Kaaleah Jones is a 10th grader living in Virginia. In 2003, her father was shot and killed in Newport News while waiting for a cab. Jones was one at the time. “When it first happened, of course, I didn’t really understand the true gravity of what was really going on,” the 15-year-old tells Broadly. “He was in my life and then he just wasn’t anymore. As I got older, as my mother and grandmother started telling me stories of how he impacted them and hearing how he was before he passed, [I realized] it was something I would never get to experience. That’s what hit me the hardest.”
In a recent video project spearheaded by the Virginia Action Network, a grassroots coalition dedicated to reducing gun violence, Jones interviewed her grandmother about the death of her son, Jones’ father. “When the police told me and showed me the picture, I still couldn’t do nothing,” Diane Margie Jones recalled in the video, her eyes red. “I just sat there for a long time until I heard somebody screaming, and it was me.” She broke down in tears; it was the first time she’d shared her story publicly.
Jones says her participation in Hands Without Guns 2.0, a program that teaches youth how to share their stories using basic broadcast journalism techniques, was one of her proudest accomplishments since she began advocating for gun violence prevention alongside her mom at the age of four. “It was so overwhelming when she was getting really choked up,” the teen says about sitting across from her grandmother during their interview. “It was just hard to see her like that. It was hard not to jump in front of the camera and go over there and hug her … but I knew her story had to get out there [to raise awareness].”
Long before the school shooting survivors in Parkland, Florida ignited a nationwide gun reform movement, teens from across the country have been working in their communities to reduce everyday gun violence. While mass shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month capture headlines, they make up a small percentage of the gun-related deaths in America. According to a recent study, approximately 19 children are killed or injured by guns each day in the US; most alarmingly, researchers found that black children are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than white children.
Or, as one 17-year-old who helped organize a gun violence awareness rally in Chicago last Saturday pointed out: “It’s more about the journey to school for some kids than it is about the actual day at school.”
Yet the response to the Parkland students’ work to reduce school shootings has been staggering, even as some of their black classmates have raised concerns about being overlooked and ignored in the fight for gun reform. Many people—including some of the Florida students themselves—point to white privilege and affluence as the driving forces behind these teens’ ability to heighten awareness on an issue that others have been toiling at, with little recognition, for years.
Kayla Hicks, the director of African American & Community Outreach at the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, says though their voices have long been overlooked, it’s important for young people in communities of color to be a part of the gun violence prevention work because they’re impacted the most. If you look at statistics, she tells Broadly, “these kids are the ones who are actually not making it. We are seeing virtually a genocide of a population of people that we can save.”
“We’re losing doctors, lawyers and legislators; fathers, brothers, and sisters,” Hicks continues. “These kids are watching the world say, ‘You are not here unless we say you are.’”
As a result, she says, it’s these same kids who have realized the need to advocate for themselves. “Is it fair? Is it right? No,” she says. “But they’re doing it, and they’ve got more courage than most adults.”
From sharing their stories in community gatherings and meeting one-on-one with other people who have lost loved ones to gun violence to organizing “ceasefires” (in which organizers call for people to put down their weapons for a period of time) and holding rallies, students have found all kinds of ways to do their part in tackling the country’s gun violence problem.
Two of those young activists are Dante Miller, 16, and his brother Richard, 14. They’ve been working to raise awareness of the impact of gun violence on families since their 17-year-old brother Jermell Hayes was shot multiple times near a park in Virginia almost two years ago. Through their involvement in a youth mentoring program called The Catalyst Effect, the brothers share their story of trauma and loss; in one campaign, they go out and talk to their peers about how to find help to save others from senseless violence. Ultimately, their goal is to make their community a safer place to live.
Richard says his life changed forever the day he lost Jermell. “People need to know how it feels to wake up every day and not have the people you love there anymore,” he says. “How hard it is to wake up and still have to go to school and live life and be happy knowing that you will never get to be with that person that you loved and lost by the hand of someone else. It does not just affect one person; it affects the whole family.”
