Three Lessons We Can Learn from the Parkland Students

Millennials get a lot of bad press. When I search “millennial” on Google, the first three hits are: “Millennials are killing…”, “Millennials are screwed”, and “Millennials are lazy.”  Put simply, we have an image problem.

Perhaps most concerning is the perception that young people are not engaged in public life. We receive most of our news from non-traditional sources. We have less interest in public institutions and political party structures. We rely on social media for much of our advocacy work. We don’t vote as frequently as other generations.  

But if the sheer scale of last weekend’s March for Our Lives events is any indication, then the perception of millennial apathy is just that: perception. Voting statistics show a decline in recent years in local elections. But other forms of civic engagement, such as volunteering for campaigns and contacting representatives, has held steady or even increased. Millennials are engaged, just in different ways. For instance, millennials, while typically more disillusioned with institutions than prior generations, are more likely to support corporate activism. We will boycott or support products and companies based on their political values. We are also much more likely than other generations to look favorably on CEO’s who take political stances.

Some argue that millennials are bringing political activism into places it doesn’t belong. Some of these differences in civic engagement have led to the opposite narrative that says millennials are over-involved, or at least overly sensitive.  Our entitlement, the narrative says, drives us to protest often and about frivolous things.

This is why it has been so startling and refreshing to some to see the Parkland survivors respond with such visible and potent determination to change the status quo.  On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz, armed with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The nation read the news in shock as yet another mass murder unfolded. To the surprise of some, many students at the high school spoke to the media not just about their grief, but about their political stances on gun control. They organized rallies, petitioned elected officials, and gained significant media attention. Citizens across the nation, many of them young students, rallied to their side. However, their sudden presence on the national stage has not been universally welcomed or appreciated. Many have questioned their motives, methods, and age, among other things. However, I contend that the teenagers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have shown us a model for civic engagement that we desperately need.  

This type of public action from young people is at the heart of what Shared Justice is about.

It disproves, or at least calls into question, some of the narratives that say that millennials aren’t engaged in civic life, or are only engaged in frivolities. Many of these students are too young to vote, yet they have found ways to impact the institutions that hold power in the gun control debate, including the elected officials and the media.  If millennials are to pursue civic engagement, now and in the future, the essential question is this: What does it look like for us to engage in the pursuit of public justice in a distinctly millennial way?

...the teenagers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have shown us a model for civic engagement that we desperately need.

First, the Parkland students have channeled rage and grief into a constructive plea for change. We watched in horror as this tragedy unfolded, and we mourned with them. I can’t imagine the difficulty of their deep pain and trauma being thrust into the national spotlight. Their tragedy has forced them to think about things that no one should have to consider. One student said that before the shooting, her priorities were organizing a car wash to raise funds for her class’ senior prom, a dance marathon coming up soon, and an Advanced Placement biology test that was scheduled for February. Instead, she found herself on a tear-filled bus to Tallahassee, where she and her classmates traveled to meet with elected officials. They were cautiously hopeful that meaningful change to gun laws could happen in Florida.

These students put together a forceful, organized response. This is the hardened steel of youthful passion when it has stared death in the face. They have demonstrated that human passion and pain can be directed toward building up instead of tearing down. They have constructed a message that the world has to reckon with; that message has not always been consistent or clear, but it always challenges the status quo of gun control. While not possessing a solidified platform, the Parkland students have asked for specific changes to gun laws, including bans of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as regulations that would make it harder for people with histories of mental illness to purchase firearms. They have made these specific requests without losing an ounce of their passion.  

Second, they have channeled that message toward the appropriate sources of power. The students have spent extended time, publicly and privately, with elected officials calling them to act. In just one trip to Florida’s capital, they scheduled multiple high-level meetings with Attorney General Pam Bondi, Florida Senate President Joe Negron, Speaker of the Florida House Richard Corcoran, and Democratic lawmakers from both the House and Senate.  

Why did the students choose government as their primary vehicle for change? Government has a unique role in public life, as it “bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.”  Gun laws are part of a larger picture of public safety that is under the purview of law-making bodies at the local, state, and federal levels. In the United States, states have had a great deal latitude in questions of gun control. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have tapped into a deep frustration with inaction. The dissatisfaction that many Americans feel is driven, in part, by the knowledge that government has not fulfilled its role in promoting public safety.  

Many institutions can and should be involved in the solutions to American gun violence. Law enforcement, gun-owner groups, and schools themselves all have a role to play. However, government has a unique role as the body responsible for passing legislation and as the primary public institution entrusted with the use of force. These students are right to challenge elected officials to respond to their constituents and to perform their God-given role within the political community, in which the government is accountable to citizens and citizens are under government, exhibiting a covental character of mutual obligation.  

Third, these students have claimed their power and responsibility as engaged citizens. They have discovered ways to capture the attention of the nation. They are utilizing the power of rhetoric in public speech and social media to amplify their message. Some might balk at the idea of claiming power, but that is what we mean when we say these students have “found their voice.”  They are pulling the levers that create change, claiming the authority of citizens in a democratic society. Young people really do care, and they can find a voice in the public square.

We don’t have to wait to make a meaningful contribution to the public square.  The Parkland students are demonstrating this as they petition legislators, leverage power through demonstrations, and present specific demands for change.  

My hope is that these brave students will inspire us to live more deeply into the vision we announce on our website:

We can’t afford to be a generation that gives up on political life. Many of us are fed up with partisan politics and government dysfunction. Often politics and the injustices we see in the world feel too messy, complex, and corrupt to step into. But checking out of politics is not the answer.

We believe that God actually calls us into that messy and complicated space as part of our service to Him.

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. Photo: March for Our Lives San Fransisco, courtesy of Roger Jones.