Youth Gun Violence Activists Can’t Be Asked to Save the World

Beyond Thoughts and Prayers is a series marking 10 years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Editor’s note: At Teen Vogue, we fully believe in young people’s power and want their words and experiences to be the heart of our publication. At any age, organizing is a way to build community, live your values, and try to mend a broken world. 

But covering “youth activists” can sometimes feel like a trap. Our society alternately minimizes, tokenizes, and commodifies young people, exploiting them or using them as props. We put tremendous pressure on them to “save the world.” Sometimes we’ve been guilty of that in our coverage too.

All of that pressure can take a toll, especially for those dealing with the trauma of gun violence. For our package acknowledging the decade that has passed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, we heard from youth activists against gun violence about the “darker sides” of this work and how it has changed them. Because building a better future is on all of us, together.

I run past my high school three times a week. It’s weird to see the building now. All the students who were there during the shooting have graduated, and most of the staffers I knew have since left the school or retired. Yes, it’s still my high school, but it feels like a shell of what I remember.

So I run through the memories, the few that remain in my trauma-battered brain.

My name is Delaney Tarr. I used to be a famous youth activist. I cofounded March for Our Lives (MFOL) after the shooting at our high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. I was 17 years old.

Now 22, I’ve begun to unpack my time as one of the faces of a movement.

It can be hard to find the space for reflection. After the shooting tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, in May, my phone started ringing off the hook again. Press contacts with whom I hadn’t spoken in years but still had my number were cold-calling me. They wanted to book me on a morning show or get a sound bite about how upset I was.

I ignored the majority of them. Mostly, I stayed in bed and cried as I read about the victims online. I wondered, Why do these reporters even want to talk to me? What could I have to say?

It’s no secret that people pay the most attention to gun violence after there’s been a mass shooting. That was the case after Columbine (1999), Virginia Tech (2007), the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, which happened 10 years ago this month. But when the cameras go away, the community and survivors remain, left to pick up the pieces.

In Parkland, the cameras stayed longer. They stayed for us.

We inadvertently helped solidify a new kind of 21st-century celebrity: the youth activist. We became famous for displaying anger toward a country that allows students to be killed in their classrooms. We were picked up by the rich and powerful and thrust into their world. We stood adjacent to their power. We thought it was our power too.

Sarah Chadwick was one of those “celebrity” teens. Like most members of our generation, Sarah, another MFOL cofounder and a friend of mine, was online all the time. She used social media to cope, to share her anger. It just so happened that she also had a knack for going viral. “I was a feisty 16-year-old, and they liked that,” Sarah says.

Because we were easy to brand as a “girl-power” duo, Sarah and I were paired up a lot for events and speaking engagements. It was the height of the Trump era, when the political left rallied around a new cause every day, wanting something to believe in. Politicians invited us to meet with them. We worked with major designers, lunched with female celebrities. Sometimes it felt like we were friends with them.

We weren’t, of course. Those connections were fleeting. We had been invited only because we were seen as inspiring teenagers. We were relatable; a group of wildly different people they could identify with. People liked my big glasses and loud voice, especially when they could claim me as an empowered woman.

Over time, though, I realized I didn’t know who I was outside of that feminist, girl-boss archetype. Gone were my teenage years, my hobbies, my quirks. All that remained was who the world saw me as. Being a professional youth activist is all-encompassing in that way.

When I ask Sarah about her role as an activist, her response is revealing: “That’s who I am. That’s what I’m going to do.”

We stepped into our roles so readily because it felt easier to be empowered than broken. We leapt at the chance to do interviews, to attend events — to try to create meaning from this horrible tragedy.

This country has a long legacy of prominent young organizers. Anti-Vietnam War protesters, the Black Panther Party, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so many other social justice movements have seen their leaders become household names. For us, social media accelerated everything, giving us huge national platforms overnight. 

As our public presence grew, so did the target on our backs. Some on the political right accused us of faking it, of being crisis actors or “extremists,” because we asked for some changes to gun legislation. As teenagers, we were torn to shreds by some and glorified as heroes by others. (Teen Vogue ran a cover story featuring gun violence survivors and activists a month after the Parkland shooting.)

We were thrust into what’s been referred to as the “youth activism industrial complex.” Under this rubric, a handful of young people — who happen to be mostly privileged white teens from middle- and upper-class backgrounds — are propped up on a pedestal, given platforms and plenty of funding. They’re asked to rehash their grief and trauma for the cameras, and to “solve” an issue that requires drastic intervention from local, state, and federal lawmakers.

This complex puts the focus on the worst school shootings instead of daily gun violence or suicides, the individual vs. the system, the youth vs. everyone who should bear responsibility for this crisis. And at what cost?

