Finding Agency and Activism in the Wake of the Parkland School Shooting

By President Shirley M. Collado, February 28, 2018
Like so many others, I have been left with a broken heart by the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Yet again, we as a nation find ourselves in a sadly familiar space: trying to make sense of another mass shooting that has taken place in an environment that should emphasize the promise of youth and intellectual discovery, not the heartache of loss and the terror of violent trauma.

But in the aftermath of this national tragedy, the narrative of student voices is moving beyond victimization, beyond grief. Enough is enough, they say. And they’re demonstrating that in both dialogue and action. 

Two events are planned in March to empower students to demonstrate their support for safe schools—and their intolerance of inactivity around that goal. A national school walkout will be held on March 14, lasting 17 minutes, one minute for each of the students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On March 24, in Washington, D.C., as well as other cities around the country, the “March for our Lives” will demand an end to gun violence in schools. And, as part of a greater application of our institution’s principles, Ithaca College has joined other colleges and universities around the nation in expressing support for admitted high school students who choose to participate in nonviolent protest around this issue.

Outside of these organized events, we’ve seen individual students sparring with state legislators, speaking their truth to our nation’s president, batting away the thinly veiled bait of social media trolls. We’re seeing an assignation of responsibility not only to the individual perpetrators, but also to those who create the environment that enables deadly actions and behavior. Pat responses to challenging questions aren’t acceptable anymore; neither is redirection.

And the voices we’re hearing are raw, emotional, and true. In these honest reactions to this latest atrocity we are not only able to connect to our shared humanity, we hold a mirror up to what lies on the other side. We become aware of how easy it is to slip into cynicism, resignation, and acceptance, to think change is impossible when really it is not. When we are able to acknowledge the power of this student movement—and our own acceptance of the status quo—we can activate within ourselves the inspiration to help drive cultural, political, and generational change. And while this movement is strongly about student activism, it’s equally about the claiming of individual agency.

Associate Professor Chris Holmes, in IC’s Department of English, shared with me an experience he had during his Ithaca Seminar on Gun Violence, which was in session when the Las Vegas shooting occurred last October. He said his students felt sure that there would be rising up by their peers. “While I had become accustomed to hearing the same rhetoric about how one particular gun regulation wouldn’t have stopped a particular gun attack, they were unwilling to swallow the false logic of this principal political point,” he shared. “When I saw [Parkland student] Emma Gonzalez stand before a microphone and demand that Congress act and that they forego campaign contributions from the NRA, I knew that it was my class that had foreseen the future of a student movement, and it would be those same types of engaged students who pushed for real change.”

Teenagers and college students are making a commitment to invest in closing the disconnect that exists between their lived experiences and the individuals and power systems that are making decisions about their lives. And as students embrace their agency and live their activism, they need support from the broader academic community which includes fellow students, faculty, staff, and administrators. 

It is our responsibility to help amplify and enable student voices as they create the world in which they want to live. It is also our responsibility to deliver appropriate moments inside and outside of the classroom where students can be heard. This can happen through explorations around civic engagement, framing the philosophical and historical context for social issues, encouraging critical thinking, and providing brave spaces to discuss and navigate topics that are not black and white. The key to this work is creating appropriate channels with respect, integrity, and dignity so people aren’t minimized to a political belief or how they vote on a particular law.

Ultimately, this is about nurturing productive and respectful relationships, and in a dialogue specifically placed within the context of school violence, one of the most important relationships are those built with public safety. I have had many discussions with Bill Kerry, the director of IC’s Office of Public Safety, around the importance of trust, communication, visibility, and service. Bill describes the objective of his office’s work as not simply engaging with campus community members—but establishing an authentic presence that celebrates partnerships, accessibility, and a deep understanding of our community. It’s an important piece of the work we do here to create a learning and living environment that helps increase the capacity of our institution to fully support students as they participate in difficult dialogues and expand their understanding of what it means to be civically engaged in a just society.

As we watch these high school students bravely come together to illustrate the scope and intensity of a community united against gun violence, we clearly understand the urgency of our work in higher education. These high school students will soon become college students, and it is our job to provide an environment that deeply supports intellectual and personal awakening. Their agency and activism is something we must pay attention to—and learn from.