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The Lessons a Teen Activist Want You to Learn From the March for Our Lives

On Friday morning, I wore a silk dress to my high school in Westchester, New York—a slightly low-cut, clingy dress which almost instantly got me pulled out of my classroom, lectured, and presented with a sweatshirt from the lost and found. Just a week after my school’s administration had stood by its students in protesting Congress’s inaction after repeated acts of violence that could have been prevented by gun control, it only took 38 days for them to return to the same old regulations they’d prioritized before the Parkland shootings—they are still policing the bodies of teenage girls more than they are murder weapons. This, among many other injustices, is what drove me to join the March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24th.

While before I’d been hauling myself to buses to Washington, D.C. at 5 a.m. because I wanted to be at the physical epicenter of resistance, I’ve come to realize there is a unique kind of power in marching in the streets you’re so familiar with, to so radically transform their use from the everyday. It’s also a reminder that you’re not alone; as isolated as others may make you feel for taking a stand, at protests, there’s usually an overwhelming sense that everyone present has each other’s backs. For a little bit, time even stops: you forget that your four-inch platforms are hurting your toes, that you haven’t had a sip of water in two hours, that you’ve in fact never met the people you’re linking arms with. You’re just concentrated on spreading your message, and it’s not long before you can find yourself throwing throwing your middle fingers up at Trump Tower with moms and seventh-graders alike.

There was one notable difference, though, at the March for Our Lives in New York: instead of the seasoned, middle-aged leaders who normally dominate the city’s protests, this time, it appeared that the majority of the crowd marching was under 30 years old. My friends and I not only suddenly changed the unapologetically profane chants we’ve screamed over and over for years, but we welcomed doing, so because it was for the kindergarteners surrounding us on every side. Their baby teeth may have had some wiggle room, but that didn’t stop their mouths from making them some of the march’s most enthusiastic and driven participants. For me, the day’s highlight was without a doubt walking alongside seven-year-olds and repeating our modified chants in unison: “Roses are red, violets are blue, screw Donald Trump, and the NRA too.”

There was a different type of energy, and over the course of the 40 blocks we covered, it became clear that that was because there was a different type of crowd. There weren’t any counter-protesters; there wasn’t any hesitance when intersectional chants started up, or people catching up on their feeds at the mention of Black Lives Matter, as I’ve seen at the Women’s March. This time, people seemed to acknowledge that the lack of gun control is a feminist issue; that toxic masculinity is often at the root of why, in the U.S., it’s overwhelmingly men who abuse guns, and that acting upon their hatred and rage is all too easy. This is true for both isolated school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida, and for police shootings of black men like Sacramento’s Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times this past Sunday for simply holding his cell phone.

The crowd at the march, of course, didn’t immediately make these connections en masse; it was the teens who helped flip the switch. The adults who started off staring blankly as we chanted, “Hey hey NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” began to look as if they were catching on in real time as masses of middle schoolers shouted it until their throats hurt. Congress may not have taken legislative action just yet, but #NeverAgain has already succeeded in making one thing overwhelmingly clear: We are the torch-carriers of this movement, and it is not a fad or an Instagram hashtag. It is a demand, and we’re not backing down until adults listen, because it’s the very least they can do after failing to take action for years.

Em Odesser at the March for Our Lives.

Courtesy of Em Odesser

Making room for teens to find, and take over, a platform, was a huge step. It’s also a prime example of how much easier it is to make progress when you prioritize inclusivity. We managed to overcome boundaries and pass on the microphone to those who are far from politicians. But that’s only the first step of many. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg pointed out, the media failed to give a voice to the 25 or so percent of his classmates who are black. And while the remarkably eloquent 18-year-old survivor Emma González has rightfully suddenly found herself a celebrity, it’s important to remember that not every victim can readily overcome their trauma and table their grief to speak out. For every student-turned-activist like Emma González, back in Parkland, there are hundreds more still quietly dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy.

Those hundreds, though, are invisible in the media, as are those like one of my dear friends, the community organizer and disability advocate T. Sydney Bergeron Mikus, who organized a day of at-home activism in Brooklyn on Saturday for those who couldn’t make their way to a march. Another close friend of mine who’d been hoping to attend found herself instead having to figure out her anxiety medication and make sure her health was in order. These are valid reasons to sit out on the IRL action and find other forms of protests—the type we’re now also demanding deserve publicity. Because, overall, they’re part of the next step in making change. Dismantling systems of oppression isn’t just about including gun control in our agendas, but also about including kids amongst those who have a platform. The kids who are now speaking in droves recognize that—and if you don’t listen, you’ll be left in the dust.

Em Odesser is the editor-in-chief of Teen Eye magazine.

Related: March for Our Lives: Meet the Elementary School Students and 70-Something Activists on the Ground in Washington, D.C.