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  • Sarah Frank - Conant Family Foundation Board

This Should Not Be Normal


From The New Yorker, Getty Photo by Joe Raedle

In the last week, I have been moved and inspired to hear the teenage survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting demand change from their elected officials. Teenagers are our future, and I am so glad we are listening. As a high school teacher, listening to teenagers is my daily grind. Young people see the world around them with the freshness and outrage the rest of us have become slowly numb to. We need them. And, in this moment, as so many young people are catalyzed to become activists by this shooting, we also need to lift up and acknowledge other young activists who have been in the streets to far less acclaim in the last several years: the Black Lives Matter movement.

You see, in the New York City school where I work, my students have no illusions about their own safety. My students have experienced more violence than most, and for many of them, gun violence is a part of their daily existence. Most of them know people who have lost their lives to gun violence. A few of them have guns (and legal charges related to them). Some of them are in gangs, can only walk certain blocks safely, and navigate incredibly complex dynamics outside of school to stay safe. One student in my advisory class has a bullet forever lodged in his leg. Another in the same class watched his best friend die in his arms over Christmas break from a gun wound. This should not be normal.

Our social and legal structures have failed to keep my students safe over and over and over. Indeed, the very system that is supposed to protect them, law enforcement, frequently harasses them and regularly murders people who look like them. The fact that most mass-shooters have been white men, who are rarely (accidentally or otherwise) killed by the police, comes up often in our class discussions about violence and policing. How relevant is a purely legislative, “gun control” solution for young people who experience police violence and incarceration at disproportionate rates? For young people who feel that their government has either forgotten them or is actively antagonizing them?

[Photo of a young woman speaking into a megaphone at a protest.] Editorial credit: Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com

A discussion of how to keep young people safe in this country must include the voices of my students, too. Just as the young people from Parkland know what they need to feel safe in their schools, so do young people in New York City and Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri. Celebrities and philanthropists are showing up to support the March for Our Lives and to move money to national organizations (who are doing great work) to end gun violence and advocate for gun control. People all over the country are furious and inspired and determined. It’s a big election year. Money really matters, perhaps more now than ever.

With one foot in philanthropy and one foot in the classroom, I ask this for 2018: invest in young people - all young people. As you make gifts to support the actions led by the kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, give equally to support young people of color who are also fighting to be safe. Elevate their stories and their activism. Make connections between these issues. They are inseparable, and do not let the NRA or white supremacists convince you otherwise. No one teenager is more deserving of safety than any other. We’re the adults and we need to take action.


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