Parkland Shooting Prompts Treasure Coast Youth to become Political Activists
After the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Treasure Coast students began protesting and rallying.
They organized March for Our Lives events in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. They walked out of local high schools.
Now they're getting involved in political campaigns, organizing community events and encouraging fellow teenagers to get involved in local and state politics.
Debates for teens
Nigel Johnson, a 2018 Fort Pierce Central High School graduate, started following politics 10 years before Parkland when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
Johnson, who is black, said it was inspiring to see somebody “who looked like him” become the leader of the free world. But it was difficult to get his classmates interested.
"They always responded with, 'It doesn't affect me', 'I don't care' or 'Politicians don't care what I think,' " said Johnson, who plans to attend Howard University this fall.
But he said he saw a change after Parkland. His classmates were on edge in school, staring at doors and being more cautious about the comments they made.
They also became more interested in politics and policy, he said.
Parkland was personal for Treasure Coast students, who have grown up with the specter of mass school shootings because it was only counties away, Johnson said.
His first step toward activism was organizing a town hall in May where students could share their opinions and offer solutions to mass school shootings. Students of all grades were invited to sit on the panel at Fort Pierce Central High School.
Local and state politicians, school board members and community leaders attended the event.
“Now we have the same people who said they aren’t politically active and that it doesn’t affect them, now they’re ready to go out and vote and go out and change their communities,” Johnson said.
Johnson's latest effort is organizing a July 11 forum in Port St. Lucie, where the two Democratic candidates for U.S. House District 18 will focus on topics of interest to young voters, including wages, gun violence and college affordability.
“Young students aren’t really paying attention to veterans benefits, health insurance or the latest tax bills,” Johnson said, referencing some of the issues that have been in the forefront of both congressional primaries. “I mean those all are very important issues, don’t get me wrong, but for millennials, that’s not really what’s going to get them to the polls. They want to know what’s going to affect me, and they want to hear from the very people who could represent them.”
After the march
For Rachel Maunus and Saja Hussein, 2018 Martin County High School graduates, the first step in community organizing was planning a March for Our Lives event.
Maunus said the March 24 event in Stuart helped her realize anyone can be powerful and make an impact as long as they have a platform to make a difference.
“We met so many incredible people that inspired us to get more involved in the community and understand the depth of the amount of work we can do to make Martin County a better place,” Maunus said.
This summer, they are volunteering for Lauren Baer's House District 18 campaign. Soon after meeting Baer at their march, they began registering voters and phone-banking on the Democrat's behalf.
“It’s rewarding to see that we’re the ones to give our close friends the push to vote in the elections,” Hussein said.
Keeping them politically active will be the challenge, Maunus said.
“People get on board and they get excited because everyone else is excited and then you find out that people start to go about their lives and forget that these things ever happened," Maunus said of school shootings. "So the most difficult part is continuing the battle and making sure that every day we’re pushing to feel as much inspiration from the people around us that we did the minute after the Parkland shooting.”
Hussein said she hopes more young people get involved in campaigning so older volunteers are less surprised by teenagers getting involved in politics. She also hopes people realize teens aren't just being trendy but will be voting for decades.
“These are things that affect us every moment of our lives and the people we love and the people we care about,” Maunus said. “There are millions and millions of voters, and we have the power to change the world and make it one we want to live in.”
Not all students have been advocating for progressive policies.
Some teenagers and college students have been volunteering for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican members of House leadership.
Alexa Bard, a 21-year-old Florida International University student from Jupiter, works year-round for the PAC, spending her semesters in Miami canvassing on behalf of Rep. Carlos Curbelo, and summers on behalf of Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City.
Bard, a political science major, said some of her friends will always be disinterested in politics and policy. But with the Congressional Leadership Fund, she's also worked alongside several other students, collaborating with them and local field directors.
Campaigning has opened her eyes to the array of diverse opinions and beliefs held by Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County voters, she said.
"Getting out and doing field work, knocking on doors and talking to voters, is what really interests me," Bard said. "I like just having a conversation about what they're thinking and what they want to see happen."
Originally published in TCPalm