HOUSTON — Perched on a sofa outside a hotel ballroom where 300 of their fellow activists attended a seminar on diversity and inclusion, the three newest board members for March for Our Lives — all young black women — ate bowls of Apple Jacks and discussed the organization’s struggle with race.
“When March for Our Lives first arose from Parkland, and there’s a bunch of white kids getting millions of dollars from all these people, I’m like, What about Black Lives Matter? What about my cousin who was shot and killed and there was no justice for him?” said Bria Smith, 18, from Milwaukee. “I was bitter from that perspective because I didn’t see representation and people don’t understand how important representation is.”
So Smith — along with her fellow newly elected board members, Ariel Hobbs from Houston and Tyah-Amoy Roberts from Parkland, Florida — decided to be the change they were seeking.
But change hasn’t come easily.
In the year after a group of teens were thrust into the spotlight following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead, MFOL became a powerful cultural and political movement recognized around the globe. Cofounders such as Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Emma González, and Jaclyn Corin became household names. They gave countless interviews and appeared on the covers of magazines. They attracted hatred and hoaxes. They confronted a National Rifle Association spokesperson during a CNN town hall. Just weeks after the mass shooting, they organized a star-studded march on Washington, DC, that drew hundreds of thousands of people and inspired more than 800 sister events around the world.
Ultimately, the group embarked on a summer bus tour to talk about gun violence and registered 50,000 new voters.
“A blur” is how Corin described 2018.
Since then, though, the group has had to take a step back to reorganize, strategize, and own up to the mistakes it has made along the way — particularly regarding the lack of diversity among its predominantly white and privileged founders from Parkland. Even MFOL, with its popularity, thousands of supporters, and millions of dollars in donations, was not immune to the challenges fast-growing movements face.
This year, the national group has mostly remained out of the limelight, not having hosted an official event or campaign. But the desperate need for a massive gun violence prevention movement to again dominate the national agenda is clear — since Parkland, men with white supremacist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, and other motives have shot up synagogues, a garlic festival, yoga studios, and street barbecues, culminating in the most recent nationwide series of mass shootings in a single weekend.
Just days before 31 people were killed in two mass shootings hours apart, about 300 young people from around the country had gathered in Houston for the first national summit held by MFOL, titled “Our Power,” offering the chance for members of local chapters to come together in one place for the first time to strategize on the movement’s future.
BuzzFeed News was the only media outlet allowed to attend the three-day summit, although certain sessions and events were closed to the press.
Many of the changes MFOL implemented may appear mundane but are important, including hiring nine paid regional directors to improve communication among local chapters and electing a national board of directors.
“You start off in any kind of movement — you have some triggering event that makes something happen, and that’s this huge bang, but then you’ve got to get down and build an infrastructure and build something sustainable, something that can last and have long-standing power,” Charlie Mirsky, a cofounder of MFOL, said.
The summit felt “like a huge family reunion for kids across the country that don't share a blood lineage per se, but share a lineage of suffering and oppression,” said Hogg, one of the most recognizable faces of the movement.
González, whose trademark shaved hair has grown out several inches, seemed in a perpetual state of motion, hugging everyone. Marcel McClinton, an 18-year-old gun violence prevention activist who survived a mass shooting outside his church in 2016, attended a few sessions before returning to campaign for a seat on the Houston City Council. Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, was killed in the massacre at nearby Santa Fe High School last year, dropped by on the first day to pass around chocolate chip cookies.
Corin, long known as the movement’s behind-the-scenes chief organizer, checked people in upon arrival. For Corin, the summit was her “last shebang” before she takes a step back from MFOL to begin college at Harvard University — Hogg will also attend Harvard next month.
The summit was also a chance for the movement’s cofounders to clear the path for new leaders to take the helm of MFOL.
So for three days, about 300 activists camped out in an airport hotel to learn how to organize in high schools and colleges, recognize privilege, and properly convey the MFOL message to the press. Experts from a Harvard graduate program taught them political organizing skills. González led a workshop on “dealing with haters.” March for Our Lives — which receives its funding from donations — covered the entire cost of the invite-only summit.
During his opening remarks, Hogg, also an elected student board member, declared that the “movement is much more than myself or any other person,” stressing — as he has repeatedly since the movement launched in Parkland — that MFOL focuses on all forms of gun violence, including suicide by firearm, school shootings, urban gun violence, and police violence, particularly against people of color.
But people of color haven’t always felt welcomed. Roberts, 18, publicly called out the founders of MFOL for ignoring their black classmates, including herself, just weeks after the Parkland shooting. She is now using her new role as a national board member to push the issue.
