KATHY: Before we start, just a quick warning: this episode mentions gun violence and suicide.
KATHY: Yes Tobin…
TOBIN: So, We’ve talked a little bit on the show about the approaching midterm elections…
KATHY: Uh, It kind of feels like it’s been a few years now.
TOBIN: Yes. It has been a solid couple lifetimes.
TOBIN: But what I wanna talk about is.. The young folks out there who are amped to vote. And there’s one group, in particular, we’re going to talk about today...the students from March for Our Lives...
[CLIP] NEWS: Marches against gun violence will be taking place in hundreds of cities this afternoon with teenagers taking the lead.
CROWD: Vote them out! Vote them out!
KATHY: So if folks don’t know, March for Our Lives was this huge demonstration that took place across the country last March. And It was organized in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
TOBIN: And there were all these young, inspiring speakers who talked about their experiences with gun violence. At the event in DC, which was the biggest...one of the headliners was Emma Gonzalez.
EMMA: 6 minutes and about 20 seconds…
TOBIN: Emma was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when the shooting happened.
EMMA: In a little over 6 minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured, and everyone, absolutely everyone in the Douglas community was forever altered.
TOBIN: And she quickly became one of the most recognizable faces in the March for Our Lives movement. Since then, she’s continued to be outspoken about gun violence, but also talks a lot about being proudly bisexual.
EMMA: The LGBT+ community knows the meaning of family and It is because of this that I’ve been able to become the confident, energetic short, bisexual girl that you see before you.
KATHY: You go, Emma. Repping for bi-folks everywhere.
TOBIN: Yes. And beyond speaking about queerness, and about gun reform...the students from March for Our lives spent the summer on the road on this multi-city bus tour...registering voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections. It was called “Road to Change.” And I got to go out to their event in Queens, New York a couple months ago.
KATHY: Cue show music! Show music now! [LAUGHS] Sorry...
VOX: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy!
VOX: With your hosts, Kathy Tu and Tobin Low.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
KATHY: OK, so, Tobin, tell me more about this Road to Change event..
TOBIN: So, I dunno I guess if I were to say “voter registration event”...you would imagine something kinda dull. Yes? Yeah.
TOBIN: Uh...When I arrived, it was like a party.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Are you serious?
[AUDIO FROM EVENT]
TOBIN: There was a DJ, and dancing...cotton candy and popcorn.
KATHY: That sounds like fun. I’d go to that.
TOBIN: Totally, right? So this event was the last stop on the tour...and organizers said that they were able to register tens of thousands of voters in person and online. And they did it by pulling together these parties that were thoughtful but also raucous and silly. Like, at a certain point during the event...they pulled a couple people on stage for like a pull up challenge...they had to hold themselves in a pull up and recite as much of the alphabet as they could before their arms gave out...And one of the competitors...
SPEAKER: Give it up for Miss Emma, please!
TOBIN: ...was Emma Gonzalez.
KATHY: Wait, how far into the alphabet did she get?
EMMA: E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S.
TOBIN: She got to S.
TOBIN: I mean, to be fair, they were going pretty fast through the alphabet pretty fast, but also to be fair, I can’t even do one pull up.
KATHY: Yeah if you can’t do one, that would be tough.
KATHY: But you’re saying she’s a badass
TOBIN: Yes, yes, yes.
KATHY: So this sounds like it was a really good time.
TOBIN: Yes, definitely a party...But also, there was just no avoiding that so many of the people in attendance had this awful thing in common...So many of them had been personally impacted by gun violence.
JEN: My roommate was shot. And I’ve had a friend when I was in 8th grade that accidentally shot and killed his brother. And you know, I know people who have killed themselves, suicide from guns. Guns are the issue, and I'm kinda tired of people saying they’re not the issue.
TOBIN: Could I get you guys to introduce yourselves?
JEN: Sure, I’m Jen Schumaker with gays against guns.
ANTONIO: And I’m Antonio, also with gays against guns.
TOBIN: Why was it important for y’all to be here today.
JEN: So Gays Against Guns started after the Pulse nightclub Orlando shooting, which was one of the biggest mass shootings in the country and then Las Vegas happened. And then Parkland. And it seems like everyday something new is happening, so we’re here just to support the March for Our Lives kids because we’re really proud of the moment they’re doing.
