Youth activists take on gun control

Members of the youth activist group Coalition Z, founded by three Dalton School students, are helping coordinate student efforts to push for gun control. Photo: Bryson Wiese
Student network with Dalton roots plans action in wake of Parkland shooting

By Michael Garofalo

As New York City students prepare to participate in nationwide school walkouts in response to last month’s Parkland, Fla. school shooting, Coalition Z, a youth network founded by three high school students at the Dalton School, is seeking to leverage the energy of the moment into policy action on gun control.

The nationwide school walkouts planned for March 14 will mark one month since a gunman killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and will last 17 minutes to honor each of the victims. New York City public schools will not penalize students who participate in the walkouts with parental permission, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced last week.

Following the walkouts, Coalition Z plans to host an “Evening of Action” at the 15th Street Quaker Meetinghouse to organize student efforts to lobby elected officials on gun control legislation, urge gun retailers to stop selling military-style rifles and take other steps to perpetuate the youth-led gun reform movement.

The event grew out of a desire to tie the ideals of the demonstration to activism aimed at promoting tangible policy changes, Coalition Z co-founder Bryson Wiese, a 17-year-old junior at Dalton, said. “A common concern that came up was that walking out of school for 17 minutes carries dramatic optics from a political perspective, but at the end of the day it can feel a little bit like ‘thoughts and prayers,’” Wiese said. “Many of our members wanted to connect the walkouts to action that was more direct and more concrete.”

“Our goal is to turn the passion of the walkouts into concrete policy demands and into infrastructure that can actually effect political and corporate action,” he added.

Coalition Z was formed by Wiese and two of his Dalton classmates in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, which prompted student walkouts in a number of city schools. The group has since organized students around various progressive issues and causes, including voting rights and health care, and now has over a dozen chapters in four states.

“After the Trump walkouts there was this moment of everyone coming together and agreeing that we needed change, and not waiting for adults to tell us what to do or to be given a list of instructions,” Coalition Z co-founder Zoe Davidson, 17, said. “Kids really just got out there and started to try to fix the problems that they saw. That started with Trump, in my opinion, but it has continued on and been amplified by the student leadership in Parkland.”

The Coalition Z organizers said that students at the event will hear speeches from gun control activists, plan for the nationwide March for Our Lives demonstrations on March 24, and register eligible high schoolers to vote.

“There’s this conundrum that young people face because we cannot participate in our democracy through voting,” Coalition Z co-founder Alex Lehman, 16, said. “We have to sort of work to find other channels or pathways for impact. So we’re thinking about how we can take this energy and turn it into something productive.”

Mobilizing MSD Alumni, a nationwide network of former Marjory Stoneman Douglas students formed in the wake of the shooting, will also have a presence at the event. Jessica Stillman, a 1999 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas who is now a teacher at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, is a regional coordinator for the alumni group and reached out to Coalition Z to coordinate their efforts.

Mobilizing MSD Alumni is currently raising money to send Parkland students to the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24. Stillman said she plans to participate in the march in New York.

“Something I’m planning on doing at the event is having this big banner that says ‘New York City Schools Unite’ and having all of the kids sign it will their names and schools,” Stillman said. “The vision I have is all of these students marching behind this banner and showing this strength and support to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and to the cause.”