You know them from their passionate speeches at the nation’s capital or from their faces on the cover of Time magazine.
They were the celebrity youth activists from Parkland who led marches and told the world “Never Again” after gun violence took the lives of 17 people at their high school in 2018. They are the teenagers who took it upon themselves to step up for gun-control legislation instead of waiting for adults or lawmakers to do it for them.
Today, some are in college, some are in the real world. Most no longer want the spotlight.
They have shrugged off the adult pressure to “fix” gun violence, acknowledged their struggles with delayed grief, and found new ways to effect change.
“We all have had to keep moving forward and living our lives in ways we deserve to live them,” said Jacyln Corin, one of the five March for Our Lives co-founders featured on the cover of Time magazine. “We needed to regain our sense of self.”
Corin attends Harvard University where she studies public policy and education policy. The activism in her past has shaped her future. She knows she doesn’t want to be in front of the camera or lead a march. “I learned I love to work behind the scenes to pass laws I care about,” she said.
Corin says she still helps with strategy for the youth-led March for Our Lives. But she has had to take a step back.
“We have done so much, as much as we could,” she said. “And though a lot has changed, it’s not enough to prevent all of this from continuing to happen. It’s not all the change we wanted, but it has been progress.”
On Valentine’s Day, 2018, a 19-year-old opened fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-16 rifle, killing 17 people and wounding 17. When the media arrived in the days after the shooting, these young, rise-to-the-occasion survivors grabbed the spotlight to advocate for gun control, and within weeks launched a nationwide movement that exposed hundreds of thousands of teens to activism. They led an initial march in Washington, D.C., followed with a 63-day tour around the country to meet victims of gun violence and people who lost their family members. They led school walkouts, held voter registrations, met with lawmakers and took part in town halls. They faced off against NRA supporters and gained hero-like worship from gun-violence victims.
Five years later, only a few of those organizers still want the label they once wore.
“I used to be a famous youth activist,” Delaney Tarr recently wrote in Teen Vogue.
Tarr, 22, said she has begun to unpack her time as a face of a movement and recover from the all-encompassing role she played in trying to mend a broken world.
She now sees herself in a supporting role in the fight against gun violence. A college graduate, Tarr writes for a small local newspaper in Georgia. “That passion and perspective is something I carry with me into my reporting,” she told the Sun Sentinel. “I think all of us take it with us as we hone in our passions.”
“We declared the problem could be solved. Each time there was another shooting, we felt at a complete loss. It kept happening and we felt responsible. That’s why some of us burned out so bad.”
— MSD graduate Delaney Tarr
As a group, the students made some strides toward more rigorous gun-safety policies, including raising the legal gun-purchasing age from 18 to 21 in Florida. Over time, Parkland-based March for Our Lives has become a national gun-control advocacy organization with 25 employees and a nearly $4 million budget.
When Tarr and the others moved on to college, they handed the organization they built to younger teens, knowing it was time. The lofty goal to make Stoneman Douglas the site of the last school shooting in America had taken a toll on their mental health.
“There was so much pressure when we boldly claimed we would put an end to gun violence,” Tarr said. “We declared the problem could be solved. Each time there was another shooting, we felt at a complete loss. It kept happening and we felt responsible. That’s why some of us burned out so bad.”
Thousands of miles away from Parkland, Cameron Kasky appreciates the distance.
“I couldn’t stay involved without losing my mind. It was really damaging to my mental health so I had to leave the organization,” said Kasky, whose Parkland home served as headquarters during the formation of March for Our Lives. On their Road to Change Tour, Kasky said parents who lost children to gun violence would hug them and say, “You are the first time I felt hope.” The expectations, he said, became overwhelming. “I felt like the biggest imposter in the world. We were kids.”
Kasky, 22, lives in Los Angeles where he works as an intern for an entertainment company. He wants to be a comedy writer and producer. His involvement in the fight against gun violence is through volunteer work rather than organized demonstrations in the nation’s capital or a blitz of media interviews on the need for gun control.
“Politics doesn’t need more Camerons,” he said. “I try to be supportive where I can. I think I can do more good raising money for political causes than stamping my feet and saying ‘Guys, you have to listen to me.’”
