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Why These Black Students Are Taking Action on Gun Violence Prevention

In Fall 2023, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Morgan State University and Bowie State University in Maryland, Jackson State University in Mississippi, and Prairie View A&M University in Texas experienced shootings on campus during homecoming week. These shootings turned a time intended to promote campus unity and school spirit into a time of fear—yet more instances of gun violence marring what should be an innocent time in young adulthood.

In November, Everytown for Gun Safety hosted its inaugural Young Black Changemakers Summit, designed to nurture the next generation of Black leaders to support their dedication to advocacy, addressing the gun violence crisis, and community support. Many of the attendees were gun violence survivors, including some who experienced shootings on their campus only days or weeks before attending the Summit.

We spoke with two of these students about what it meant to take part in the Summit, what they took away from the experience, and what gives them hope moving forward.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to you personally to attend an HBCU?

  • Valencia Green (she/her), Jackson State University

    To me, attending an HBCU means being around excellence. I don’t like to limit that description to “Black excellence” because I feel like it keeps us in a box—it is just incredible to be surrounded by amazing, young, excellent people, and to be unapologetically Black.

  • Chanelle Ferrell (she/her), Prairie View A&M University

    Being at an HBCU means everything to me—no exaggeration. I feel safe here to bask in being Black. I am surrounded by other Black students who all have the same goal: to obtain a higher education and aim for the successes that our careers hold. While attending the illustrious Prairie View HBCU, I have had the honor of learning in depth about how my university was founded and the legislation that was pushed into place by people who look just like me. My ancestors believed we belonged in and deserved the right to education, and all I can do is thank them and soak in the education I am pursuing.

What are you studying in school, and how do you feel like your education is being shaped by the community and educators at your university?

Valencia: I am studying political science, and living in Mississippi—especially in Jackson—has made me want to do more and to be more involved in politics. I want to figure out what we can do to help make this state a better state. Seeing everyone live in a world where they just complain about injustice—without actually doing anything to change it—is motivating me to fight harder to improve things, because people shouldn’t have to live like this. 

Chanelle: I am a political science major concentrating in legal studies, and my education is the reason I came to Prairie View in the first place. I have always been a community-oriented person, and I love to understand the history of how we got here and uplift the people who live in my community. At Prairie View, I have had the opportunity to help create jobs on campus within student housing. I sit as chairwoman for the Political Science Club, where we get involved with other grassroots organizations and push policy to our representatives. I am also chairwoman of the Blackstone Pre-Law Society, where we learn and obtain the skills to enrich our education, pursue law school, and give back to our people through volunteering and holding drives for the Waller, Texas community.

How did you hear about the Young Black Changemakers Summit? Why did you choose to attend?

Valencia: I heard about the Summit through the platform Handshake. I chose to attend so I could learn more about the crisis of gun violence and about the ways I can make an impact in my communities to help stop this violence.

“The world is at our fingertips. We must stay active in the things we want to change.”

Chanelle Ferrell, student at Prairie View A&M University

Chanelle: My academic advisor told me about the Summit back in September. I chose to attend the Summit in memory of my Uncle Thomas, who died this summer due to gun violence. He was murdered, but justice still hasn’t been served, so I continue to advocate for him in any way that I can—whether that means lobbying even more with my fellow community members, or getting involved in more grassroots organizing to take pivotal actions to strengthen gun laws.

My community and I have been adamant about gun control for quite some time: Gun violence seeps through our community, and we strive to be a voice for those in our city who cannot directly advocate for gun control themselves. We consistently go to our district and city council representatives to emphasize that we want stricter gun laws for the safety of our community and the greater Houston city.

What stood out to you from the Summit? What was the energy like, and how did you feel in the space?

Valencia: The energy in the room was light on the surface, but there was also so much depth—it felt like home. It was eye-opening, shocking, and amazing to be there. I particularly appreciated the conversation between Michael McCall and Ronald Grey, who shot Mr. McCall years ago. Although Mr. McCall survived the shooting, he has used a wheelchair since, and he will continue to do so for the rest of his life. Years after this tragic incident, the two men agreed to do a panel discussion for this Summit about their experience. 

Seeing that type of healing was so powerful to experience—I honestly don’t think I could demonstrate the same degree of forgiveness that these two men gave to each other if I were in the same situation.

Chanelle: What stood out to me the most was that all students were connected to gun violence in a personal way. We had all lost someone, or a piece of ourselves, but we were all there in the face of adversity. Because of that, the energy in the room was heavy at times—not the type of heavy that you run away from, but the type of heavy where you lean in and console each other. We were all affected by the same type of violence and we could all relate to each other; we grieved together, we cried together, we hugged each other, and we will continue to fight against gun violence together. 

