Adeline Gent started her work in the Gun Violence Prevention movement at the beginning of the school year when she went to a forum at her local church which hosted some March for Our Lives members from the Madison West High School chapter.

Since then, she co-founded her own chapter of MFOL at Cambridge High School, lobbied at the Capitol and, most recently, has been planning a vigil for the Sandy Hook victims. 

She talked to two state representatives about the then-upcoming special session on gun control, specifically addressing red flag laws and stricter background checks. 

The special session, which garnered national attention, was opened and shut by Republicans without any debate within 30 seconds.

“I was very nervous,” Gent said. “This movement is all about youth but it’s nerve wracking as someone who is brand-new to the movement jumping in and hoping that adults and actual people working in politics and for the state take me seriously.”

Gent is particularly unique within the GVP movement — she’s a 14-year-old freshman in high school.

But her involvement is anything but. Along with her chapter at Cambridge, across the country, there are hundreds of MFOL chapters led by high school and college students. 

And there isn’t a shortage of national groups with youth in high positions looking to achieve the same goal, including Students Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and Generation Progress. 

Like Gent, Karly Scholz, a junior at Madison West and Wisconsin State Director for MFOL, also pressured legislators to vote favorably for sensible gun control. She said there was overwhelming support from Democrats and the willingness to listen from Republicans. But when it came time to vote, she said it was very clear listening was all they were going to do. 

“[What] really stuck with me the most is that a couple of the Republican senators were like, ‘Oh, I really like to hear both sides’ … or ‘I really want to listen to what everyone has to say,’ but when they open and closed [the special session], it was pretty clear that is not what they want,” Scholz said. “[There was a difference between] what they were telling me in their office while I was standing there, with my March for our Lives t-shirt on, versus what they did surrounded by like-minded people.”

With rising threats of gun violence in the U.S. and a lack of political will in legislators, stories like this will always be timely. And though there certainly is a place for adults in the GVP movement, on the frontlines, locally and nationally, there are youth who don’t want their communities to be next. They’ve joined local chapters of MFOL, lobbied to their legislators, and, as Daud Mumin, chair of the diversity and inclusion committee for MFOL and a freshman at Westminster College in Utah said, put their “bodies on the line.” 

Localizing efforts

In early November, ensconced in the basement of a Washington D.C. synagogue, was a room packed with youth activists ages 18 to 25, brought together to make connections with other young activists to bring gun violence prevention strategies back to their respective communities.

Not My Generation is a youth-based, youth-led group that focuses on bringing together youth across the country to build coalitions of young activists for gun violence prevention strategies. In their inaugural year, NMG put together a summit to build “strong peer led networks,” introduce mentors from various GVP organizations, give resources for each state, and introduce year-long action plans. 

This was the first time I had attended such a conference and what struck me the most was that it was built and led by people who were the same age as me. 

This was where I met Mumin, Linnea Stanton, the Midwest regional director for MFOL, and Jacob Sumner, a sophomore at Arizona State University and co-founder of his MFOL chapter on campus. 

Like many of the people I talked to and like many people at the summit, Stanton, a junior at Marquette University, started organizing a few days after Parkland. She had been looking online to see if there was anything being organized in Milwaukee coinciding with the MFOL national march in Washington D.C. No one had claimed to be doing it yet, so she and her friend did.

“It was the most hectic six weeks of my life,” Stanton said. “I had never organized anything before, so that was my jumpstart into organizing.” 

She then took the energy generated from the national movement and applied it to the Milwaukee community and continued to organize community events, like hosting the Parkland students on their national tour, Road for Change. 

The Parkland shooting happened a few months before Sumner was set to graduate from his Arizona high school. And though he lived across the country, he was similarly impacted by Parkland. 

“It was kids who were my age who were victims of this horrible mass shooting,” Sumner said. “It could have been me or my friends that were the victims and I didn’t want that to happen.” 

In the year since Parkland, there have been, on average, one mass shooting per day, defined as four or more people being shot, according to Vox

Sumner and his friends organized a walkout in high school, and his work in the GVP movement snowballed from there. After graduating, he went to ASU where he co-founded his university’s MFOL chapter. There, he has worked on voter registration and done call campaigns to pressure his legislators to ban assault weapons.

