Hear Paul Rochford chat with civic leaders and Civics 2.0 students in the audio version of this story below or wherever you get your podcasts. (14:14)
Some Cleveland Metropolitan School District students are concerned with the problem of gun violence across the city and nationwide, and they want to do something about it.
They say it’s about time young people take over the anti-gun-violence movement, which, in their view, has gone stale.
Chardon Black, an 11th grader at Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, spoke in December at a student-run symposium addressing gun violence, telling his peers that youth need to step up and revitalize the movement.
“The youth have a completely different view on the world and how to solve its problems,” he said. “And that perspective is priceless.”
As part of this event, hundreds of young Clevelanders created action plans, starting with their schools and communities. After refining their plans with the help of some civic leaders, the students are hoping to meet with lawmakers in Columbus in March.
Students from 23 Cleveland high schools met in a gymnasium to listen to a panel of experts–people whose lives have been changed by gun violence.
The students participate in their schools’ chapters of a program called Civics 2.0, where they learn and live civics education. The program involves activities including blogging, campaigning to register students to vote, and organizing forums on different issues.
Students gave speeches and read poetry. Then a panel of experts spoke for about an hour-–including a former Cuyahoga County sheriff and an emergency care physician who’s worked with victims of gun violence. Also on the panel was Makayla Barlow, a graduate of Campus International High School and former Civics 2.0 participant. She survived being shot in the head while driving in East Cleveland last year.
After the presentations, the students got their chance to talk.
Students split up by school to reflect on the stories and advice from the adults. They were tasked with creating an action plan for their school aimed at preventing and eliminating gun violence.
Each plan needed to contain a statement from the school team on the impact of gun violence on the community and an underlying cause that the plan would address.
Not just a school project
Lavora “Gayle” Gadison, CMSD’s social studies content manager and the faculty advisor for the Civics 2.0 program, said not to use the word “project” to describe the action plans because, in her mind, these are no ordinary school projects. This is work students are doing to improve life in Cleveland neighborhoods and communities, she said, and maybe save some lives.
And they are being paid for it. High school students involved in the program receive a $500 gift card each semester, and 8th graders get $250. The program is in its second year.
Once student action plans were finalized in late January, Gadison assembled a group of adult leaders to read through the plans and provide feedback.
She told them not to be too gentle in their criticism and to give the students suggestions of ways to improve their plans.
Gadison said the plans need to be realistic. She said students plan to share the results with state legislators in Columbus in March.
Each group of judges rated different aspects of the plans and provided recommendations to make them stronger.
The judges included a few of the symposium speakers and several parents of students whose lives were lost to gun violence. Many of those judges are moms who have joined anti-gun-violence groups including Stop the Pain, Moms Demand Action and the Musketeer Association.
Some favorite proposals included a plan to support survivors, a plan to increase awareness and public concern over gun violence, and one with a catchy title, Teens Against Gun Violence, or TAG.
Sharena Zayed, who lost her 15-year-old son, Amir Bradley, to gun violence in 2020, said she loved how students focused on more than just politics.
“They are thinking of more basic things like conflict resolution and apathy and things like that, like how we interact with each other as humans,” she said.
Judges also offered advice to students about activism work and about navigating the bureaucratic systems of the adult world.
“I would just say it takes time and dedication for results,” one judge said.
Michelle Bell, founder of M-PAC Cleveland, an organization of families affected by gun violence, also lost her son, Andre Brown, to a fatal shooting. She said students should study the history of efforts to control gun violence. And the politics of it.
“You’ve just got to understand the history [of activism] so as not to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
How did this student initiative start?
Gadison said the Civics 2.0 program’s goal is to create a new generation of advocates, and this year, the focus issue is gun violence.
After speaking with folks at city hall, it seemed as though no adults in power had any real suggestions for addressing the problem, she said.
But she has seen students take the problem seriously, and she wanted to amplify their voices.
Gadison invited Barlow, the former student who survived a gunshot, to speak at this year’s student symposium. She’s not only taken the issue seriously, but has become an activist and a leader.
Even though Barlow graduated, she’s come back to work with the civics students and organized the Civics 2.0 Rapid Response Team, which will distribute crisis packs to families affected by gun violence. Gadison said she hopes to pilot this idea soon.
Stephen Conner, Gadison’s assistant, is another student who helped lead the symposium and action plan work.
Conner graduated from Campus International High School in 2022, where he participated in Civics 2.0, and now he is working with Gadison. He helped plan the symposium for high schoolers and the one for eighth graders. He moderated the panels at both of those events.
This article was updated for clarity on Monday, February 13th.