This presentation considers the recent events of police shootings and gun violence in school, at concerts, and in churches, and addresses the responses of young people in the wake of such events. Young people nationwide are keeping the issue of gun violence in the news and protesting powerful lobbying organizations (e.g., NRA) in order to move the country and policymakers on issues of gun laws. Social work has utilized three distinct frameworks to understand the process of youth civic engagement (i.e. policy process, positive youth development (PYD), social justice), yet often the organizing efforts of young people are underrepresented in this literature. This research examines the questions: what are the theoretical underpinnings of the youth-led anti-gun violence movement? How can theoretical frameworks deepen our understanding of the motivations, meanings, and sustainability of youth-led civic engagement?
This presentation is based on a research study using content analysis of publically available media (e.g. newspapers, podcasts, etc.). The analysis provides a summary timeline of youth engagement spanning from the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown to the protests in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland High School shooting. These events are analyzed through three youth civic engagement frameworks. Using deductive analysis, we explore the theoretical underpinnings of the youth-led anti-gun violence activism. We then use the three frameworks to understand the practices, tactics, and relationships built between 2014-2018. The national reactions and dialogue around the student-led protests are also analyzed.
What began as an unconventional social movement – understood through a social justice lens – is perhaps turning into conventional and policy-focused engagement. A key takeaway from this movement has been the unique position taken by young people. This may also explain the move towards inclusivity after Parkland leaders garnered massive attention. Youth leaders have tactfully balanced their position as both without rights and “not the ones in charge”, while also pushing forward their agenda as innocent victims of gun violence. Statements by Parkland leaders suggest a move towards voter registration, which shifts the civic engagement towards a more formal policy process – typically a more sustainable and direct relationship with governmental decision-makers.
Conclusions and Implications
Results contribute to theory and practices of youth civic engagement, and bring social work’s attention to the need for greater youth voice within social policy, practice, education, and research. Over the past four years, from Ferguson to Parkland, the national response to gun violence has changed dramatically, suggesting that race and place play a vital role in how youth-led protest have been received. Remarkably, the efforts to bring attention to gun violence has been youth-initiated, youth-led, and with a heavy emphasis on inclusivity and national mobilization. This unconventional movement aligns with the social justice (e.g. participatory rights) framework of youth civic engagement. While the impact on national and state policy is yet to be determined, there is evidence that a generation of young people have been inspired to participate in and influence civic life.