Students at the Workshop School design their own gun violence protest

During the National School Walkout, students sang, read poems that they had written and talked about how they would like to work with other youth to change gun laws.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Frustrated that the forms of gun violence in urban communities receive relatively little attention compared to suburban school shootings, students at the Workshop School in West Philadelphia are calling for students from urban and suburban school districts to work together for better gun laws.

And they don’t want teachers – or anybody, for that matter – to have guns.

The students at the innovative high school, which is designed around community projects, problem-solving, and active learning, organized their own protest during the national walkout Wednesday. They blocked the street and expressed their anger and grief about a system that allows so many deaths from gun violence.

Instead of observing 17 minutes of silence, one for each of the 17 Parkland, Florida, school shooting victims, the students were silent for one minute and spent the rest of the time singing, reading personal essays and poetry, and giving speeches calling for stricter gun control.

After assembling in the street outside their school, a student named Selina took the microphone and sang “We Shall Overcome.” (The students didn’t want to give their last names.)

A common theme among the speakers was calling attention the long-standing problem of gun violence in Philadelphia communities, which is common but does not take the form of school shootings.

Aliyah, a 9th grader, was one of the organizers. She said she was motivated to participate not only out of sympathy for the Parkland survivors, but also out of frustration about the lack of attention given to shootings in her own neighborhoods.

“This needs to stop. For us to support other people, we need support back,” she said. “We hear their voices, but we need to be heard also.”

Aliyah directed her words to the families of students who died in the Parkland shooting. She called for students around the country to join together in further acts of protest to push the country’s political apparatus into adopting stricter gun regulation.

“No one should have to go through this,” she said. “Many of us at the Workshop School can relate to the emotions that your families are feeling. I just lost my little brother and had to come to school feeling very angry and sad. But we’ve got to keep going, keep smiling, push through this, and form a union to stop gun violence.”

She elaborated that students from different communities should come together to advocate for solutions to the country’s loose gun control laws. When asked why the country has made so little progress, despite the popularity of strengthening gun regulations, she pointed to right-wing proposals that distract from the real problem.

“[The president] was talking about teachers getting guns, and I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said.

Kairi Hyler read an excerpt from the 2017 novel The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, in which the young protagonist becomes an activist after being a witness when police kill her unarmed friend.

“It would be easier to quit if it was just about me,” Hyler read. “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first — Emmett.”

The list of names connected the recent killings by police of unarmed black men and women to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose killers were known but not punished.

“Yet I think it will change one day,” he read. “How? I don’t know. When? I definitely don’t know. Why? Because there will always be someone ready to fight. Maybe it’s my turn.”

Nate read a poem he wrote about the hypocrisy of rural politicians who resist gun control legislation in the name of protecting hunting culture.

“What did hunters do to be more important than a child?” He paused. “I don’t know how many people die from gun violence, but I do know that a child lost their father, a mother had to bury her son for no reason, and the government did nothing and will continue to do nothing because their lives are not affected.”

Bashere Riley spoke about the pain of losing friends and the fear of growing up in a violent neighborhood with aggressive police.

“If you ever lost somebody, you know it’s hard. But if you lost somebody due to someone else taking their life, it’s definitely harder,” Riley said. “Due to poor gun control, I’ve lost three friends of mine. That’s three teens who are not going to have that chance to reach 21. Who’ll never have that option to go to college, never have that option to have kids, never have that option to see their little siblings grow up.”

“Last year, [age] 17 was what most kids were afraid to become, because at 17, we’re getting shot in the head. It’s scary to go outside. It’s scary to stay out late,” he said. “We aren’t just dying due to black teens or white teens, we’re dying due to cops, due to whoever — poor gun control and no real background checks.”

Stephaney helped organize the event and acted as one of the emcees. She encouraged students to attend the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., on March 24, organized by Parkland survivors. She encouraged students who can’t make it to Washington to attend the local Philadelphia march planned for the same day — one of 700 “sibling marches” around the country.

Stephaney said she and other student organizers realized they wanted to do something after talking about the shooting in their advisory class.

“We have a circle where we talk about our problems and any problems in the world,” she said. “When I first heard the news, I saw it on Instagram and I was just watching those videos over and over again. It was shocking. It was stuck in my head for two days.

“When I heard about the walkout I thought, let me just get this off my chest,” she said, adding that speaking openly about it made her feel “a little better.”

“I wanted to come out here to support [the Parkland students], but to get our voices heard, too,” she said. “Stop the shootings around our communities by not making it so easy for young people, or really any people, to get guns. We need background checks. What’s your real reason for getting a gun? We want to know.”

Certainly, guns should not be brought into school by anyone, Stephaney said.

“We don’t want teachers to have guns,” she said. “We don’t want schools to have metal detectors and police officers. Why not have more programs for students at the school, more initiatives to make us want to stay in school? And funding for more counselors. Instead of the whole school being dependent on one counselor, we should have five or even 10.”

Aliyah liked the idea.

“Instead of having 15 security guards inside a building, why not have 15 counselors?” she asked. “It would help kids get stuff off their chest and not feel like they’re targeted by police.”

Tahlia Smith-Kelley recited a poem she wrote called Never Again that asks students to look inside themselves and recognize how their thoughtlessness can affect others:

Never again will I take a life lightly Racial slurs or biased comments Never will I call someone too sensitive for taking a joke to the heart Never will I look at you and judge you by your looks or taste in things It’s easy to make a promise but hard to keep I can easily come up here say things I will change but never do Yes it’s possible for me to say I won’t but there will come a time where I forget I forget that my joke brings back past memories from your troubling times I forget about what you may be going through and laugh at the way you look or I forget that It’s something I may change in myself but others won’t and I may not even know Know that it eats you alive, sucking at your will to live And you may decide that others don’t deserve to live either, you take upon your own hands to pick up the gun and take something irreplaceable. People are able to change, we were born with that gift. But once we lose our lives, there is nothing we can change about that. Guns don’t change Their purpose is war Their reason is war Their life is war They’re the same all throughout the years, they take but never give They steal futures, beginnings and dreams. They aren’t here for protection, they weren’t made for protection. The same way humans can change they can create it. Rather than arming teachers with one of the biggest thieves in this country, how about arming them with the law? Instead of creating an environment where a kid can shoot up a school, create one where a kid doesn’t even know what the word gun means. Because it’s a leech to society and the reaper of dreams.