For most 16-year-olds, life is busy enough. There’s school, sports, part-time jobs, homework, college entrance exams and just hanging out with friends and being a kid. But for one Parkland, Florida teenager, life was about to get a lot busier. Yet, that wasn’t going to stop Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Sari Kaufman from adding the role of ‘gun reform activist’ to her high school schedule.
“Our friends died at school and that is unacceptable,” Kaufman tells Aspire, as the one-year anniversary of the Parkland High School shooting looms large on February 14th. “The problem of gun violence only affected us one day but it affects people every single day,”’ says Kaufman. “We had to do something about it, especially, since we had the platform. With all the media coming to school in the following weeks, we had the opportunity to say something about it. That’s why we decided to make the change.”
From the moment she awoke on the day after the shootings, Kaufman knew her path had been forever altered. “Going to school and being excited to receive carnations — since it was Valentine’s Day — then coming home with terror, not really knowing if my friends were alive or not. It was unfathomable waking up and not knowing if my friends were dead or alive. That was the main motivator that pushed me. That made me want to change gun policy.”
In fact, just a few months before the tragedy, Kaufman had done research on the nation’s gun statistics for a debate competition. “I had a little more knowledge. I knew the statistics of how much gun violence affected America. That made me want to change the gun policy but I couldn’t really connect,” Kaufman acknowledges. Reading about the numbers of lives and deaths affected by gun violence didn’t feel personal to her. “During the debate, a lot of times we throw out statistics but you can’t really connect to it. I wanted to win, I didn’t think of the impact of what I was saying,” says Kaufman. “And now I can relate to those impacts.”
"It was unfathomable waking up and not knowing if my friends were dead or alive. That was the main motivator that pushed me. That made me want to change gun policy.”
Kaufman began her advocacy the very first morning after the shootings. She started by doing more research for an op-ed piece she was writing to urge politicians to act. For some survivors, forgetting is a necessary coping skill; for Kaufman, embracing the tragic day has empowered her.
When she thinks back to the day of the shooting, Kaufman feels lucky for both surviving and for distance. “I was in my debate classroom, which was two buildings away from the shooting. So, fortunately, I didn’t have to see any of the gruesome things that occurred like some of my other friends. I heard the gunshots. When the fire alarm went off, we were outside. The next day I actually realized the shooter ran out with our class as he was trying to fit in as another student. It was definitely frightening to know that.”
What does empowerment mean to a 16-year-old? First she wrote the op-ed, then as one of the organizers of the March for Our Lives, she took on the task of enlisting voter registration organizations to come to the March and register new voters. Now, she continues that work through the nonprofit she co-founded with classmate Casey Sherman Empower the People — which works to educate high school students in an interactive peer-to-peer way about civics and the importance of voter participation. “Seeing their faces when they learn something new and realize that they can make their own change. That’s the best part,” says Kaufman about giving students the tools to get involved and take action.
In addition, Kaufman is a Students Demand Action board member for Everytown For Gun Safety. In that role, she travels around the country to speak about the shattering statistics and impact of gun violence. It’s on those travels where she finds motivation and inspiration to continue on this path. “I’ve met Michael Bloomberg [founder of Everytown For Gun Safety and former New York City Mayor]. “He definitely inspires me,” says Kaufman. “As well as all the gun violence victims I’ve met — the people who have to go through or see the impacts of gun violence every day in their communities.”
This is just the beginning of Kaufman’s journey into public service. “I want to study political science at college,” says Kaufman. “My dream is to become a Representative or a Senator in Congress.” This work is not for everyone, she knows. “A lot of my friends don’t want to enter this space. Everyone says politics is dirty. We have realized this firsthand. It is a game and knowing that, some people don’t want to join.”
Sari Kaufman at March for Our Lives | Photo Courtesy of Sari Kaufman
Photo Courtesy of Joanna Nix | Unsplash
How will Kaufman take on the big guns, like the NRA and those citizens who oppose her gun control goals? She’ll look for common ground, areas where “people agree that there are measures we can take without taking away all guns. That’s the most important thing.” Kaufman has high hopes that the newly elected members in Congress will take up and push for H.R. 8 — a bill which would require a background check for every firearm sale and a great deal more.
The H.R. 8 bill “is definitely a clear progress of our impact,” says Kaufman. “People need to agree that there are measures we can take without taking away all guns. It’s very important that this bill passes because 97% of Americans think background checks are effective and need to be put in place.” Kaufman believes in the collaborative approach, that if people can come together and realize that there are measures we can take to mitigate gun violence but at the same time not infringe on people’s Second Amendment rights, success is possible for everyone.
Power in numbers will also help this cause now and into the future believes Kaufman. “This young generation – who people once called lazy or entitled – now has such a strong voice that people will listen to us. I’ve met many young people who’ve come up to me and said, ‘I’ve found my voice because of the movement you started. Now we are more active.’
“We have a strong voice. People listen to us. In fact many young people tell me, ‘I found my voice because of the movement.’ It started chapters of March for our Lives and Students Demand Action. Now we’re expressing action: not just with gun policy but with the perception of our generation.”
Traveling with Students Demand Action [for Gun Safety in America] this past year has also shown Kaufman the power of education. “People in rural communities, they don’t see gun violence every day and because they are not as affected by it, they don’t see a need for [more gun laws]. …It’s completely understandable,”says Kaufman. “I hope it doesn’t get to the point where [gun violence] has to happen to them or people they know before they realize universal background checks don’t infringe on their Second Amendment rights.”
She hopes to find partners for her own Empower the People to continue their work educating youth across America about the importance of voting and civic activism. As for the “dirty politics” she’s already run up against, Kaufman is optimistic. “The only way to change that is by staying true to myself and be in politics and figuratively clean it up.”
Businesses flexing their muscle in support of social issues is another way Kaufman believes “we can make change.” She cites Toms ‘End Gun Violence Together’ campaign, where customers can send a postcard urging Congress to support the universal background checks bill. Kaufman believes her generation will support businesses who integrate social purpose into their businesses.
And although Kaufman says she feels safe going to her school every day – “There’s probably more security here than in any school in the country” – she admits there are lingering emotional challenges. “I see the building every single day when I go to one of my classes. It reminds me of what happened every single day, the fear that I went through on the 14th. So yeah, there’s definitely stress that comes with what we’ve come to experience.” But that “experience” is also the wake-up call of her generation. “We have a strong voice. People listen to us. In fact many young people tell me, ‘I found my voice because of the movement.’ It started chapters of March for our Lives and Students Demand Action. Now we’re expressing action: not just with gun policy but with the perception of our generation.”
Back at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Kaufman says they steer clear of politics because there are people against her and the student activists’ movement. “They own guns or they are leaning more to the right than to the left [in terms of solutions] but at school, we’re all in the same boat of healing and getting through the day together. We all went through the event and we can all agree, obviously, that we don’t want that to happen again.”
On the anniversary, “We’re going to have a day of love. We are doing community service projects around Parkland and then at night we’re having another vigil to mark the anniversary.” But the next day, it’s back to gun reform work for Kaufman. “There are obviously ups and downs every single day,” she says about the students and families whose loved ones were killed on February 14, 2018. She’s fighting for them. “Everyone recognizes their bravery,” says Kaufman. “Almost all the families have either taken an active role in making changes for the safety of the school or are working on more of the legislative process of developing legislation that would protect students in school.”
No one wanted it to happen. But Kaufman and the other students/parents turned activists aren’t letting the victims lives be in vain. Not a chance.
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