For this story, I've spoken to a number of youth activists and survivors of gun violence: Sarah of MFOL; Missouri-based organizer Clifton Kinnie; Natalie Barden and Jake Hockley, who lost their siblings in the Sandy Hook shooting; Trevon Bosley, a Chicago-based organizer who has been doing this work since he was a child; and Bree Butler, who started organizing with MFOL after a shooting at their high school in Santa Fe, Texas. They share stories about their experiences in the movement, the darker sides of this work, and why combating gun violence has to be an intergenerational fight.

Clifton started organizing in 2014, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. While Clifton was still in high school, he organized students in mass walkouts. He was also featured in Teen Vogue’s 2018 gun violence package.

Now 25, Clifton has grown from an inspiring teen into a young adult who is educating the next generation. He’s seen the success of the movement, but he’s also heard “the young people will save us” for years. “We need to reframe that,” Clifton says. “We're not leading in the front, we're not leading from the back; we're going to be right by each other’s side.”

Who gets to be a famous youth activist?

“Being someone who dealt with [gun violence] on the daily, your story [is] ignored,” Trevon Bosley tells me.

Trevon has been organizing against gun violence since he was a child. In 2005, his cousin was killed in a shooting. A year later, his brother was fatally shot in church. Trevon started organizing soon after, and by age 14, he was the president of B.R.A.V.E. youth leaders, a violence prevention youth council.

Trevon is 24 now, and his organizing is deeply embedded in his community. It’s what has kept him going, even as the media largely covers the rampant gun violence in Chicago as a given.

The gun violence prevention movement that coalesced after Parkland focused almost exclusively on mass shootings, and that came through in its policy focus. But the truth is, as Amnesty International found, between 2009 and 2016, public mass shootings accounted for less than 1% of gun deaths in the US.

When the Parkland shooting happened, Black teens had already spent many years organizing and protesting gun violence and police brutality. Back in 2013, Dream Defenders, a student-led group, organized a weeks-long sit-in at Florida's state capitol after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

“Seeing other people get attention [for gun violence activism] was something to adjust to, especially being [in] predominantly white spaces,” Trevon recalls. “People wouldn't talk about solutions that would help my community.”

March for Our Lives was part of the problem. Our early language could be strident and sometimes inaccurate. Our leadership lacked diversity. We did harm, and it took a while for us to recognize it and try to fix things. (In an email to Teen Vogue, MFOL press secretary Noah Lumbantobing said, "That's an important part of our history, and we don't shy away from it. We stumbled in a big way and we're better served by recognizing it, learning from it, and changing because of it. We've spent a lot of time over the last few years addressing our initial mistakes and working towards becoming an expansive movement that reflects the actual reality of gun violence in America. And the reality is that it disproportionately impacts us based on race, socioeconomic status, and disability. It's important to us that we center that fact in our work.")

Trevon started working with MFOL in 2018 and he’s now a member of the nonprofit’s board. Due in part to the work of activists like him, the organization has shifted its messaging and goals to better incorporate the priorities of marginalized communities.

March for Our Lives and other organizers against gun violence have also been a force behind real change. This summer, Congress passed the first major gun reform law in nearly three decades.

Gun reform advocates line Pennsylvania Avenue while attending the March for Our Lives rally March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images

“The Kids Will Save Us”

I remember seeing that written on signs at our 2018 march on Washington. It would follow us for years, a constant reminder of our role: to save the world.

In the months after the Parkland shooting, multiple mass shootings occurred. Each one felt like it was our fault, because we were “the kids,” but we hadn’t saved them. Our work wasn’t enough.

Survivor’s guilt was one thing; the guilt of another shooting we couldn’t prevent? It felt like failure.

In May 2018, 10 people were killed in a shooting at Bree Butler’s Texas high school. Within two weeks, Bree had started a nonprofit. By June, they had joined the March for Our Lives summer tour.

From there, Bree lobbied local and federal officials, and said yes to every interview request. They were home for only one week the summer after the shooting — and even still, they felt pressure to do more. “I’m 18 years old, freshly traumatized, and I feel like it’s necessary,” Bree said of that time in their life.

Self-care fell to the wayside. Things got so bad that Bree had to set alarms on their phone to remind them to eat a granola bar during meetings. “I hit rock bottom again — and I was allowed and encouraged to,” Bree recalls. “If I could do it again, I wouldn’t. I put myself through so much sh*t that it feels like we did for nothing. Nobody listened to us.”

We told the world that we didn’t need adults. We were young, yes, but we were independent; unstoppable. Should we have been? Who was looking out for us? Who was protecting us?

“I wish we had an adult trying to guide us, not control us,” Bree, who is now 23, says.

It’s a familiar frustration. After all, nobody ever asked how are the kids supposed to save us. So we did what we could, working 12-hour days, sleeping on tour buses, recounting our trauma for a new audience every day.

Working against gun violence involves a lot of the feeling Bree describes, including constant self-sacrifice for minimal results. Positive change is slow moving, at times imperceptible. Says Clifton, “I think burnout can happen when we're not able to see the fruits from our labor.” 

