This past Saturday, I attended the March for Our Lives in Atlanta along with 30,000 other Georgians. When the Parkland shooting happened last month, I was numb at first. I couldn't even feel the depth of the pain for the Parkland community. There had already been 8 school shootings in 2018 and I thought this one would fade from the news just as quickly as those had. I have never been so glad to be wrong. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have changed the national conversation about gun control and what the response of survivors can be.
When I moved to Atlanta last year, I found it strange to have to tell my own story of a school shooting. Having lived in Seattle since the shooting, I'd never been somewhere where people didn't know my story. The SPU shooting was one of the hundreds of school shootings that year that quickly faded from the national memory. As a Christian community, our witness in the aftermath was largely one of prayer. As a community, we turned to God and in secular Seattle, that witness was incredibly powerful and it seemed like the appropriate response at the time. However, we didn't speak out about gun control. No matter how much I believed in it, in those days afterward, it didn't even occur to me to talk to national media about pushing a life-saving agenda.
I spent the next two years working with middle and high school students and learning just how powerful their generation is. My students pushed me on my own beliefs and showed me how my actions didn't always match what I was teaching them. I remember more than one difficult conversation about dress codes on mission trips. My students were engaged, passionate, and informed. They were paying attention to the world in ways I never was at their age.
This is all to say, that while I had nearly given up on our nation's response to gun violence, I was not at all surprised at the courage and bravery of the survivors at MSD High School. These high school students represent the best of their generation. They were raised on books like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Divergent, so it's no surprise that they were ready to stand up against a corrupt government that has so unbelievably let them down. They grew up with the internet, so they're fluent in clap-backs and calling out bullshit. Whether we knew it or not, we've been preparing them for this all their lives.
The other thing that makes Generation Z unique is that they have only known one President- Barack Obama. For many liberal adults, Obama was our high water mark. He was the most honorable and inspiring leader we've seen and maybe as good as it gets. But for today's high schoolers, Obama is not the high water mark, he's the baseline. They don't remember their President lying about WMDs and invading the wrong country or sleeping with an intern. They now expect all of their leaders to have untouchable character, relatable humor, and honest compassion. In their eyes, it's only up from here.
The students from Parkland are just the tip of the iceberg of Generation Z and if my experience has taught me anything, it's not to underestimate these kids. They will challenge the status quo and disrupt the systems of power. If you happen to be in power over them, it can be a terrifying and frustrating thing. "Why can't you just be quiet and grow up? You'll see then!" But that impulse is what has kept oppressive systems of power in place. The great democratized space of the Internet has given these students the opportunity to see the larger systems with new eyes.
The best part about this generation is their ability to grow. They haven't learned to hold to on too tightly to their idols and they're open to change and growth. They know that the history of access to guns is deeply connected to racism- from slavery to civil rights. The Parkland students have been incredibly vocal about the fact that their white privilege is what has kept the media's attention. Students in Flint, Chicago, and Furgeson have been speaking about gun violence for years and no one has paid attention. When this was called out, the Parkland students were quick to say, "yes! we know! It's intersectionality or bust!"
This is what leveraging white privilege (or proximity to whiteness, in the case of some) can look like. It's not about making life worse for white kids in the name of equality but lifting children of color up with them. The speakers at the March for Our Lives were intentional about lifting up the stories and experiences of people of color in this country and how they are disproportionately victims of gun violence. White privilege may have given these students their platforms, but they are learning how to use that privilege for good.
The March in Atlanta had about 30,000 people in attendance, which meant 30,000 different opinions about gun control. We wouldn't all vote for the same politicians or ballot measures, but we were willing to walk with one another at least for today. It's important to remember that we don't always have to agree with each other to walk together. The Parkland kids are political, but they aren't necessarily partisan. If Democrats want their votes, they have to earn each and every single one.
At the end of the day, I was so proud of the young people in America. They are leading the way and it's up to adults to encourage and support, listen to, and yes, even follow them. These students just might be the answer to all those thoughts and prayers our politicians have been offering. They give us hope that things will not always be this way. Plus, I now get to say that I've marched with John Lewis, so there's that.