ARTICLE

Youth—United! #Enough in South Central Los Angeles

Marco Vargas, a leader with Students Demand Action and a senior at Nava College Preparatory Academy, is working to keep his school and his community safe from gun violence.
Photo by AJ+

Can you start by explaining how you came to be involved with Students Demand Action, an organization whose goal is to “end gun violence in America”? 

One of my friends was involved in a domestic violence incident where her stepfather used a legally purchased gun to change everybody's life and impact the community. He hospitalized my friend and her little brother. He committed suicide by the end of the night. ... That’s where I found the motivation to take action, to say, “Wow, I really need to do something about this.” 

There are so many people in my community who want to take action. It’s about having someone to chime in, to lead and to host events that empower us as a community. I became a spokesperson, leading conversations, hosting conference calls and holding member meetings. 

 

What do you think it would take to decrease gun violence?  

Part of the normalization of gun violence in my community has to do with the surrounding environment. I think for decades South Central residents have suffered psychologically. We don’t have enough counselors available at school. There is one counselor at my school. It took two years to fund a psychologist on campus. That psychologist is working before school, during school and after school, but it’s still not enough to deal with the issues that are occurring.  

Many of the issues are carrying over from home to school, so you only see a glimpse of a student acting out or exhibiting behaviors that are very abnormal. We need to fund positions that can reach outside of campus, community mediators who can speak to parents and investigate what’s going on with a student and what’s holding them back from receiving a high-quality education.  

 

What legislative action around gun violence would you like to see? 

My peers and I are interested in extending the waiting periods for gun purchases. We think, just like when you purchase a car, you should think about all of the implications about bringing a gun into your household and how you’re going to safely take care of the weapon inside your house. ... [But] I don’t necessarily think change has to come through legislative action. 

My school adopted an autonomous pilot school system. [We have] this outstanding structure where parents, students, teachers and faculty run the school. The district doesn’t tell us what positions to fill, how to fill a calendar.

We fund positions that we find necessary, and that has allowed us to fund psychologists. We have funded a PSA [Pupil Services and Attendance] counselor who can do the home visits that staff can’t. We have built in space so that teachers can stay after school and be paid to tutor kids and have conversations that can’t take place within most high schools. 

 

How do you see your work intersecting with the activism of the Parkland students?  

We’re working to spread awareness and take action to prevent mass shootings, especially in schools. We help students register to vote as soon as they’re 18—or at 16 when they can pre-register for local elections. 

We’ve planned school-wide assemblies. We did one that was outstanding: We had a lot of awesome speakers show up. Students were leading community circles, so audience members could hear the discussion. 

We also participated in the walkout. It went very well. Administrators actually supported us: They walked out with us. It was great. 

 

What are you all working on now? 

We’re starting to demand legislation for common-sense gun laws. After that will come voter registration and working at the polls. We’re working to pre-register our whole school—both schools on our campus. That’s 2,800 students who potentially can pre-register and register to vote in our local elections this June. 

 

“We are a driving force for elections, and we are a driving force for this nation.” You said that in your interview with AJ+. How do you think your generation’s participation in the democratic process will bring about change? 

I think voter turnout in the nation has historically been low. We see that with the presidential elections where only around 50 percent of legal voters are actually attending the polls. We need to motivate people to participate in the democracy.  With so much disillusionment in the hearts of eligible voters, we need to change people’s perspective so they can see that—regardless of what’s going on in national politics—they can still do so much in their local communities. It starts with volunteering, speaking to people, taking a leadership role. 

I began that way. I was given the facts and I was just astonished. That’s where I began. I did my own PowerPoints. I did my own presentations. The next thing you know, I was wholeheartedly into this movement and making sure I can make the world a better place in my own way.   

 

The TT community is made up of educators, and we often hear from them that they want to support student activism. What can they do to support you—individually and collectively? 

I would strongly recommend that educators host community circles in their peer groups, especially if they’re dealing with a classroom of students. There’s a lot of rigidity surrounding how teaching is done. But you can facilitate a discussion for students to voice their concerns. 

There could be a prompt, a main question. They could write down their thoughts and share them aloud. I’ve seen that method of teaching to be highly effective on my campus. I would highly recommend it.  

 

You’ve done so much work in your school and your community. As you prepare to graduate and go on to college, how do you plan to continue making your voice heard? 

I’m sure that there will be so many people wanting to get involved who have connections all across the nation. We can take action on campus. We can start a platform on social media. We can continue to do what we’ve done with our friends, to speak to each other about the statistics and what’s going on with gun violence. 

It shouldn’t just be a moment, especially the Parkland incident. A lot of people are saying that it may just be a moment, but it’s not just that. It’s about turning it into a movement.  

Bell is the senior editor for Teaching Tolerance.

Ehrenhalt is the grants and school programs manager for Teaching Tolerance.