Still, Clifton counts every success, including gun safety bills passed by local governments and measures taken on a federal level, like the gun legislation passed by Congress this summer. These bills may not be perfect, but he believes the US is at a turning point on gun politics.

“My mom, before she passed away, said that you can’t pour from an empty cup,” Clifton says. “And we’re at a moment now where we’ve tasted a little bit of that water.”

What happens to youth activists in the long run?

In the years since the Parkland shooting, my follower count has shrunk and my tweets rarely go viral. Those of us who couldn’t keep playing the activist game got left behind.

Again, the questions circle: What happens to the communities after the cameras go away? What becomes of the survivors?

This years marks 10 years since the Sandy Hook shooting. At the time, parents took the spotlight — to protect their kids, perhaps. The survivors were still in elementary school and many of the victims’ siblings were also children.

Natalie Barden is 20 now, but she was only 10 when she lost her brother, seven-year-old Daniel. As a child, Natalie did a few interviews for documentary projects, but her father took on a more public role as a founder of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise.

It wasn’t until high school that Natalie fell onto the frenzied youth activist path. After the Parkland shooting, she realized that kids could be involved in the movement too. She learned of a gun violence prevention group at her high school and felt a responsibility to join.

At the time, Natalie thought she was picking and choosing what she’d say yes to doing, protecting herself. But looking back? “Yes, 1,000%,” she says when asked whether she experienced burnout from organizing. “It made me a lot more anxious — the backlash, hoaxers.”

Natalie has loved meeting other people who share her experience, including at events like the 2018 Teen Vogue summit. (Natalie and Sarah were two of the activists featured in the Teen Vogue Parkland cover and package.) Natalie says she’s proud of herself for doing so much, and wants to do more in the future.

She also knows this work has impacted her in the long term. “Back then," she says, "it was easy to talk about — I had this script in my head of what I would say.” But now, Natalie explains, she struggles to talk about it at all.  She said she left that part of her life behind in college, and is only now starting to bring it back.

“This is not who I am, this is part of my life,” Natalie said. “It’s something I’m passionate about.”

It’s a journey many youth activists, myself included, are familiar with. After you step back from the work, you try to remove yourself from the activist identity. In its place is your fractured self, the past divided from the present.

Unless you wait. Jake Hockley, a Sandy Hook student who lost his six-year-old brother, Dylan, in the shooting, realized at a younger age many of the things I’m just starting to reckon with. He recently turned 18, and only now feels ready to take on the issue. “I’m not afraid to talk about what happened, [but] it’s not something I push,” Jake says. “First comes current me, what I’ve done and who I am. People figure out the second part as they know me more.”

But even when he was in elementary school, Jake felt the obligation so many of us do after a shooting to get involved. After he saw the hate directed at his parents for speaking out, though, he changed his mind. “I had nothing to be proud of, I was just sad,” Jake recalls. “As a nine year old I didn’t know how to convey those feelings.”

His parents did give him the option to get involved, but he chose not to. He avoided the public sphere so much that in middle school he gave out a fake last name, knowing that his real last name could remind people of his mother’s advocacy.

He has since reconciled these two parts of his life. “I was able to grow as my own person, with my own strengths and weaknesses," Jake says. “I wanted to grow into my own identity instead of jumping into it at 10 years old.”

"It makes me glad that when I choose to talk about it, it’s very genuine," Jake continues. "It’s not a job for me.” For him, it’s a duty. One that shouldn’t be glorified.

Clifton feels the same. He wants to remind young people that they can organize without becoming commodities. “We have to bring back the humanity,” he says. “We have to start turning down opportunities that we know are counterproductive to our goals in the movement.”

That may mean rejecting an Instagram Live with an influencer or turning down an interview in favor of on-the-ground work. But for Clifton, that’s what fuels him: the belief that when we work together, we can end gun violence.

As for me, I’m not an activist anymore. Though I am endlessly grateful for those who do this work, it’s not what I want to do. I felt like I had to make it my life, but in doing so, I destroyed it. Many of my peers have gotten degrees in nonprofit management or politics, but I know only a few who are going into full-time activism.

Bree Butler is a dancer. Sarah Chadwick wants to work in local organizations for women’s services. Natalie Barden is hopeful she can enter nonprofits again, in her own way.

Some are still in it, doing the work, like Trevon Bosley. Others are now stepping into the field, like Jake Hockley.

Each of them is more than a source — more than a statistic or an inspiring story to be lifted up and then thrown away. Says Clifton, “We’re all kids, and we’re just trying to figure this out.” 

Instagram content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.


Editor-in-Chief: Versha Sharma

Politics Director: Allegra Kirkland

Illustrator: Anna Parini 

Animator: Jose Lorenzo 

Art Director: Emily Zirimis

Designer: Liz Coulbourn 

Audience Development Director: Chantal Waldholz

Senior Social Media Manager: Honestine Fraser

Social Media Manager: Jillian Selzer