not vote was a unique experience. Now that I’m able to go to the polls—it means a lot to me. Voting is one of the most important civic responsibilities I believe an American should have or does have. It is, in fact, a right if you are participating in this democracy. I’m super excited to have been able to vote.
I worked as an intern with the Alabama House Democratic Office, so to be able to vote is amazing to me. I’m excited to see change come to Alabama because it has always been my dream. In at least five election cycles, the goal is to turn Alabama blue, and I’m proud to work on that and make it a reality. When I became a citizen, it was about a year and a half ago, and I think by setting an example in going out to vote, I hope that other students and other young activists feel enticed to do the same. Typically, [Alabama] has a very low voter turnout, but by having the sticker that says “I Voted,” other people can be open to doing the same.
ESSENCE: Congratulations on achieving your U.S. citizenship, Ade, first and foremost. Secondly, according to Everytown for Gun Safety analysis, the gun homicide rate, which is 26 times higher than any peer nation, disproportionately impacts Black and Brown Americans. In your opinion, what needs to be done to prioritize the safety of these communities, which are insufficiently represented by elected officials?
Ade: All these issues are extremely interconnected and make up one of the biggest things we see—at least in Black communities. They’re incredibly underfunded. They don’t have the resources to curb gun violence, and students don’t have the materials to go to school—transportation, supplies, after-school programs, et cetera—and I think funding is one of the biggest things that the Black and Latine communities need right now.
Funding to make the community safer. Funding to make their communities better. Funding to make the school system better. Funding to deal with food deserts and apartheid. I cannot stress this enough.
ESSENCE: What are some other goals that Everytown for Gun Control wants to accomplish before hitting the next primary American election?
Angela: The stakes for the midterm could not have been higher. Gun safety was on the line, and we’ve been doing a lot with our grassroots network to inform lawmakers at every level of office about the importance of prioritizing ending this public health crisis. It doesn’t stop there, and we’re going to continue our efforts once people are elected to ensure that they’re held accountable for what they’ve run upon. Also, we know that legislation such as gun laws can and do save lives, so we’re going to continue to work on that.
ESSENCE: For the young advocates who are absorbing PTSD-level traumas and experiences, how do you all decompress from the toll that these stressors have on your mental, emotional, and physical health?
Taina: I lean heavily on my faith and belief in God. Anytime that I am feeling a little overwhelmed about the work that I’m doing, I pray about it. I listen to my church music, talk with other believers about my situation, and use their insights and advice as part of my coping mechanism.
Makayla: Ade and I both started our advocacy work around ages 15, 16-years-old, so I’ve dealt with this heavy topic for the majority of my teenhood. I go to the University of Alabama, so if I want to take time off, I’ll do that and decompress from everything that happened that week. I like to connect with Black staff members that are members of Students Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Control because that is my safety net. These are people that I know, for sure, care about me and can talk to about anything. Those conversations with such meaningful people gave me a great opportunity to decompress while still staying engaged in the movement.
Jayla: Personally, I’m not religious, so I rely more on journaling and conversing with others about my work, similar to how Taina does. I also learned when it is time to take a break because this life can be very stressful, and being involved with these organizations requires stepping away to breathe. It is very difficult to regularly watch people break down, cry, and scream about their dead loved ones and know that there is nothing you can do to fix it or bring them back.
There’s so much trauma that’s been placed upon us here in America due to gun laws that we’re fighting to undo. Taking breaks helps us realize that we can’t fix the past but need to be strong enough to fight for the future. Ultimately, we’re all a bunch of young people protesting, writing, and doing everything we can, but if we don’t decompress and take care of ourselves, too, we’ll burn out because we’re not magicians.
Ade: As we say in the gun violence prevention movement, ‘This movement is a marathon, not a sprint.’ It’s extremely important to keep in mind that you’re not going to see change tomorrow or in two days. Our work and progress are long-term, so it takes time to see that progress come to fruition. As student activists, keeping our sanity and mental health in check is extremely important. I love going on walks and listening to music to de-stress after ingesting a lot of bad news and gun violence stories in the media.
I’ll take one or two minutes of peace and quiet where I can embrace myself, comfort myself, and remind myself that everything will be OK and that the work I am doing is extremely worthwhile. Being a part of this movement can be difficult and discouraging. There are a lot of people who are actively working against us. Reminding yourself there are people on your side, working with and for you, is helpful because they want to keep you on the right path to make real change. Students Demand Action does an amazing job of ensuring we’re OK and providing safe spaces for us to talk about how we’re feeling and struggling with.
Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter, digital media specialist, and chieftain behind Subject To Change, a creative consultancy company. His work at the intersection of music, film, and Black pop culture has led to @LovePeaceAndSpades, a bi-weekly game night at The Line Hotel. Follow him on Twitter @IAmKevitoClark for new developments.