Student Dialogue, Leadership Builds Common Ground for Gen Z

May 8, 2018

If there were one thing I was not prepared for when I signed up to lead a school safety walkout for March 14th, it was the amount of pushback I received while planning. There were days it felt as if I was standing in a room full of people, all wearing headphones, screaming, "You don’t want to die here either, right?" with little-to-no effect. Many, even my friends, couldn’t understand the point of a walkout. Some students didn’t want to side with the gun-haters. Many didn’t like the phrase, “gun control.”

I live in a very politically divided place. In my small, rural Maine town, you can guess just by looking at a classroom full of kids who owns a gun, whose family makes more than $30,000 a year, who is planning on going to college. There are few secrets when it comes to political leanings, and gun control is a particularly heated issue because of this. I had no idea how hard it would be to be a leader of these students, or how hard it would be to rally people for a cause that seems so obvious.

I guess what I didn’t expect was the amount of ignorance I encountered. People are quick to say that my generation, Generation Z, which has been touted the generation of ‘millennials on steroids,’ are more progressive and liberal than our parents, but I can honestly say that this is not the environment I have encountered.

People are quick to point fingers, roll eyes, and refuse to listen to what others say. Our walkout quickly turned into one of those events only “open” to the liberal hippies who wanted to ban all guns, even if this wasn’t our true purpose.

Many times I found myself asking, why should I care? Why should it matter if only 20 students believe in my cause? Why should it matter if I am the only one to show up to our walkout? The reason I care is because of a realization that has become glaringly obvious to me in the last month. Our generation may be liberal, but we lack understanding and real, true listening skills.

Our parents probably think this is because of technology. It isn’t. It’s because no one has made us think any differently than how our sheltered minds choose to think. Our political climate allows us to shut ourselves off from others and continue parroting our news channel of choice.

The most poignant moment of the organization process was a day in which the other organizers of the walkout and I sat down with a group of students, all of whom own guns, all of whom did not see us as people they would ever agree with.

The three of us organizers, strong young women in blue “Right To Bear Dreams” shirts, sat in chairs at the front of the room. They sat on couches across from us, slumped over, unenthused. You never would have expected any of us to get along, or to agree about anything.

The amazing thing was that, by the end of the conversation, we had all found some common ground. I understood more about hunting and automatic rifles and bump stocks, and they understood the message of our walkout. We made common ground where there had been none to begin with. None of us wanted to die in school, none of us wanted to arm teachers.

I left feeling excited, heartened, with a new outlook on the entire event. I went home and changed all of our messaging, making the event about safety as opposed to specific gun control measures, simply because it felt so important to include them.

In our political climate, there is no reason to raise your voice without first lowering it. There is no good in speaking above one another. There is no good in refusing to compromise. By arguing this way, nothing changes. We cannot attempt to solve anything unless we first choose to put ourselves equal to one another. Even the playing field. Abandon what we once thought to be the only right way. On that day, I finally learned this wildly important lesson.

Of course, none of this means that I have seen any change in my peers. I still see mean posts about myself online, they still call me a “crazy SJW,” they still talk badly about me behind my back. The difference is that now, instead of seeing these messages as messages of hate spread by people who truly dislike me, I see them as messages of ignorance and misunderstanding. I see my peers as people who disagree with me, who I am ready to have difficult conversations with. 

I know I have come to this conclusion quicker than most. I know that this specific facet of our country’s political climate is unlikely to change soon, but it is something I actively strive for.

I hope that someday, the generation that has been labeled as aggressively liberal can actually learn how to celebrate our differences and listen to one another, political preferences be damned. 

So, in short, that is why I care. As students, none of us want to die. We all want to feel safe. We all do the same homework, we all roll our eyes at our parents. There are commonalities that can be discovered despite serious separation otherwise, whether it be politically, racially, socioeconomically, or any of the others ways we often let ourselves be divided. 

The same can be said for voters. We all want something to believe in, we all want to be safe, we all have things we’re passionate about, and truly, we all need to understand each other to reach the solution we want. This was the most important thing I got out of being a student leader. This is a message that will stay with me as I move forwards, continue organizing, and strive to truly listen to what others have to say. 

Riley Stevenson is a student at Lincoln Academy.