By Alexa Broida, Director, URJ Mitzvah Corps
While the tragic challenge of gun violence is hardly new, and activism around the topic, primarily led by People of Color, has been organized for generations, the attention and momentum given to the issue in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting a few months ago is unprecedented. Rallies, marches, media attention, fundraising, and policy changes by large companies are among the ways in which the nation has mobilized in support of the young people fed up with “thoughts and prayers,” and advocating for tangible, intersectional change.
Amid the current political climate, four students from Ridgefield High School have launched a National School Walkout to take place on April 20, 2018 and coincide with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, in which 13 people were killed, 21 injured, and the two perpetrators committed suicide.
This call to action can be compelling, and we commend our young leaders for taking a stand. And as with all opportunities to engage in social justice, the decision to take part in this walkout, or any other form of protest, shouldn’t be taken lightly. As we each strive to navigate our own place in the world, and enact change the best we can, we must balance our desire and drive for action with our ability to take a breath, take a beat, and ensure that we are as well-informed as we are well-intentioned.
Just as the Women’s March on Washington provided a great opportunity to run through some quick questions that we should ask ourselves before participating in a march, the National School Walkout provides an additional chance to run through some self reflection and questioning before making a decision. In that light, we hope you’ll take advantage of this updated blog post to help inform your choice. Remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” decisions – just the chance to check in with yourself!
Who is facilitating the event?
As a general rule, it’s good to know the names and backgrounds of the individuals who are at the forefront of an event, even (and especially!) when the event in question has as much attention on it as the National School Walkout. Similarly, if you’re considering attending a “satellite” event, at a location away from the main event, ask yourself the same set of questions for the folks organizing your local effort.
From a safety and security perspective, do they have experience organizing large, public events? Have they communicated with law enforcement to obtain proper permits? Do they have a history of peaceful protesting?
It’s important to note that policies around safety and security do not necessarily affect each participant equally. For example, the presence of law enforcement may make some students feel safer, but others feel less safe. Especially when the event in question is advocating for gun violence prevention, it’s a subject made more complex by the frequency of police shootings, and the demographics that are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, rather than protected. The National School Walkout has issued a comprehensive guide to the event, and has publicized information on safety and privilege.
From a community perspective, do they represent the full range of people they’re advocating on behalf of? Is there diversity in the leadership? If not perfect, what is their proximity (relationship) to those they are advocating on behalf of?
With an effort as broad as “gun violence prevention,” there are many factors, perspectives, and modalities of change as you can imagine, and as Parkland Students of Color pointed out, every voice is necessary to ensure that change will come to everyone, so take some time to learn who’s behind the effort, and the communities and identities they’re a part of. The National School Walkout has included notes about this in their planning guide.
If the event or any affiliates are working with, or being supported by, any other organizations, who are they, what do they stand for, who are they led by, and what are their goals?
While gun violence is a problem that affects people of all political persuasions, and meaningful reform requires a strong bipartisan effort, the National School Walkout is being supported by Indivisible, which is an explicitly anti-Trump resistance group. Because of this, not-for-profit organizations, like Mitzvah Corps, NFTY, and the URJ, are legally prohibited from taking a stand on the event.
What does the event stand for?
Events, particularly large gatherings, can be a great opportunity to publicly demonstrate unity of a people, and to let those in power know where their constituents, clients, investors, and supporters stand. The purpose of these events is often shortened to fit in 140 characters, or as the title of a Facebook event, but it’s important to be thoroughly educated about the platform of the group you’re supporting.
Who are the organizers? What organizations do they work for, or with? What are the mission statements of those organizations? What have they taken action on? Does the event have a platform of its own? Does it align with my values? If not all of my values are represented, am I comfortable with which ones are / are not?
In this case, the National School Walkout has put together a comprehensive mission, goals, and planning guides, for the public to educate themselves about these efforts.s
As mentioned above, while gun violence is a problem that affects people of all political persuasions, and meaningful reform requires a strong bipartisan effort, the National School Walkout is being supported by Indivisible, which is an explicitly anti-Trump resistance group with a large platform.