TOBIN: Jen’s point is that it’s not like the country is short on mass shootings. There was Pulse, and then Parkland. Then there was the shooting at the High School in Santa Fey...and even just this week the shooting of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The list goes on. And any one of these events should theoretically start a conversation around change. But the students from March For Our Lives seem to be the ones continuing to attract national attention.
JEN: It seems like the kids are the ones who are really getting the traction on really getting people to register to vote.
ANTONIO: So It’s a problem when you have an entire country with too many guns. It’s a problem for all of us. Gay, straight, black, white.
TOBIN: Just then, the music suddenly disappeared..and the vibe of the room shifted dramatically. Everyone slowly gathered around this mural...it was a painting of Joaquin Oliver on a white brick wall...Joaquin was one of the students killed in Parkland. Next to his face, the words We Demand were painted in red. His father, Manuel Oliver stood facing the mural, and started to spray paint words. He filled in the rest of the sentence on the mural… “We Demand...an express line to change”. And then, he took a hammer...
TOBIN: He started to strike the mural with the hammer, mimicking the sounds of gunshots.
MANUEL OLIVER: Not nice, huh?
MANUEL OLIVER: That’s how it sounds. In a school hall, it sounds like that. Every single day in Chicago, in LA, in New York, it sounds like that.
TOBIN: In a school hall, it sounds like that, he says. Every single day in Chicago, in LA, in New York, it sounds like that.
TOBIN: He stopped at one point, a little bit out of breath, to face the crowd.
MANUEL OLIVER: Mitch, Annika and Alex are here. Goods friends of ours. They lost their son in Parkland, too. We became friends because of this, which is not the best way to become friends. But we support each other, and we support you guys all the way...Having conversations many times, Who do we believe in? We believe in the kids and their movement. No one else.
TOBIN: It made me think about these students from March for Our Lives...and how much they’ve got on their shoulders...yes, they’re inspiring and they’re starting conversations about change...but I imagine it’s also exhausting. Having to continually revisit what’s happened to them...having to talk about gun violence constantly...and also for people like Emma...to figure out your identity in front of everyone.
TOBIN: So after the break, I got to talk more with the people powering this movement…
EMMA: And the fact that there are some people who feel like we shouldn't be doing this…Well, I wish I wasn't doing it either.
TOBIN: Including Emma Gonzalez.
KATHY: We are back!
TOBIN: So before the break, we talked about my visit to the Road to Change event. And I got the chance to talk to a couple of the students behind it all.
KATHY: OK cool, so who are we talking about?
TOBIN: Well one of them was Emma Gonzalez, who we talked about a little bit about before. The other’s name is Bria Smith...Bria is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And she says she’s been publicly speaking out about gun violence in her hometown for years but with not much attention from the press. So when March for our Lives started getting traction, she was skeptical.
TOBIN: But then she spoke at a March For Our Lives Rally back in March…
BRIA: Students in Milwaukee county are three times more likely to die because of gun violence…
TOBIN: And she just kind of knocked everyone’s socks off.
BRIA: I am here today because I care about my life...because I care about the lives of my peers and the students across the nation...who hold fear within their hearts entering their own schools.
TOBIN: Her passion eventually led to an invite to join the Road To Change tour…
KATHY: Love it. Love Bria.
TOBIN: Yeah. Love Bria. So I got a chance to have Bria and Emma in the studio.
EMMA: To begin…
EMMA & BRIA: [WHISPER]
TOBIN: This is them trying out ASMR on the microphones.
KATHY: We love ASMR.
TOBIN: It shows up a lot on this show.
KATHY: It does.
TOBIN: Anyway, I had a great time talking to them about identity and voting and being a teenager...all while being the faces of a national movement.
TOBIN: I'm curious. And you can answer this question however you want. How do you identify.
EMMA: I, Emma Gonzalez, am bisexual. I am half Cuban, half white. Well technically like I'm full white like on the outside but I'm white passing.
BRIA: White passing.
EMMA: And I am...have she/her pronouns. And I was the president of the Gay Straight Alliance at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high.
