David Hogg and Samantha Fuentes — young activists and survivors of the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida — recounted the lessons they learned spearheading a movement that has made waves in politics and the media in a talk to Cornell students on September 28.
Fuentes called herself an “accidental activist,” someone who once was a “bystander, uneducated, uninterested, and more than anything, numb” to social problems, such as gun violence.
But after the deadly shooting, during which Fuentes was shot in the legs and “riddled with shrapnel,” she became “absorbed” into activism to “influence other survivors of gun violence to share their stories in order to enact change for the better.”
Hogg similarly said that his journey to high-profile activist was an accidental twist of tragic fate.
In first grade, when Hogg struggled with learning to read due to dyslexia and “possibly ADD,” he was plagued by insecurity and “felt like a broken toy.”
When Hogg was 15, he and his family moved to Florida. There, Hogg overcame his childhood insecurities and found a “passion for speech and debate” — where debate topics on universal background checks served as an introduction to gun policy — as well as photography, TV production and “telling others’ stories.” Those activities set the stage for Hogg’s future role in gun violence prevention activism.
Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland was “a freezing cold day of about 55 degrees,” Hogg joked before diving into the day’s tragic events. He was in his AP Environmental Science class when he heard the first telltale “pop.”
“My table partner and I both looked at each other, and it’s a look that I will never forget, because it’s a look that only our generation knows, where you know that pop wasn’t anything else,” Hogg said.
He described initially thinking it was just an active shooter drill, until the “stampede of footsteps” of other students that caused his class to panic and unknowingly “run towards the shooting,” and the “miraculous” intervention of a janitor and a culinary teacher, who hid Hogg’s group of 60 classmates in a classroom.
It was then that his sister, a freshman at the same high school, called him, asking what was going on and that her friends were “posting videos on their Snapchat stories saying ‘my fucking school is getting shot at,’” Hogg recalls.
“How do you respond to that?” he asked.
For Hogg, his way of “being calm in that situation” was to interview other students in that classroom on how they felt honestly about “the current situation on gun violence in the United States and the NRA.”
“If we did die, then even if our bodies were left behind, our voices would echo on,” he said. “People can’t say you’re politicizing tragedy if the people that died in that shooting said ‘You need to do something about this because this is unacceptable.’”
After the shooting, the young survivors-turned-activists channeled their anger, energy and grief into organizing March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C, an event that ended up drawing over a million people and jumpstart a youth-led gun violence prevention movement.
They also focused on voter turnout in “districts that the NRA held … to elect politicians that could protect children, not guns” and succeeded in generating “one of the highest youth voter turnouts ever” and “took back more NRA-backed congressional seats than ever before in American history” in the 2018 midterm election, according to Hogg.
Both activists drew attention to the fact that “mass shootings are only a small percentage of the gun violence that affects America,” Fuentes said.
“The story of gun violence doesn’t begin with Columbine. It begins with indigenous genocide,” said Hogg, pointing out that “we never hear about mass shootings in terms of the Battle of Wounded Knee” or that “the number one predictor of where gun violence occurs is where communities were redlined in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“The communities most affected by gun deaths are those just like Ithaca,” Hogg said, referring to rural and suburban areas where older white men have the highest rates of suicide by gun in the country.
Despite it all, Hogg and Fuentes both expressed optimism for their cause in the future. Hogg in particular expressed faith in the electoral system, the power of the vote and democracy.
After their speeches, Hogg and Fuentes were asked several pre-submitted questions from Cornell students.
On the topic of balancing mental and physical health with the strains of activism and advocacy, Fuentes emphasized the importance of “knowing what the word ‘no’ means” when it comes to delegating time and energy to a cause.
“My one-woman show came with many sacrifices, energy, and re-traumatization,” she said of the countless interviews and events she did after the shooting, “less than a week after being out of the hospital” with shrapnel still embedded in her face.
“I was recklessly dispensing my time and energy and everything,” she said. “There is a more strategic, graceful and fulfilling way to be an activist that doesn’t involve using every waking moment of your life.”
When asked how they “maintain focus and hope” in the face of the incremental pace of social change, Fuentes replied, “You cry a little bit.”
“Organizing with people who are … focused on accomplishing the same things as you is very important when it comes to keeping up that hope and that energy, because if you are alone and you have no one supporting you, it can make everything look a little more hopeless,” she said.
Tamara Kamis contributed reporting to this article.