Students nationwide are wielding the internet and social media as digital weapons to aggressively pursue action on gun control and climate change.
This Saturday, crowds will take to the streets in Seattle and other U.S. cities and towns for youth-led March for Our Lives events in support of gun reform. The marches follow related school walkouts held on March 14.
And on July 21, the Zero Hour movement is organizing a climate march, with the main event taking place in Washington, D.C. and sister marches expected elsewhere.
These teenage tech natives already had media skills and networks through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Many were budding activists who had been building their understanding and passion around these pressing issues.
All they needed was something to spark an action.
In the case of gun control, the movement was ignited by the February murders of 17 students at a Parkland high school, for climate change it was the drumbeat of devastating natural disasters and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
“You see so many youth being so engaged and so driven,” said Allison Bunker, a senior at Seattle’s University Prep who recently published an op-ed on gun violence. “Now is a turning point for a lot of things, and we can make things happen.”
Social media has helped thousands of students connect with each other and mobilize across the country — often at a speed and with an ease that has caught some adults by surprise.
People talk about the Obama campaign’s successful use of technology a decade ago, said Catherine Zhu, a senior at Ingraham High School in Seattle. The message for today’s adults: Welcome to internet activism 2.0.
“I don’t think they’ve understood the power it could have until the youth really started taking charge,” said Zhu, who is helping organize March for Our Lives Seattle.
“I would compare it to a language,” she said. “Social media is a language used to communicate and the youth are fluent — and we’re going to be heard.”
‘You need to do something’
Before social media connected students for the upcoming marches, it made the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, horrifically real.
“I could go on Twitter and browse through my timeline and open up a (student’s) story about watching the shooter come into their classroom and they had a very first-person and direct account of how that was happening. That made a huge impact on me,” Zhu said. “There is no way to dispute that. Social media really put it into the forefront.”
It got Emilia Allard, a Ballard High School senior, thinking about her four younger sisters.
“One of my sisters, Charlotte, has autism, and for her that means that she can’t really stay quiet, she can’t really just hide and wait out a school shooter situation,” Allard said.
“I needed to know if something were to happen and Charlotte were to be hurt — and there are also those 30 other kids in that class she would be posing a risk to as well if she can’t stay quiet for them — I needed to know that I had done everything possible,” said Allard.
So along with Rhiannon Rasaretnam, a Tahoma High School student, Allard co-launched March for Our Lives Seattle.
A few days before the Saturday march, nearly 40,000 people had signed on through Facebook as interested or planning to attend in Seattle, and others were enlisting on other sites. Some 450 youth and adults had reached out eager to volunteer, organizers said.
But the movement doesn’t begin and end with the march or walkouts. The students involved in gun reform and climate action are very clear in their focus on the bigger picture.
“You can’t just mobilize for the sake of mobilizing,” said Jamie Margolin, the high school student from Seattle who launched Zero Hour, a youth-led climate movement.
“We’re coming up with a set of demands or a pledge for leadership and we’re going to have a lobbying day before the (July) march,” said Margolin. The sophomore from Holy Names Academy attended the women’s march that followed Trump’s election. She thought it was great, but not enough.
“You gather all this momentum, and then you need to do something,” she said. “We are going to be pushing for concrete action.”
Pulling the levers of action
The youth with both movements are strategizing broader actions.
At the upcoming gun reform march, the organizers will be registering voters and preregistering those who are younger. The students have already participated in public forums, started meeting with local leaders and lobbied at the state capitol to push for stronger gun regulations. Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill banning the sale and use of bump stocks, which can essentially turn a semiautomatic gun into a machine gun.
“We know exactly what kind of legislation we want,” Zhu said. “We are not just saying, ‘No guns at all.’ There is more nuance to it.”
The youth lobbying for climate action are also using the legal system to push for change. Last month, 13 plaintiffs ranging in age from 7-17 years old — including Zero Hour’s Margolin — filed suit in King County Superior Court.
Their case alleges a “deliberate indifference” to the plaintiffs’ “life, liberty, property and a healthful and pleasant environment, including a stable climate system, in violation of Washington’s Constitution.” It names Inslee and three state departments as defendants.
There are similar cases in seven other states, as well as a national climate case brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the U.S. government. The nonprofit groups Our Children’s Trust and Earth Guardians are assisting the under-age plaintiffs.
Students at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, located east of Seattle, are using technology to target climate education. They’ve created Operation Sustain, a computer game and curriculum that explains energy use, land development and carbon emissions. The audience is elementary-age kids.
“We know that we have a voice in our community. Even though we can’t vote in elections, we can have a voice,” said Rayan Krishnan, a junior who is leading Operation Sustain. “We are really interested in the environmental science aspects of advocacy.”
A better future for us
The teens working on gun control and climate change know they’re facing uphill battles. Neither issue has made significant strides in U.S. policy to dramatically shift the conversation or the nation’s trajectory.
But the stakes are far too high to let that discourage them.
“We’re paying the price for what our leaders are doing,” said Margolin, the climate activist (who also led the gun-control walkout at her school). “It is unfair that we’re left with a world that is broken.”
“We are the ones being killed,” said Allard. “So there is that level of necessity to be involved and care.”
They’re taking inspiration from each other’s movements, and by connecting to other students nationally. Margolin’s leadership team draws from teens in Baltimore; Fremont, Calif.; Lower Brule, South Dakota; Tampa, Florida; Palymra, Virginia; Hammonassett Beach, Conn.; British Columbia and places in between. Allard and her cohort have a Slack channel with other March for Our Lives youth leaders nationally.
And they’re building movements that are more racially, ethnically and gender-inclusive than many adult-led causes of the past. The environmental movement, for example, has for years attempted to bring minority populations onboard, whereas the youth-led groups have made diversity a part of the founding, central tenants of their efforts. Inclusion seems to come naturally.
The students also bring an invigorating audacity and energy to the causes.
“Because we’re youth, we’re coming up with youthful demands — we see right through the B.S.” Margolin said. “I’m not going to bother tiptoeing around things, this is where we need to be.”
But their youth and inexperience brings the challenge of building credibility and few financial resources. Allard worries that politicians are engaging them in the interest of good press and photo ops, but won’t follow up on legislative action. Margolin is struggling to find partnerships with established enviro organizations skeptical of what Zero Hour can accomplish. March for Our Lives Seattle and Zero Hour both have launched crowdfunding pages.
And it’s not clear whether all of the youth who turn out are doing it because it’s trendy, or if they’re really committed to fighting for change. Bunker, the student who wrote the op-ed, thinks that for some students, participating in a march is a first step that will lead to a further engagement.
“For most students, they do care. For some, they do it for Snapchat,” Bunker said. “It can be indistinguishable. What distinguishes it, is what you do next.”
Isabella Munson, a junior at Ingraham, is one of those students in it for the long haul.
Munson is part of Zero Hour, helping design their website and handle communications. She’s also going to the gun reform march on Saturday. She wants to be seen and heard in the hope that tighter gun control can prevent the devastation of another school shooting, that clean energy policies can prevent the most nightmarish climate scenarios.
“I always want to stay hopeful because I want to believe there is a better future out there for us,” Munson said, “and that we’re not just doomed. If we just feel doomed, life kind of loses its purpose.”
Editor’s note: Seattle’s March for Our Lives demonstration starts at 10 a.m. at Cal Anderson Park in Capitol Hill. Speakers include Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and march founders Rhiannon Rasaretnam and Emilia Allard. The march ends at Seattle Center with presentations by Gov. Jay Inslee and musician Brandi Carlile.