The National School Walkout also mentions the anniversary of the Columbine shooting as part of their strategy, but the Columbine High School leaders have issued a statement saying that they have always been, and will continue to be, committed to honoring this anniversary with a day of service, not with a walkout. Responses to their statement from National School Walkout leaders, and the public, have been mixed, but worth considering as you weigh a decision about whether to participate, and how.
Is the event inclusive? Is it accessible?
There are any number of potential barriers to entry with events: physical, emotional, socioeconomic, logistical, and more. It may not always be possible to create experiences that are truly accessible to all, but who is / who is not able to attend the event is an important piece of knowledge to have.
A non-exhaustive list of the groups that often feel excluded from large-scale events, like marches, are: people who aren’t white, who may feel that their voices aren’t valued by white organizers, that their contributions to these causes aren’t being recognized, that their physical well being won’t be protected by law enforcement; people with physical disabilities, who aren’t easily able to navigate crowded spaces, or move along a non-handicapped-accessible path; youth, who may feel that adults are dictating what’s in their best interest without offering them a seat at the table; people with sensory processing disorders, who may struggle in large, noisy crowds.
Who might not be comfortable or able to attend this event?
It can be challenging to find information about inclusivity, which is part of the problem! Whether or not events are able to accommodate everyone, the information should be made available. Reach out to the organizers to ask, advocate for inclusivity, and if nothing else, request that the details and accessibility information be easy to locate. Since this event is being held in schools across the country, the individual school organizers should have the answers to these questions.
For a school walkout, students may be concerned about whether or not their college will withdraw admission; others may not be able to afford (on their records, financially, or otherwise) the consequences from the school itself. Depending on the location and safety of the surrounding neighborhood, the relationship the students have to security officials, how supportive the family environment is, and many more… all of these are factors to consider in addition to the ones listed above.
Why am I participating in the event?
There are no “right” or “wrong” reasons to participate, or to stay home.
Some prefer to witness rallies or gatherings themselves to make decisions based on personal experience, rather than read what’s reported by others. Some have been inspired to join a cause for the first time, and a march is high-profile enough that it’s the only way they know how to begin. Some are seeking unity and solidarity, the company of others who believe in the same values. Some want to be able to say that they were there.
Some avoid marches because of safety concerns, not wanting to be in a large, controversial gathering; the color of one’s skin may play a role in this decision. Some opt out because they don’t feel the purpose, organizers, and fellow marchers are creating an environment that resonates with them; this may be out of anger, frustration, or a feeling of marginalization. Some will choose not to attend in solidarity with those they feel have been excluded from the any component of the experience. Some will decide to stay home in order to take action in other ways.
Consider why you’re there, or why you’re not, specifically within the context of the event itself, and its intersection with your own identity.
After knowing the answers to the above questions, what feels right to you?
What will I do after the event?
Above all else, participating in a walkout should be one of a series of steps that you take to enact lasting change. Prominent events can be a powerful tool, but it is not what will, in the end, change the life of an individual or a family. A walkout alone won’t put food on someone’s table, make a doctor’s visit affordable, or better train law enforcement. So what will?
There are plenty of opportunities to take action after an event. Start making phone calls to your elected officials to advocate for legislative reform, donate to organizations that work day in and day out to make these changes, show up to community events outside of your close social network, get involved in community organizing, grassroots efforts, and support lower-profile marches and events that are spearheaded by members of local communities.
If large scale activism isn’t your cup of tea, that’s okay, too! Building relationships, hearing others’ perspectives, reading articles, listening to the radio or podcasts, watching segments, and more can be a wonderful way to educate yourself and those close to you about the broad scope of gun violence challenges, and the ways in which our society has the power to shift our culture, with or without legislative change.
Mitzvah Corps summer programs give teens hands-on experience in the fight for social and environmental issues.
NFTY’s Gun Violence Prevention campaign offers comprehensive and varied action items.
The Religious Action Center (RAC) frequently pushes out specific calls to action.
Don’t know where to start? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 212-650-4071, and we’d be happy to help.
Whether walkouts are your starting point, or a continuation, make sure they’re never the end.