Even before the Road to Change Tour town hall meeting started at Linn-Mar High School in Marion on Thursday night, members of the audience that packed the school’s gymnasium knew the importance of voting was going to be stressed. To get to the gym, you had to pass by multiple groups trying to help people register to vote.
“We need people in this country voting,” said Cameron Kasky, explaining one of the primary goals of the tour at the beginning of the meeting’s panel discussion.
Kasky is a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) who co-founded March for Our Lives to push for political action on gun violence following the February mass shooting at the Parkland, Florida school. He was joined on the panel by one of the group’s other founders, recent MSDHS graduate Emma González, and March for Our Lives creative director, Jammal Lemy, a 2016 MSDHS graduate and current student at Florida Atlantic University.
The nationwide Road to Change Tour, a project of March for Our Lives, had stopped for a meet-up on Thursday afternoon at the Cedar Rapids Raygun store, and drew a crowd larger than the store could accommodate.
“People don’t want to be involved in the system anymore, because the system is cheating us, and we have forgotten the fact that the way to fix that is to come right at the system with your votes,” Kasky said, continuing his answer on the importance of voting. “And we’re here — going everywhere in the country that we can, finding districts where people aren’t coming out to vote, and saying, ‘You can make a difference.’”
Kasky said another major goal of the tour was to let the March for Our Lives members hear from people around the country about their experiences and learn their perspectives on guns and gun violence. That goal was reflected in the makeup of Thursday night’s panel.
In addition to the March for Our Lives members, the panel featured Ruth Zanoni and Leah Schneider, Marion residents whose lives have been affected by gun violence. There were also local student activists: Iowa City High School’s Maya Durham, one of the founders of Students Against School Shootings; recent Regina High School graduate Ellie Stimmel; and Elizabeth McDermott, a recent graduate of Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and the student activist coordinator in Iowa for Amnesty International.
“Every day I hear conversations — right now, I’m a camp counselor — and just last night, my 12-year-olds were talking about incidents they’ve had at school and in their lives,” Durham said. “It’s conversations like that that every single day remind of the reality of this issue — that there are 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds who are aware of everything that’s wrong in this country with gun violence, who are exposed to gun violence every day.”
The final panel member was Ariana Williams, a recent high school graduate from Chicago who has been part of the Nebraska and Iowa legs of the tour. Williams talked about her experiences growing up in a city that is very different from either Parkland or Marion.
Young people in Chicago shouldn’t have worries different from young people in Marion, Williams told the audience. “But instead, they are worried about walking the streets and getting caught in the crossfire,” she said. “They are worried about being shot down by policemen, who are harassing them for no reason. They are worried about sitting on their own porches and still being shot.”
Williams drew a connection between economic injustice, including the severe underfunding of Chicago schools, and the city’s gun violence.
The cash-strapped education system is lacking in after-school programs for students, and its substandard classroom materials show young people that city leaders don’t value them, according to Williams.
“They don’t have resources at school. They come home and see their mom’s not there, because she’s having to work three minimum-wage jobs … At a young age, you see all these people walking around who are in gangs, and they have all this money,” she said.
Gangs put guns in people’s hands, and having a gun is seen as a way of having power. “But gangs don’t manufacture guns,” Williams pointed out.
Williams felt the impact of gun violence at an early age. Her father was shot and killed when she was 8. The next year, her uncle was shot and killed “on the same street where my father died,” she said.
“Here in Iowa sometimes we think we’re isolated from the issues that we see going on in the world,” Leah Schneider said, after Williams spoke. Schneider was at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas in October 2017 when a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 58 people and injuring 851.
“I am you — I am your neighbor, your sister, your daughter — and I just went to a country concert and [my] life changed,” Schneider said. “That can happen to anyone of us.”
Schneider stressed she wasn’t sharing her experience to inspire fear, but to help inspire people to take action.
Emma González also took an opportunity during the panel discussion to address one of the fears that March for Our Lives has generated among some gun owners.
“We’re not trying to take away your guns,” González said. What March for Our Lives wants is “a little bit stricter regulation” in order “to save lives,” she said.
“Guns aren’t respected as much as they should be for the destruction that they cause … If we have responsible gun owners, we’ll have less gun deaths,” González added.
Clear communication and being open to other points of view is essential to overcoming the indifference and sense of futility that has enabled political inaction on gun violence and discouraged people from voting, all the members of the panel agreed.
Kasky told audience members they needed to make the effort to have respectful conversations even with “that one family member who is why you can’t talk about politics at Thanksgiving.”
Panel members got the opportunity to connect with people like “that one family member,” when the moderators — MSDHS graduate Ryan Deitsch and Kevin Drahos, a Linn-Mar student and activist who helped organize the town hall meeting — invited members of the audience to ask questions.
While all 12 people who asked questions were polite, two of them were firm believers in the NRA’s positions, and argued that further gun control measures would be futile.
The panel’s responses to the two men reflected the dedication to attempting to understand other experiences they had been talking about all evening. The gun-enthusiasts’ objections were taken seriously. Kasky even conceded that early attempts at reforming gun laws had been flawed. “But,” he concluded, “just because a regulation can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we should do nothing.”
Holly Sanger, the leader of Iowa City’s Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, attended the town hall.
“What I saw [at the meeting] was amazing,” Sanger told Little Village after. “I’m a psychologist, and when I think about the trauma that many of these people on this panel have experienced, and how they’ve been able to turn it into positive action, I find it amazing, this message that they kept talking about empathy, communication is vitally important to move people forward.”
That was a point Lamy made during the panel discussion.
“We might not change everyone’s mind,” he said. “But if you can change one or two hearts, and then they can change one or two hearts, it has a domino effect.”