One of the most outspoken Parkland students, Emma Gonzalez, who now calls herself X, returned to South Florida after graduating from New College of Florida in the spring of 2022. She authored an article in The Cut in January, detailing her journey after Parkland and how it may influence her future.
Gonzalez, 23, wrote. “I see my March for Our Lives compatriots at protests once or twice throughout the year. I’m still trying to figure out what type of activism I want to engage in, since I don’t want to be passive for the rest of my life, but I cannot exist in the way that I used to. I don’t know how I’m alive after all that.”
Five years after the shootings, the anger, activism and action that Parkland survivors embraced in the March for Our Lives movement factors into their career paths in differing ways. Some are earning degrees in nonprofit management or politics. Some plan to go to law school. A few are going into full-time activism.
David Hogg, 22, the most recognizable face of March for Our Lives, continues to be an outspoken gun-control activist. He became famous within days after the shootings for showing anger toward a country that allows students to be killed in their classroom.
A senior at Harvard studying politics and the history of conservative movements, Hogg still speaks out against gun violence and in favor of banning assault weapons. He posts regularly on social media about gun control to his 1.2 million followers. He has lobbied in Washington, D.C., sparred with far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, and used lessons learned to find common ground with lawmakers in curbing gun violence, recently doing so in Texas after the shooting in Uvalde.
Hogg says he tries to balance activism with college life. This fall he juggled Thursday 9 a.m. weekly calls for the Maxwell Frost campaign with his classes and school activities. Frost is the young, March for Our Lives’ former national organizing director just elected to Congress.
“I also want to be a student and have fun and enjoy my life,” Hogg said. “That’s been a hard thing for me to grapple with because you feel guilty.”
Clearly, activism will be a part of his future career path, he said. “I have an interesting project that I am not ready to announce publicly yet that I am working on for after I graduate.”
A board member of March for Our Lives, he plans to continue in that position — for now. He also will work to elect leaders who care about issues like gun violence. Rather than running for office himself, he sees his role as getting multiple leaders from his generation elected at every level of government. “The only time I would seriously consider running for office,” he said, “is if I felt like that was the only avenue left for me to make change.”
Law school remains a possibility in the future, he said.
“I want to be hopeful. I’m obviously very cynical but I’m proud of what we have done, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. I don’t see giving up as an option. As a generation, we are going to outlive Ron DeSantis and the Supreme Court. That’s the most valuable asset anyone could have in politics,” he said.
Because the movement against gun violence has widened, he says, those who want to step out of the spotlight should do so.
“We are a community and people may need to take breaks or step back at times,” Hogg said. “If I need to take a step back, I know there are a thousand other people out there now doing that work.”
[ RELATED: Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg says ‘this time is different’ when speaking about gun violence ]
While Aalayah Eastmond, 21, may not be as well recognized as Hogg, she is as much a force in the anti-gun-violence fight.
Gun violence had touched Aalayah Eastmond’s life even before she hid under the body of a bullet-riddled classmate at Stoneman Douglas to avoid getting shot. Her 18-year-old uncle had been shot and killed when she was only 2.
A sophomore now at Trinity Washington University in D.C., Eastmond has testified before Congress and helped lead several high-profile protests, marches, and boycotts. She holds a position on the executive council member of Team Enough, the youth-led affiliate of Brady: United Against Gun Violence. She also is co-founder and core organizer of Concerned Citizens of D.C. and has organized and spoken at many Black Lives Matter protests.
For Valentine’s Day, she has organized a “Remembering Parkland 5 Years Later” event at her school.
“Before what happened in Parkland, I was more reserved and quiet. I had a lot to say but I was not the person to always say it,” she admits. “I was the only Black person in a lot of my classrooms growing up. That made me not as comfortable about sharing my opinion. After the shooting, I don’t know what got ahold of me, but I definitely felt a sense of anger and frustration and I couldn’t keep it inside.”
Eastmond says she tries to make the conversation about gun violence about the bigger picture, to include social justice and racial equality.