BRIA: I was an ally. How about that. But um. Yes. So my name is Bria I'm straight, a straight black woman identify with Black American culture. And I'm kind of here to speak about intersectional approaches and how it affects day by day youth because we aren't aware of it. When you become aware of something that hinders you from achieving success, that's when you know that your knowledge is your power and you go out there and you shift the narrative.
EMMA: Yes Bria. Yes.
BRIA: So yes that's me I'm 17. I'll be rising senior and I'm just ready for the world to look like a better place so I can bring my little babies in.
TOBIN: Whoo, love it. So growing up what for the two of you. What was your relationship to activism like?
EMMA: Well, I took AP Environmental Science two years ago. And I had to watch movies...like documentaries either in class or for extra credit out of class. So I watched Chasing Ice and Damnation. And that is two explicit examples of activism in the world about something that affects everybody. In Damnation, somebody snuck onto a dam in the middle of the night and painted a giant dotted line with scissors down the middle of it saying break down the dam But dams are useful for hydroelectricity until they back up all the sediment down river and prevent animals from migrating to their natural grounds and it disrupts the landscape. But like watching Damnation, how this one person painted a dam and got a dam broken down and even though there's hundreds of thousands more in America to go it still felt like that person got something done. And I was like why don't I do something like that. Why don't I swing down from a dam one day with a giant paint roller in my hand and do something like that. I thought of that and I didn't let go of that idea. I also really wanted to work for NASA.
BRIA: Still could.
TOBIN: Still could.
EMMA: Still really want to for NASA that counts as activism. But you know we'll find out. And you Bria.
BRIA: Growing up, I have four siblings, and my two parents, so it was always a full house. But, my mom, she didn’t want us to go to school in our zone schools ‘cause our neighborhood was really bad and she wanted us to have like a really proper education. So she signed up for the chapter 220 program. That’s like, gone now, but the chapter 220 program...you take inner city kids, these brown and black kids, and these latina and asian kids, and you put them on a bus. And you bus them like 45 minutes away to white suburban areas, and in these white suburban areas you diversify that school. In Milwaukee county I went to Franklin High School. So I was on the chapter 220 program and I was like the only black person in my class and that’s when I realized that I’m the only black person in my class! Like, no one looks like me, and that’s when growing up in this atmosphere in class where everybody looks at you when they talk about slavery or even civil rights. It’s really isolating and you can’t really talk about anything because you don’t want to be seen as complaining. So I guess that’s what fueled me to speak up and be that one pro-black person that’s always like, Fight the power in class. So, yeah.
EMMA: Yes Bria.
TOBIN: [LAUGHTER] Listen if you pepper that through this entire interview I'm totally fine with it.
EMMA: Today we will go on a journey and I will take you there.
TOBIN: So you all have been on this bus tour for the last couple of months visiting different cities.
EMMA: We've been on the bus tour for about sixty days.
TOBIN: Ah gotcha.
EMMA: So about two months total.
TOBIN: So we have the facts facts are facts. I was at the event today and...
EMMA: Oh dope.
TOBIN: ...a thing that struck me is how much it felt like a party.
TOBIN: You know, dancing.
BRIA: That's what we need..And even just like looking I remember like we were all dancing you know. So the DJ was fire can I just say that.
EMMA: We have had a hot streak of DJs.
BRIA: And like we look at the youth that watches us and like films us on their snapchat when you put your phone down and come dance like, yeah, actually engage. Let's actually like dance together and like feel like we're at homecoming again because like homecoming feels different nowadays because like school feels different nowadays and we need like youth to know that we can still...I don't want to say be normal because like everyone has a different opinions, perspective, like what normalcy is and like it's different now...but like we need to feel a sense of unity while just dancing to like Jay Z and like having like voter registration but also snow cones and a mural that shows like the pain and hurt that was suffered. But also how art is incorporated in all of this because like we need to feel like we can be teenagers again, because that’s what’s important.
EMMA: Yeah. You don't need to ask to have a good time, because that's what it's supposed to be. If you're having a good time dancing if you're even if you don't like dancing you should still bop you should still tell your friends
BRIA: I think the biggest misconception was like march for lives not unlike in kind of like lots of other people's opinions is that like we don't like have fun or like we're not like sleeping or not eating.
EMMA: I mean it’s a combination..it's a juggling act. You know like we we don't want to seem like this is the time of our lives and that we're enjoying it.
