They’re all over TV, our news feeds and social media. Their stalwart young faces. Their passionate voices. The relentlessly vocal surviving students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) in Parkland, Florida. They’re speaking out. They’re organizing. They’re marching. They’re challenging lawmakers. They're petitioning. And they’re activating discussion through appreciative inquiry, building empathy, and by practicing compassionate communication.
They’re being criticized, lauded, lifted up, torn down, praised, and maligned. But they persist.They won’t stop asking questions, challenging the status quo. Respectfully, clearly, resolutely. They are committed to change. They have set their sights on being the last school in the U.S. to experience a mass shooting.
And they are taking on a complex issue that the grownups around them have not been able, or willing, to fully address. These teenagers are trying to solve the problem of gun violence by prioritizing the needs and interests of those who are at greatest risk of being victims— themselves. They don’t want sympathy. They want others to practice empathy. To find solutions based on their needs. To support them in their mission. And they won’t give up.
Like many who are following their journey, I have been exceedingly impressed with these young people. Even First Lady, Melania Trump is offering her support for speaking out, saying “I have been heartened to see children across this country using their voices to speak out and try to create change. They are our future and they deserve to have a voice.”
Immediately after the mass shooting at their school, these high schoolers understood what needed to be done to prevent this from ever happening again at any school. They knew they needed to ask “What might make us safer at school?” The adults had failed them, and now it was time to design real solutions to the school safety issue. And they intuitively knew to begin with empathy. To ask the people who were directly affected by tragedy — their fellow students — what could be done to make them safer. And to listen to them.
When asked by a reporter what politicians could do to help make schools safer, Emma Gonzalez, one of the most vocal MSD students replied, “Anything. Just do anything.” She understood that what naturally follows from practicing empathy and appreciative inquiry is to come up with reasonable and practical ideas, and to suggest and test compassionate solutions.
Although they appear to have a clear goal — to ban assault weapons — their #NeverAgain movement is not restricted to a single solution. They understand, and are willing to discuss variations on the theme. When they visited their state capital in Tallahassee, and on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, they even got a few to listen to them and begin conversations about change.
Whether or not you share their values, agree with their platform or their proposed solutions for specific change, these high schoolers embody the true meaning of activism. They are fighting for their own lives, and the lives of every child and teen who goes to school in this country. They are demanding less moments of silence and more moments of action.
They remind some of us of the college students who held sit-ins to protest the Vietnam War as thousands of young people were dying and being maimed in combat and being drafted to serve their country during a protracted war. Oprah likened them to the Freedom Riders, who fought to abolish the Jim Crow laws in the early 1960’s.
But there is an important difference between the Parkland kids and other notable young protesters in our nation’s history. Unlike the Freedom Riders and the Vietnam protesters who were counterculture activists bucking the system and the “establishment,” these kids have been in training for speaking out and activating others for their entire lives. Debating has been an integral part of their formal education since elementary school. Not only do they have the support of their families, but they also have a solid foundation of respectful and effective communication from their classes.
David Hogg, one of the Parkland students’ calmest and most composed young voices, explained that he and his fellow students were required to debate gun control — and he personally had to debate from both sides of the issue. Perhaps that exercise in empathy has made him even more prepared to engage in civil discourse with others who disagree with him.
The Parkland kids are applying the skills and dispositions they have learned and practiced since they were young children to address the most pressing crisis of their generation. They are practicing compassionate and effective communication and being listened to. I believe that these are some of the reasons why the Parkland students are effective and compassionate communicators and activists:
1. They frame their arguments with “I” and “We” rather than putting others on the defensive with “You” statements. When we express ourselves in the first person, as these kids are, with statements such as “I feel, I believe, I value” and support those statements from personal experiences, we are communicating respectfully and clearly, and people are more likely to listen to what we have to say. These kids are engaging anyone who will listen to them, telling their stories from the heart, and sharing their own opinions. They lost friends family members and beloved teachers in this tragedy. Their stories are raw and heart wrenching. For them, this is personal.
2. They know their facts (and their rights). Because of years of training in debate, they have had to research the facts about many complex issues, including guns, mental health, and laws and regulations relating to both. They also know how to vet and cite sources, and understand which sources are valid and reliable, and which are not. Moreover, these kids probably became more acquainted with the Second Amendment and its various interpretations than most of our citizenry, as well as other amendments to our constitution -- especially the many freedoms that our First Amendment affords.
3. They practice appreciative inquiry and reflective listening. A critical skill in constructive dialogue is the ability to listen to what others have to say, and being able to reflect it back to them. It is apparent from listening to the Parkland kids engage in forums and discussions that they have honed their reflective listening skills. Not only have these high school students been well trained in debate, they apparently have also been taught to be respectful skeptics and to ask good questions in an appreciative manner. In addition to launching the #neveragain movement, they recently launched the #whatif social media campaign, asking students to create and post videos to pressure Congress to act on gun control.
4. They practice empathy and compassion. The Parkland kids understand all sides of the argument because they have the ability to feel what others feel. But they don’t stop there. They turn their empathy for what others are going through, into compassionate action that will inspire positive change that will prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, and help others in the future.
5. They have the support of their families and teachers. It is worthy of notice that the Parkland community is a strong one. As they grieve together, they have also come together to support these surviving warriors in channeling their grief, fear, empathy and outrage into activism. The MSD students’ parents, teachers, relatives, community members have their back and are encouraging their process. And they have, unknowingly, prepared them well for this moment.
As a parent, I raised a son who was a teen activist. He too was personally affected by school violence. I experienced firsthand the responsibility and challenge of teaching respectful yet effective communication, to encourage healthy skepticism, and to build empathy when passionately expressing ideas that are so critical to civil discourse. These communication skills can, and should, be taught and nurtured at home and at school. And these are the very skills that the next generation of leaders and activists must have at the ready to activate positive change. The future of our democracy depends on their compassionate communication.
Angela and I invite you to engage in respectful discourse and move this conversation forward. You can find us on Facebook and on Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.