But for Mumin and many other young activists at the Not My Generation summit, his expertise in the GVP movement comes from lived experiences. And while his work in the movement originally started as anti-Islamophobia activism, Mumin said that when he is doing this work and going into spaces, he doesn’t get to stop wearing his identities on his sleeve.

“This work in the gun violence prevention movement isn’t about doing work whenever you want,” Mumin said. “It’s about what work is real-world and what work is affecting you every day … my identities affect how I do my work.”

After Sandy Hook and Parkland, the nation saw the battlecry “never again” — a movement which fueled the conversation about gun violence and brought about stricter gun laws. This included 25 states passing gun violence laws to keep guns away from domestic abusers and 10 states passing laws expanding background checks on gun sales. 

But the nation has proved time and again that what it takes to fuel movements — not limited to the GVP movement — is violence inflicted upon white people. 

Though the rising threat of gun violence in schools is very real and are becoming more deadly, the likelihood of dying in a school shooting is one in two million, according to the CDC. Two-thirds of the victims in school shootings were white. But three-quarters of all school violence occurs in single acts, 60% of which impacts urban schools. The single-victim homicide rate is 8.27 times higher for black non-Hispanic youth than their white counterparts. 

In the Not My Generation summit, one of the criticisms of the GVP movement that was discussed was how leaders of the movement often aren’t the ones who are most likely to be or are the ones who are most adversely impacted by gun violence, but are more likely to get the recognition. 

“Who do [legislators] show recognition to? Who do they work alongside? Who do they appreciate?” Mumin said. “Government officials on a local, state and national level have a tendency to appeal to the moderate organizations and a lot of times, marginalized communities don’t identify in moderate politics. A lot of times their politics are radical or sometimes their politics are demanding to be respected and to not be killed for being black.”

These problems aren’t exclusive to any place — the lack of inclusion of minoritized individuals in the GVP movement takes root in every community, Wisconsin and Madison included. 

State Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, called gun violence a public health epidemic, and said it needs to be treated as such.

“People haven’t gotten that attention because it’s been stigmatized, that communities of color just get immune to the gun shots,” Stubbs said. “Like it’s just normal. But that’s not normal. But because it’s communities of color, instead of focusing on the gun violence, they focus on the drugs and they focus on the crime. It’s all these different systems.”

Sheray Wallace, a community health worker and founder of the Meadowood Health Partnership, works to interrupt cycles of violence within the Meadowood community, located on the southwest side of Madison. She specifically brings health initiatives to the community and focuses on building relationships with youth in order to disseminate that information. 

Wallace focuses on youth in particular because when youth are constantly surrounded by violence, they think it’s alright, she said.

“If I reach the youth, then that’s going to be the young adults, then that’s going to be the adults, then I can break the cycle of our young black men and our young black women going to prison,” Wallace said. 

Building relationships and trust, bringing resources into the community and providing accessible education is necessary to community building. When youth see people care, then they communicate that to their friends, which creates a domino effect in the community, Wallace said. 

Stanton, Mumin and Scholz all said there are communities who are afflicted by violence who are already doing the work. Asking groups what they need and partnering with groups as much as possible is essential.

“Show up for communities without your ego … you have to sit and learn before you speak,” Stanton said. “Even if you’re the one with access to resources, doesn’t mean you know all the answers. It just means you need to figure out a way to take the resources that you have and give them to people who might not have resources but definitely have opinions or skin in the game.” 

Supporting youth activism

Gent, Scholz and Ella Ceelen, a senior at McFarland High School, are all under the age of 18. Their voices in the movement is loud and necessary, but limited by their lack of a right to vote.

Though Ceelen doesn’t have an MFOL chapter in her high school, she organized a walkout during one of the MFOL national walkout days to bring locality to the issue. 

The walkout didn’t get a positive response from the administration, who she said didn’t support the walkout because it would be disruptive. After the walkout, the school held mass detentions for everyone who participated, Ceelen said.

Since then, she and her friends put flyers up for an environmental march that was going on. An administrator called them down to the office and made them reimburse him for the paper and ink, Ceelen said.