For Dante, part of his advocacy work is inspired by the drive to be a positive role model for Richard and also to keep Jermell’s memory alive. “There are families out there suffering, and I would like to help them,” he says. “I don't want no one to feel the pain I feel every day.”
However, he acknowledges how difficult the work can be, especially as the national spotlight, and subsequently, important resources, focus in on the Parkland students. “We are suffering in silence and we want to be heard and want to be treated just like the other youth in the upper high class neighborhoods,” he says. “We need more organizations to help teach us and lead us to be more effective in the community. We need to be educated and shown that we mean something to this world.”
Richard adds: “It shouldn't matter where you live or how much money you have. We all matter, black, white, or brown.”
Another young gun reform activist who realized the power of her voice early on is Amy Chen, a 21-year-old student at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. She recalls vividly the feeling she had at nine years old when gunshots rang out in front of her house in north Philadelphia just as her mother was walking out the front door. “For a split second,” she tells Broadly, “I wasn’t sure if my mom was dead or alive.” Her mother turned out to be fine, but the memory of police cars swarming her block in search of the shooters has stayed with Chen.
In high school, she started becoming more involved in advocacy work, mobilizing people to help create change within their community, and got involved in a number of organizations and initiatives, including Generation Progress’ #Fight4aFuture Leadership Council and Philadelphia’s Youth Commission. “As I got older, I realized more of my friends were either behind the trigger or they were dead because they got shot and killed by a gun,” Chen says.
For her high school senior project, she organized a mayoral candidate debate on gun violence prevention; more than 200 young people attended. “That told me that people care about this issue,” she says. “That told me that people are willing to step up and share their stories and mobilize more people to work together a common goal.” But, she continues, it’s an issue that not only needs to be tackled on the national level, in terms of legislation, but also on the local level. That means understanding the root causes for gun violence, such as poverty, educational barriers, and a lack of resources for youth activities.
“Violence is how we survive in the hood because there’s nothing [else] we can do,” she says. According to one report, between 2006 and 2015, more than 14,500 people were shot in Philadelphia—a rate of one shooting every six hours. “In my community, the reason why people got access to guns was for protection: to protect themselves from other gangs [and] to protect their families. I remember back in elementary school, I was in recess playing tag; I was chasing a friend of mine, and he just flashed a gun at me. We need to figure out why and how people get access to guns.”
"People need to know how it feels to wake up every day and not have the people you love there anymore.”
Chen, who participated in the National School Walkout on March 14, admits she worries that the heightened attention to gun violence prevention is just a passing trend. “I am happy to see some momentum being formed because people are starting to realize that it can happen to them, which makes it harder for Congress to ignore this epidemic,” she says. “But at the same time, it is also frustrating because my question is, ‘Where were all these supporters when my friends were getting shot and killed?’”
Jones, the 15-year-old who lost her father in a shooting when she was an infant, agrees. Although she did participate in the National School Walkout, she did not attend a March For Our Lives event. “To me, the national attention that Parkland has been receiving doesn’t really faze me that much because I’m used to those types of events getting publicized on those large scales while the war zone in communities like mine fall on deaf ears,” she says. “When it happens to these ‘safe’ communities—because Parkland was voted the safest community in Florida—it’s such a surprise that everybody gets so riled up about it. But in my community, it happens so often, it’s just a passing thing. Like, OK, this kid died today. OK, this kid will die tomorrow. It’s just something that happens so often that the news becomes desensitized to it.”
But, she points out, advocating for gun reform needs to be inclusive and will require “collective collaboration and teamwork.” That’s why she says it’s “imperative” that teens like her be a part of the work to “stop the senseless killings of the youth in our nation.”
Part of what motivates her to keep at it is the fact that she never had the opportunity to get to know her father. “Everybody says I look exactly like him, and I have so many of his mannerisms that are within me, and I will never actually get to experience what he was like in person,” Jones says. “All I get is pictures.”
“Not having a father really impacted me,” she continues, “especially when he was said to be such a great man and I will never actually get to experience what that truly meant. ... I would never want any other child to go through what I go through.”