I felt safe at the Summit because it felt like we were all on the same mission together. I was not alone: I was surrounded by love, by open arms, and by so many other powerful students who go out and make changes just like I do. I learned from so many students, and I even got to be a mentor to some.

You attend an HBCU that experienced a shooting during Homecoming Week. How were you personally impacted by this horrific incident during what was supposed to be a positive time for your campus? How did your peers and your campus respond?

Valencia: I was personally saddened to hear about the loss of our fellow student here at Jackson State University. A lot of my friends were emotionally affected by the shooting and didn’t really know how to move forward from this tragedy. The campus community has come together to support each other, to show support for the student’s family, and to just try to be there for the greater campus community as much as possible.

Chanelle: When I first heard about the shooting, I could not believe it. I immediately contacted my friends, who I knew had gone on the trail ride where the incident happened. I later learned that seven people were injured. I was happy to hear that there were no fatalities, but couldn’t just stand by when I knew that there were still victims and children who were harmed. I sent some resource links to the trail ride event promoters in the hopes that they would pass helpful information along to the victims, and I took the initiative to ask the Political Science Club to make a statement on gun violence—and we did. Our statement shed light on and held space for the victims, and we also shared our stance on what we thought about gun control and how effective change needs to happen.

“We have to stop sweeping gun violence under the rug and hoping that it will go away without taking meaningful action to address it.”

Valencia Green, student at Jackson State University

What was it like to attend the Young Black Changemakers Summit just days after this shooting incident? What did the Summit mean to you in light of this?

Valencia: To put it simply, attending the Summit just days after the shooting made me want to do more and to soak in everything I could about organizing and gun violence prevention.

Chanelle: The Summit meant everything. I want to honor the students who were injured and the employee who was killed in the shootings that impacted Prairie View, I want to honor the people whose lives have been lost to gun violence in the U.S., and I want to honor my Uncle Thomas. The Summit provided information about how to start grassroots organizing effectively and also gave some knowledgeable information about how to help start an organization or non-profit. Attending the Summit just days after the shooting has encouraged me to create a non-profit that strives to address gun violence that impacts marginalized communities in Houston.

What do you want people outside of your campus to understand about gun violence and its impact?

Valencia: I want people outside of my campus to understand that gun violence is a serious issue. Just because it doesn’t affect you directly doesn’t mean that we should avoid focusing on it. We have to stop sweeping gun violence under the rug and hoping that it will go away without taking meaningful action to address it.

Chanelle: Gun violence can be the end of us. Absolutely anyone can be affected by gun violence, whether it is by the hands of someone else or through your own actions. Yet rates of gun violence are especially high within historically marginalized communities, especially in neighborhoods that include Black and brown people. We must continue to educate ourselves on what gun violence is and how we can effectively prevent it. 

What are you taking away from the Summit?

  • Valencia, Jackson State University

    The storytelling session I attended at the Summit was impactful. I feel like talking and using my voice is when I have the most impact on other people, so learning about how to tell stories well and how to teach other people who have a story to tell feels like the best tactic I can use with this organization. I am making sure I bring back what I learned from the Summit and will be using my voice to charter a Students Demand Action chapter on my campus, Jackson State University.

  • Chanelle, Prairie View A&M University

    I took away a lot from the Summit, especially from the guest speakers who were there. I learned to start both accepting and letting go of things—holding things in is not healthy. The Summit affirmed that I deserve to be heard and that I should tell my own story proudly because someone else might need to hear my own to gain the power to tell their own story. I took away that forgiveness is vital, and that moving on is okay—and that moving on to create something new is okay. I was reminded that people are in my corner: All I have to do is be myself. Following the Summit, I am inspired to create a non-profit, the idea of which has been in the back of my head for a while. With the information that key speakers gave to us at the Summit, I have already set calls in place to make my vision of this non-profit come to fruition.

What would you say to your peers who might want to get involved in making a difference, but are unsure of where to start?

Valencia: I would say to stop being scared to talk to somebody. Start telling people your ideas, and start trying to make your ideas an actual vision—because I promise you, there’s somebody in the world who feels the same way that you do. I was so scared to speak out, but I want to make an actual impact on Jackson State University’s campus, and I just can’t wait to get started.

Chanelle: The world is at our fingertips. We must stay active in the things we want to change. Creating a blog, sharing a post, and reaching out all help to make a difference.

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