Naperville students host summit to address gun violence: ‘Young people have always led the way’
High school students from Naperville and beyond got a hands-on lesson in civic organizing at North Central College on Saturday, while running the Gun Violence Solutions Summit they created and promoted on their own.
“Participants — that was easier to get than students. It’s harder to find students willing to come Saturday at 9 in the morning,” said Andy Wang, a senior at Neuqua Valley High School.
Wang said he organized the Students Speak Up event to continue the dialogue spurred by the national school walkout on March 14, one month after a shooter killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla.
“We’re here because of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, the list goes on. You are doing something about it,” said U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Schaumburg. He said he has helped sponsor federal bills “calling for universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, a three-day waiting period on handguns. These are going nowhere in Congress. I need your help now more than ever.”
Krishnamoorthi was among more than a dozen politicians and activists rounded up by Wang to interact with teens at informational tables or speak about gun violence prevention at the five-hour free event held in Wentz Hall, which featured panel discussions, speeches, spoken word performances, complimentary lunch and an opening video from U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville.
“What you are doing is important,” said Rep. Foster in a video message recorded for the event. “It’s wonderful to see your generation standing up. … Progress on these issues will be a direct result of voices like yours. It’s inspiring to see how many young people have taken the lead.”
Wang is the chair of Illinois High School Democrats and is heading to Harvard to major in applied mathematics and economics in the fall, but his leadership did not bring in more than 100 students as he anticipated. Only about 20 people sat in the audience of the large auditorium when the event began, though the summit eventually attracted about 40 young people throughout the day.
“We tried to reach out,” said Wang, who encouraged his bipartisan group of student leaders to spread the word on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat and email more than 600 social studies teachers throughout the Chicago area to share information on the summit with their classes. The event drew students from Neuqua Valley, Naperville Central, Waubonsie Valley, Metea Valley, Wheaton Warrenville South, York Community, Riverside Brookfield, St. Ignatius College Prep and Lyons Township high schools.
“It’s all about grassroots. Even a small group of us, we can take it back to school and spread the message,” said Molly McElligott, a student at Lyons Township High School.
“Our kids are making a difference,” said Lyons Township social studies teacher Traci Hirstein during one of the panel discussions. ”We started SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere). To reach 4,000 students with one program is huge. Check out SandyHookPromise.org and get information about starting a club at your school. There is a way for you to get involved.”
Lyons Township teaching assistant Pat Callahan said she got involved in the Sandy Hook Promise group because of the Know The Signs program. “It has stopped shootings and helped hundreds of youth receive mental health assistance,” said Callahan.
“Eighty percent of school shooters told someone of their plans; 70 percent of suicides told someone or gave warning signs. Say Something (is another program that) teaches youth to recognize warning signs, especially in social media, and to say something before it’s too late,” added Hirstein, a promise leader for the national nonpartisan nonprofit.
That organization was one of a dozen groups that shared information and encouraged sign-ups during the lunchtime exhibition, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Junior State of America, Unity Partnership, Change 200, “Wake Rise Resist” authors, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, Naperville Township Democrats, DuPage County Democrats, Lisle Township Democrats and the League of Women Voters, who helped register students turning 18 by Nov. 6, 2018.
Those who are not old enough to vote “can be a judge at 16 years old working at the polls,” encouraged Regina Brent, founder and president of Unity Partnership.
“Young people have always led the way. I am 22 years old. Martin Luther King was in his 20s,” said Chicago mayoral candidate and South Side community activist Ja’Mal Green of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are. Get up and do what’s right,” added Green during his energizing speech.
“We had 35,000 activists in the system. After Parkland, we have 135,000 activists. That’s the impact the Parkland youth had on the gun violence issue,” said Maria Pike, who became a fellow for Everytown for Gun Sense in America after her son was shot and killed. “There is unity in becoming inclusive, and that’s what I owe to the Parkland students.”
The panelists said the movement has gained momentum because those who feel threatened by a potential shooter at an affluent suburban school have teamed up with others who are bombarded by daily fears of urban gun violence in their neighborhoods.
“I admire the things you guys are doing and applaud you for your efforts,” said Delphine Cherry, the chair of the Chicago Chapter of the Brady Campaign who said she lost two children to gun violence.
“The activity of your generation had an immediate effect in Illinois,” noted Sara Knizhnik, organizer for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “There was a bill for gun dealer licensing … trying to get passed for 17 years. It passed out of both houses with bipartisan support two weeks after Parkland. You gave us the final push for victory.”
Though Knizhnik said the bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, there is a push to bring back the same type of “state legislation to stop illegal trafficking of guns and regulation of gun dealers. It will go this time but not without your involvement,” said Shelly Sandstrom, Naperville local group lead for Moms Demand Action, who encouraged young people to register and vote based on this single issue. “You guys are young and passionate, and we can use that.”
Author: Diane Moca