Parkland shooting survivors speak of activism inspired by tragedy

The Cranston Herald ·

On last Wednesday evening, three of the founding March for our Lives students who survived, or had family members who survived, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school massacre in Parkland, Florida visited Cranston High School East on their “Glimmer of Hope: How tragedy sparked a movement” book tour.

The book is a collaborative effort, written by the March for Our Lives founders. None of the authors of the book earn proceeds from it, but rather all profits are donated to the March for Our Lives Action Fund, a nonprofit 501(c)4 organization. The event was sponsored by Barrington Books and took place in East’s auditorium. Halima Ibrahim served as the moderator. Adults and youth alike were present, hailing from all areas of Rhode Island, and both the “Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America” and the “Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence” groups were well represented.

While Wednesday’s event could have been an emotional retelling of a devastating and traumatic day in the lives of the students, it was anything but.

The three young adults on the panel, Matt Deitsch, Ryan Deitsch and Sofie Whitney, acknowledged but did not dwell on the tragedy they’d experienced just eight months ago on February 14. Instead, they spoke for an hour during the panel presentation about how they turned the tragedy they’d lived through into activism.

Matt Deitsch, 20, a graduate of Stoneman Douglas, had two siblings who survived the shooting, including Ryan and their younger sister who had turned 15 on the day of the shooting. Ryan Deitsch 18, survived the shooting, as did Whitney, who turned 18 just four days after the shooting. The three are among the group of young adults who decided to immediately take advantage of the media presence surrounding the massacre and start a movement, “Never Again,” and create the event, “March for Our Lives,” in the hopes of engaging people of all ages in the work needed to change the narrative surrounding gun legislation and save lives.

The topic of mental health was prominent in the conversation, especially when asked how the students managed to take care of their mental health and start their work simultaneously, so soon after the shooting, within hours.

Whitney described the collective feelings of the survivors during their very first meeting.

“There was so much anger, we were just so angry,” she said. “Kids get really angry when things don’t go their way and when things get this bad, all hell breaks loose, so we sat in Cameron’s living room, five or six of us, all night long, just trying to figure out any way for people to listen to us because we had this platform now and we had people listening all across the country. We knew that the American people needed a specific task to do or all of this would be for nothing.”

It was their activism that ultimately kept them going.

“I think activism and all of the things we’ve done since the shooting was our way of grieving,” said Whitney. “I know that speaking for myself, if I didn’t do anything I would’ve been in a lot worse place than I am now because of my activism. It’s just hard to sit alone with grief, at least for us, it’s hard to sit there and grieve and not look to the future at least in a positive way. I think activism helped us. I’m not sure if any of us have truly grieved, and I’m not sure if we ever will. There’s no guideline on grieving after your school gets shot up, but we’re doing our best.”

Ryan Deitsch described how helpful the community memorials were for helping in the healing process, having safe spaces where people could cry and console each other until the memorials were removed temporarily until a permanent location can be found for them.

“Definitely in the beginning, those memorials were helpful for us,” he said. “A week after we’d lobbied and been through the CNN Town Hall, we just wanted to clock out for the night. We said we’d spend about an hour at the memorial and we spent about seven, in which none of us used our phones, we just stood there in contemplation, looking at the names of the people we’d once known, we’d once seen in passing that we just had known were an active part of our community. That is definitely some of the best healing that I personally experienced, being able to have that time. Right now it’s incredibly hard with the memorials being gone there is no place or our community to go to heal.”

Matt Deitsch spoke of the night that the shooting had happened, and while waiting for word to come in of who had died, being up all night, studying past articles and reports from Columbine and other similar massacres and realizing that change needed to happen.

“The language was exactly the same,” he said. “Everything matched article to article. I was trying to find a time in history where the message was swapped, when you can move the needle, when can you stop this course of this repetitive action of thoughts and prayers, no action, people pretend to care, and I didn’t have an action right away and I felt helpless in how to stop the cycle that is going on.”

The hope for attendance at the March for Our Lives march was 90 people. The final totals exceeded one million and far exceeded their expectations. When asked what other movements inspired their activism, the three spoke to past moments in history that they had studied, going as far back as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the Freedom Riders, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, to as recently as the Women’s March that took place in 2017 and the protests on gun violence which took place in Ferguson, Missouri.  

“We took these blueprints and we thought, how can we make these for us, how can we make these ours, and that’s where the road to change came from too. We copied these sort of change-making blueprints and we adapted it for 2018, like how can we make these real, now,” said Matt Deitsch. “We aren’t taught these things like they are recent, the Civil Rights movement, there are people in this room that lived through all of that. We are taught as if it’s such a distant memory, not like it’s happening now.”

He spoke of being in this together with those activists of the past, as well as those of the present who were so similar to the Parkland students, no matter what the time period in history.

“We aren’t taught that they were 19-year-olds, 18-year-olds organizing these protests these rallies, and doing these marches and organizing these rallies and doing the trainings themselves. We are standing on the shoulders of giants when we do this work,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this work as effectively if it wasn’t for the kids at Standing Rock, the kids at Ferguson, the kids after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. These foundations for activism is what makes this movement so powerful because we are connecting with all of these coalitions.”

This past summer, the Parkland students took a 63-day tour, going around the country and speaking with people, listening to those who have lost people since their shooting in school shootings that didn’t receive the media attention that theirs did. The trip gave them hope, but also gave a sense of frustration in that death from gun violence still takes place every day, a seemingly commonplace event, often unreported by the media.

“We carry that with us every day,” said Matt Deitsch. “Every day there was another story of someone killed to gun violence that never made the news, never made it beyond a Facebook post. We learned that this is just something that is American culture, that is ingrained in who we are as a nation. Until we stop comparing traumas and start working to prevent them, we won’t advance.”

In answer to the question of what to do as a generation of youth who is told that their voices don’t matter, or they are not old enough to do anything, each of the panelists consistently emphasized the need for everyone to get educated, to be informed, to get involved, no matter how young or old they are, whether or not they have reached voting age. They spoke of Langston, a 10-year-old boy they met on their bus tour in Sioux City, Iowa, who could speak circles around governors and other adults around him.

“He debated three governors and won,” said Ryan Deitsch. “There are so many like him who are energized, who want to do more, and who eventually will be the ones in charge. There are 9, 12, 16 year-olds who are standing up every day, wanting to do more, who are registering people to vote. Educate yourself, educate others, keep the conversation going.”

Whitney spoke to the fact that over 800 marches took place nationally and internationally, on every continent, including Antarctica, thanks to their activism.

“I can never process that,” she said. “We get more inspired every time we hear of another one. There are some we’ll never see who are such inspiring people.”

All agreed that social media has helped their movement tremendously and helped to keep it trending and in the news and that without their social media presence they would not have been able to do the things they’ve done.

When asked their hopes for the future, Whitney spoke of voter turnout for the upcoming elections.

“We want to see the highest youth voter turnout ever, which I hope is on the horizon,” she said.

“It’s going to happen,” said Matt Deitsch. “We’ve used a QR code on our shirts and registered 50,000 people to vote already.”

Ryan Deitsch spoke to the local movements across the country as another goal.

“We will be changing our focus a bit to chapter organizations both nationally and internationally because we want to make sure young people have a voice and we want to teach them how to run for themselves, to make sure they take the power that they have and make an impact for their community.”

All agreed that on November 7, they’d like to take a brief break for a few hours, get some rest, and then continue to stay the course as the newest generation of changemakers.

Following the panel presentation, a question and answer session took place and a brief meet and greet with photos was allowed for those who had purchased that ticket option.

For more information about March for Our Lives, visit