BRIA: Yeah of course, True true true. but I feel like because my definition of fun is actually meeting new youth and actually like having those barbecue events, actually speaking..
EMMA: Eating a hot dog on a Sunday.
BRIA: Yeah and just talking about like what goes on in your community? that's my definition of fun. Because like for months I've been complaining like “I have no one to talk to about like activism and like civil rights like I want to talk to” like craving these conversations and we're able to still be humans will also like trying to solve human rights issues and that's what's so beautiful about everything.
TOBIN: I also imagine...like...you’re traveling the country, you’re having these events and registering voters and partying...but you’re also talking about gun violence and meeting people who have suffered through it...how have you found ways to take care of yourselves?
EMMA: There are definitely days when we're like up to having fun. There's other days where we're like I want to stay on the bus. I'm not I'm not OK today. And like everybody on the bus understands that at this point like everybody on the road to change tour and everybody in march for our lives. If we need to cry people give us space. If we don't want people to give us space we will be surrounded by people who want to comfort us and that's exactly what we need. And it's hard to be away from the people at home but it's inspiring to be with the people that we meet every day.
TOBIN: Well I think one thing that y'all are so good about doing is like making it like talking about your identities in a way that it intersects with what you care about. And so there's this thing about like you know there's not there's not a ton of quote unquote like LGBT issues on the ballot. You know this coming election.
EMMA: Those gays got gay marriage what more could they possibly want!
TOBIN: [LAUGHS] But like you know for you guys like gun control is an LGBT issue.
EMMA: Gun reform.
BRIA: Gun reform.
EMMA: Gun Violence prevention.
TOBIN: Excuse me gun reform.
BRIA: Totally fine. We just want to make sure that nobody thinks that.
EMMA: We're not in control of anyone's First Amendment rights.
BRIA: We’re not...Second amendment.
EMMA: We're not trying to take anybody's guns away because it often gets confused.
TOBIN: So gun reform I apologize. [LAUGHS] But there's a way in which like for y'all like gun reform is an LGBT issue is an issue for black people. So how do you think about your identities and drawing that connection to the issues that you care about.
EMMA: When it comes to having our identities in this area of life, we utilize it when we're talking to people who've experienced gun violence. When it comes to talking with youth who are like us it only makes it easier for people to relate to us when they see people like them. March for our lives is not an all white movement about mass shootings in schools. That would be a horrible campaign. When we have diversity it's specifically because the problem is diverse. Why wouldn't the solution be diverse?
BRIA: And like I always like love to quote MLK, my inspiration. He says an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And I think that every single stop that we’ve made or I know specifically throwing like some stories in there.. A girl from Southern L.A. A Girl looked me in my eye she was like How could you just be comfortable knowing that they're just exploiting your story. And I was like was taken aback and I was like can you elaborate. She's like you being a person of color coming from inner city and you experience gun violence every single day. You going on that town hall. And they're not going to use your story because you're a person of color. And like I looked at her and I was like I'm trying my hardest every single day that I'm on this tour to speak for brown and black people who experience gun violence every single day who experienced police brutality, who experience having a drive by bullet shot and kill like their 12 year old brother, who experienced those things because you can't talk about an issue that affects everyone while only promoting mass shootings in white suburban schools. You're not going to draw everyone in every little nook and cranny of our nation because we're hiding in this bubble that it doesn't affect me unless it's in my own bubble. But we can't blame people for not understanding it because that's why we don't have intersectional approaches to bring us together and create this coalition.
EMMA: And when it comes to also talking about inclusion on the march for our lives tour and march for lives specifically...people already know my name people already know who I am. I don't need to talk any more. But Bria needs that platform and we acknowledge that and that's exactly what we're trying to do.
TOBIN: Emma, you are so proud and outspoken about being Bi. Have you always been so willing to talk about your identity in this way?
EMMA: Well in ninth grade, I took creative writing for the first time. And my teacher Miss Lepel, who I love, she was my creative writing teacher in freshman year of high school. And we had to do a children's book and my children's book...I was like I'm going to do it I'm going to make my children's book called It's OK to be Gay. So on the first page it's a little drawing of me with the hair that I had at the time. And I used to have long curly brown hair for the record for anybody who was wondering. So the first line is, “Hi I'm Emma and I'm bi and I'm going to teach you about sexualities and gender identities in this book. So the first page is like if you're a boy who likes boys you're gay. If you're a girl who likes girls you're lesbian and underneath I wrote... say like les-be-an. because some kids are not good at saying long words. Anyways, and then I had little descriptions of bi underneath and I went into further descriptions of things.And it's a pop up book in the middle.