For now, she wants to be a lawyer, specifically a criminal defense attorney. She wants to ensure justice is distributed in a fair way, she says. One day, she even may run for a political office, inspired by Maxwell Frost.
[ OPINION: A plea to Congress to end gun violence: ‘I will never forget that day. What I saw. What I did.’ ]
By now, the students who declared “Never Again” recognize the fight against the powerful gun lobby and Second Amendment supporters is an uphill battle. Dozens more shootings have terrorized schoolchildren across the country, including on May 24, 2022, at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. Moreover, the sentencing trial of the Parkland killer who was spared the death penalty has been particularly tough for many to process.
Former MSD students like Sari Kaufman remain politically engaged, but more pragmatic.
“As a young person I was extremely optimistic when we were able to pass bills quickly, like the red-flag bill in Florida. Then, the real political climate hit. Now I see incremental change is necessary. It will take a lot of work,” she said.
At Yale University, Kaufman, 20, leads a Students Demand Action chapter of young activists committed to ending gun violence in the U.S. She draws on her experiences of asking politicians for change after running for her life in her high school hallway and knowing that 17 people didn’t make it out.
Kaufman said the stories from people she met as part of the March for Our Lives movement motivate her continued advocacy for gun control. “I probably will go to law school and hope to be the person who writes the policy and research on how to fund solutions to the problem in different ways.”
Advocacy is personal for Robert Schentrup, who wants to make things better for his generation.
Schentrup was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Central Florida when his 16-year-old sister Carmen was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Before the tragedy, he says he was “politically interested” but not “politically engaged.”
In the years since, Schentrup, 23, has graduated college and poured himself into addressing gun violence. He works on the organizing team for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and helps manage its youth program, called Team ENOUGH, which trains young people how to advocate for policy change at the state level.
“For a lot of folks, it’s hard to understand what this work looks like long-term,” he said. “They participate for a short time and leave.”
Schentrup, who lives in Seattle, said he took a short break from activism and then returned with new perspective.
“I feel hopeful and yet slightly discouraged,” he said. “I thought more would happen from 2018 to where we are at now. But I am hopeful because we have seen recent progress. Success can happen. There are a lot of us who care and put in a lot of work making sure a difference is made.”
Matt Deitsch, 25, says he wears the label of youth activist differently five years after serving as chief strategist for the March for Our Lives protests. Deitsch considers himself an artist with a specialty in political messaging. He worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign as a gun-violence prevention adviser, volunteers with grassroots causes, and is in the midst of creating a documentary.
March for Our Lives continues to be considered the most powerful American youth movement in decades. The co-founders who gamed out how to use social media to their advantage still use their platform to protest gun violence.
Deitsch said even those who now shun the spotlight recognize the skills they gained. “Our movement has stimulated a lot of political activity.”
When it comes to getting lawmakers to listen, the Parkland adults have become outspoken, too.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina, died in the Parkland shooting, said the students should get credit for focusing attention on gun violence in the early days when the families of the victims were grief-stricken from their losses.
But parents eventually did get politically involved, he said, citing the organization he now heads, Stand With Parkland. The organization is behind a number of school safety measures, threat assessment trainings. and school violence prevention laws.
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“Everybody had a part to play,” he said. “They played a part and did some good things, but we have taken it over.”
“Each time we pass a law or change a policy that makes students safer in schools, it extends the legacy of the loved one taken from us.”
— Parkland parent Tony Montalto
Montalto said he doesn’t consider what the parents are doing “activism” but rather legacy building.
“Activists are outside yelling. We are sitting in offices working with leaders on both sides of the aisle on state and federal level to find practical solutions,” he said. “Each time we pass a law or change a policy that makes students safer in schools, it extends the legacy of the loved one taken from us.”
He said, the adults realized long before the teenagers that solutions take time. Gun violence is a large problem that will require small wins, he said. “If we hold out for the end game, nothing will get done. We have to break it down into achievable goals.”
Diane Wolk-Rogers, a former teacher at Stoneman Douglas, said the combination of efforts is what will produce change.
“This problem is way too big for young people alone to fix,” she said. “The only way is for all generations to come together.”
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Krischer Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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