Gent has had a similar experience. She said her high school administration doesn’t want to be political on either side and risk having conflict. 

“For the walkout, we did have to end up missing school and I’ve gone to the different climate marches in Madison and it has led to missing school,” Ceelen said. “It’s more about thinking what’s more important? Missing one test in the long run or contributing to a movement?” 

For right now, adults are the ones who are lawmakers and legislators, Ceelen said. While youth are a catalyst for change, adults are the ones who can enact that change. 

The Wisconsin Coalition for Gun Safety looks to link groups across the state with interests in addressing rising gun violence, like domestic violence prevention groups, physicians against gun violence and student led groups, all of whom have been impacted by gun violence in different ways, State Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, said. 

Stubbs said it’s the role of adults to not only give youth a seat at the table, but also teach them to be part of the process. This looks like teaching youth how to take what they want to do, refining it and writing it in a bill, for example. 

“That’s where community and others can be better stakeholders, is allowing youth voice to be a part of the decision making process,” Stubbs said. “In their conversations is always a plea for help … It’s authentic. It’s not watered down … They just say it and they call [legislators] out.”

In Dane County, there have been a few examples of that. The Youth Governance Program allows young folks a seat at that table where they can directly bring their voice. Additionally, in February for Black History Month, Stubbs invited all of the Black Student Unions from across the Madison Metropolitan School District to the Capitol to see the legislative process. 

It’s not just legislators who should be involved in supporting youth activists, Stubbs said. When Stubbs invited all of the students to the Capitol, she said the teachers are the ones who are close to students and are listening.

“As we educate the youth, we educate that guardian or parent,” Stubbs said. 

Mumin had a positive outlook on adult work in the GVP movement. 

Time and again,  adults are working with youth, not the other way around, Mumin said. 

“We’re the face of the movement, we’re the voice of the movement, we’re the action of the movement,” Mumin said. “For me for a long time … age was an actual determining factor of whether I should be listened to, whether I should be heard, whether I should be respected or not. Now in the movement … people will look at us and see on the frontlines is youth with just the support of adults.” 

Part of what makes Scholz’s work at Madison West High School so successful is the support of her administration. The school encourages outside engagement in junction with academics, and hosts clubs during lunch, which helps Scholz be a student and work in the movement. 

Moreover, as Scholz partook in lobbying during the special session, she said she teamed up with the 80% Coalition and Moms Demand Action, both groups that are led by adults. She said one of the key things they did was listen to their ideas and collaborate about reaching out to other students to encourage them to come.

“There’s still a lot to be done with being okay with not being in charge all the time and to step back and listen,” Stanton said of adult organizers.

What makes an expert?

Within three days in early December, there were eight instances of violence in Wisconsin high schools. 

As an editor for her school newspaper, Ceelen and her coworkers were going through their paper’s archives and found that there were threats against the school made consistently throughout the years. Recently, the school experienced a gun threat. 

“With the way our nation is going, it was only a matter of time before there was some sort of threat, whether it was real or not,” Ceelen said. “I don’t think anyone was too frightened, but I think it started the conversations that we’re seriously messed up because of this.” 

Mumin, like many young activists he’s worked with, has experienced imposter syndrome within the movement because of his age. 

But when thinking about who is an expert, it’s important to understand why they are, Mumin said. Some become experts because of lived experience, others become experts through years of organizing, Mumin said.

“I did not choose to experience gun violence, I did not consent to experiencing gun violence,” Mumin said. “That’s what made me an expert, that’s what made me in the forefront of this movement.”

The conversations about the GVP movement started nationally and have trickled down and settled locally, mostly because of the role of social media. Because this generation has grown up digitally, they’re the ones who are the experts on it. 

The world is more interconnected, Mumin said. With that, organizations need to digitize their movements, but remember that activism is still in real life. Messages need to be authentic, raw and radical, Mumin said.

Stanton echoed that sentiment, saying it’s really good that people march and post because that spurs the wider conversation around gun violence. But it’s not enough.  

“Do something that is not just posting,” Stanton said. “Show up to a meeting once a month, do something that claims that you’re involved, rather than just occasionally posting. But also, keep posting because that’s how the conversation continues.”