“I had classes with these same cofounders,” she told BuzzFeed News in a joint interview with Smith and Hobbs on a sofa outside the hotel ballroom. “As soon as they came out and everybody was like, ‘Oh, you're not being inclusive,’ the first thing they did was go all the way to Chicago, and I'm like, There are literally black people sitting in your classroom who you know are intelligent and capable and ready to do this work.”
Hobbs, 21, said that diversity — of race, background, gender, disability, and experience — has long been discussed among MFOL leadership but that sometimes action is misguided or nonexistent. She said she has watched nonblack MFOL leaders on panels retell her story, without her permission, about how domestic violence affected the women in her family.
“There are some people that prioritize being inclusive over others,” said Hobbs, adding that inclusivity and diversity within the movement have improved in the year since she joined.
“Has it been delayed? Yeah,” she said. “But I mean, it’s natural when you have a thousand different things going on and all the founders being pulled in different directions. ... Now I feel like they finally sat down and made an effort and have been like, ‘Hey, look, something’s up. This is a problem.”
In a later interview, sitting in the hotel lobby restaurant, Hogg acknowledged that MFOL was still a work in progress. “I don’t believe that there is a finish line when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “I think we’ve messed up a lot in the past without recognizing it because we thought we were good and we thought it was that finish line.”
Hogg said it took members from within the organization continually calling out leadership “for us to actually work towards fixing it.”
On the second day of the summit, the six members of the nine-member national board in attendance were introduced onstage in front of signs that read, “Speak Truth to Power” and “Let the Youth Lead.”
“Your voice matters,” Hobbs declared to the crowd. “If you don’t see yourself represented in this organization, come to me.”
Corin told BuzzFeed News that one of the biggest regrets within the organization was not reaching out sooner to students who started local MFOL chapters.
“That’s really something that I think slowed us down for a few months — that if we had created stronger relationships in April, we could have been even stronger than we are now,” she said.
And it’s the local chapters that have kept most busy organizing events and campaigns. The state director of MFOL Maryland, Jaxon O’Mara, 18, is pushing hard for the Democrat-led state legislature to adopt a safe storage bill, after a classmate used his father’s gun to shoot and kill 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey last year at Great Mills High School.
“That is the one bill that I feel could have saved what happened to my school,” said O’Mara.
March for Our Lives Iowa is already in full 2020 campaign mode, said cofounder Kevin Drahos. On July 20, they hosted Dance for Our Lives, a voter registration event, and invited every Democratic presidential candidate. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg recorded video messages of support, but none of the candidates actually showed up, which deeply frustrated Drahos.
“We want every frontrunner to be addressing the issue, and if they’re not, we take serious issue with that,” Drahos said.
At 14, London Delgado was one of the youngest attendees at the summit. In the fall, she will start at Santa Fe High School, where 10 people were shot and killed last year. Very few in the conservative community called for gun reform after the shootings, instead focusing on private grieving and calls to harden the school’s defenses.
“I’m really proud of this movement and how it’s growing, but at my school I’m afraid if I say anything, I would get bullied or talked about just for being in March for Our Lives,” Delgado said.
But the summit had given her confidence to be more open with her activism and finally start a Santa Fe chapter of MFOL.
One of the few attendees not already a MFOL member was Michael Filmore, a 17-year-old activist from Denver. He spoke openly about his concern that the organization did not seem to be doing enough to uplift black and brown voices directly affected by gun violence, especially given the group’s resources.
Filmore said he grew up in poverty, surrounded by violence on the South Side of Chicago, having seen his first dead body by the age of 10. His father had been absent and his older brother had been in and out of jail for years.
After his mother escaped her abusive partner — who had moved them to Colorado — they were left homeless. A man he’d spent years playing basketball with and considered his brother, Khobi Eiland, was shot and killed in Denver in September. His death propelled Filmore to find a job at Denver Public Health as a youth adviser in gun prevention.
“I wanted to figure out a platform so that I would not jump into a recurring cycle of retaliation and trying to avenge my brother,” said Filmore.
Just before Filmore spoke with BuzzFeed News, MFOL cofounder Matt Deitsch approached him privately to apologize and discuss racist joke tweets he’d sent five years earlier (Deitsch apologized publicly for the tweets in April). Filmore wanted the issue addressed in a session where people of color could discuss concerns about race and representation within the movement — something Deitsch said he was open to doing.
“I'm really inspired by people that are checking each other and checking me,” Deitsch told BuzzFeed News.
But the questions about race and the tweets clearly concerned MFOL leaders. Around a dozen black and brown students, including Filmore, gathered for an emergency confidential meeting with Deitsch and other MFOL cofounders in the yoga and relaxation room. A handwritten sign that read “closed” was hung on the door. They emerged an hour later laughing and headed off to eat cake and watch the Democratic debate.
After the summit, Filmore told BuzzFeed News that he was still not sure he wanted to join MFOL but was considering it. “I would need to feel valued,” he said. ●