TOBIN: It's a pop up book?
EMMA: It's a pop up book in the middle… The first pages... Hi I'm Emma and I'm bi. And so I came out to everybody that way. And before that I'd come out to like a couple of people a little bit but only people that I knew that would accept me knew would be like Oh yeah I'm gay too. Or something like that. But like I came out to my parents eventually and they were like ok sweetie. What do you want to eat for dinner. Basically it was really really nice.
BRIA: Aw, you have good parents.
EMMA: Yeah no. They were truly lovely. But like being able to openly speak you know I had sheltered myself and I squished myself down in the months of questioning that are truly the roughest part of being somebody in the LGBT community if you don't know. And you have to question and you have all of the doubt in the world upon your shoulders as well as the fear that somebody will out you before you're prepared or that that you'll accidentally say something that will out yourself or that you won't be prepared in a situation you want to answer. Yes this is my sexuality but you don't know for sure. Like I was so so convinced some days I'm like OK I'm straight. And other days I'd be like no I think I'm bi and other days being like I really can't tell. And I just need to not think about it today. And eventually I just settled on it. And I was like OK I'm bi. This is official I have to accept it. I've questioned it long enough I'm just going to go straight for it. If I if I identify with something later more expansive than whatever I just need to settle on it for my own mental health and I eventually did. And from there everything was absolutely fine.
TOBIN: I’m wondering...do you get pushback for being out and talking about being bi?
EMMA: It's more like...being an activist...I barely touched on the fact that I'm Cuban or that I'm bi. It's mainly we get attacked for being youthful.
BRIA: I think the biggest.. I wanna say insult that grinds my gears from people like if I get off a panel and people are like wow I'm so surprised that you speak so eloquent so articulate and I'm just like Is that because I'm black or because I'm young.
EMMA: That's what I'm saying.
BRIA: It's like both. It's like a double minority or triple like I'm a black young woman and trying to be in a society where that's not usually where people are coming in and have this power to speak on different things and like I think when people tell us that we're too young to do lots of work that affects young people it's kind of hypocritical because I think as a generation now we're so revolutionary we're taking control of our lives because we want to live. And that's so cliche to sound like we want to grow up we want to have children but like
EMMA: It's a realistic problem.
BRIA: It's crazy that like 11 year olds are saying like I want to live when that should be a promise to them. They shouldn't have to be saying what I want to live to see my graduation year. That shouldn't be a reality for anyone.
TOBIN: What would you say to people who underestimate you?
EMMA: first off you sent us to school and you're shocked that we learned something...you might think that we're too young to know what we're talking about but we weren't too young to experience it in the first place.
BRIA: That's what I'm saying.
EMMA: Also, third thing... you might have been thinking about prom when you were 17. But I also had to think about prom when I was 18 because prom. We were watching the videos of you know pictures from Instagram...and videos of the people who should have been at prom were also playing on screen people dancing in the courtyard. People at pep rallies people at parties...all of it was included. Joaquin Oliver dancing with his friends.. All of that information was very prevalent and the fact that there are some people who feel like we shouldn't be doing this. Well I wish I wasn't doing it either. But we have to because you didn't.
BRIA: And who else will?
EMMA: And if you're not going to pick up our slack then you can stop talking to us about who should be doing what because you're not offering a helping hand. But that's that.
TOBIN: I want to thank both of you for making time to come in.
EMMA: Thank you very much for having us.
TOBIN: Thanks for talking.
TOBIN: Alright, that is our show…
KATHY: Matt Collette!
TOBIN: Production fellow…
KATHY: Temi Fagbenle!
TOBIN: Sound designer…
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Jenny Lawton!
TOBIN: Executive producer…
KATHY: Paula Szuchman!
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
KATHY: Doo doo dooooo.
TOBIN: Alright, should we get out of here?
KATHY: Yeah let’s go.
TOBIN: Thanks Kathy.
KATHY: You’re welcome!