The tragedy in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018, inspired millions of young people across the country to take action and organize in their communities. Young people poured into the streets to call for an end to gun violence, hold elected leaders accountable on gun law reform and demand more counselors and violence prevention programs in their schools and communities.
The movement that grew in the aftermath of the shooting inspired a new generation of activists and leaders. I was one of them. And I believe the best way I can honor those who lost their lives a year ago is to continue the movement their tragic deaths sparked.
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Even though I grew up and work in Woodlake, a Tulare County town thousands of miles away and really different from the wealthy suburban community of Parkland, the shooting really changed things for me.
I wasn’t a stranger to organizing: I have been a youth a leader with ACT for Women and Girls, a community organization based in Visalia, for three years. Young people of color like myself have been working against gun violence and for school safety in our community for years. But it was different after Parkland. Seeing young people lead a national conversation lit a fire in me like never before.
We organized our school’s walk-out in Woodlake in support of the Parkland students. I spoke at Visalia’s “March For Our Lives” event. But I knew we could do more to make sure that all students, regardless of race, sexuality or immigration status, feel safe at school.
Within a month of the Parkland tragedy, my peers and I were knocking on hundreds of doors to ask our neighbors if they would support our campaign to make Woodlake Unified a Safe Haven/Sanctuary School. We brought over 1,000 petitions in support of a Safe Haven policy to our school board and told them what we needed for our community to feel genuinely safe on campus.
Over the course of a few months, we demonstrated our leadership and our passion for a better future. Our win was the first student-led Sanctuary School resolution in Tulare County, and likely the first in the Central Valley. Because of this, all students can feel safe and protected to learn at school regardless of their immigration status. All this before I turned 18 years old.
But it wasn’t enough to win the Safe Haven policy, to walk out of school or to march. If we want real systemic change, we need to take our power from the streets to the voting booth. I was one of 500 youth leaders who, as part of Power California, a statewide youth civic engagement network, called, texted and knocked on doors to remind our peers that voting builds real political power on the issues we care about. Together, we registered and pre-registered 25,000 new young voters throughout the state.
As a new voter, I was excited to cast a ballot for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections. And I wasn’t alone. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates that young voter turnout in 2018 increased by 10 percentage points, boosting turnout by 50 percent for 18-to-29-year-olds compared to the 2014 midterms.
The one year-anniversary of Parkland is a day for us to honor the young people who lost their lives in the Parkland shooting. But that horrible day also lit a fire under me and millions of other young people that won’t be going out any time soon.
I urge other young people to get involved in local efforts to improve their community and to get involved in the political process like I did. Our voices matter and are needed now more than ever to take on major issues affecting our generation — gun violence, climate disaster, income equality and lack of affordable housing.
I believe the best way to honor those who died in Parkland is to keep that fire going by lifting our voices and our power together in the fight to make our schools and communities safe and just for all.
Genesis Gonzalez is a youth leader with ACT For Women and Girls. She resides in Visalia, California and works in neighboring Woodlake, her hometown.