Nza-Ari Khepra, age 21, is already a veteran gun reform activist. She was 16 years old when her friend, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot and killed at a playground near their Chicago high school in 2013. Hadiya was an honor roll student who had performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration a week before she was killed. Her shooting made national headlines.
“I couldn’t understand how this could happen to someone who was such a force of positivity,” Khepra told The Trace. “Her death was such a random act; it propelled me to want to learn more about the issue.” One month after Hadiya’s death, Khepra worked with 15 other students to launch Project Orange Tree, a gun violence prevention organization educating young people about root causes and potential solutions for the shootings that plague neighborhoods of many American cities.
Khepra remembers what it was like to be outraged by America’s gun violence crisis at a young age, and what it took to channel that fervor into a sustained cause. As the tens of thousands of students who marked the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting by joining the nationwide walkout contemplate what comes next, Khepra shares some lessons from her own experience.
I’m happy the Stoneman Douglas shooting is getting this attention. Gun violence is such a complex issue. We need to recognize every portion of it — mass shootings, inner-city violence, domestic violence. It hurts that such dreadful situations ignite people into action, but at the same time, that’s exactly how I got started. Here’s what I think my fellow young gun violence activists should know:
Think small to get to your big goals. With gun violence activism, it can be hard to see progress. In the beginning, evaluate your goals, and dedicate yourself to them early on, even if some of those goals are incremental. And then don’t stop until you reach it. One of our small goals at the beginning stages of Project Orange Tree was to host food drives because neighborhoods most affected by the city’s gun violence were also food deserts. That may seem like an unimportant thing to do when you’re fighting against gun violence, but it was one small thing that we could accomplish. It’s better to have a motivating factor pushing you toward your big goal so you won’t be so easily discouraged.
Remember who you’re doing this for. Hadiya was like a magnet to everyone she met. Once she knew you, she made sure to go out of her way to make you feel special. She nicknamed me “Z-Kat.” I think about those things about her personality a lot, the things that made her unique. We often talk about gun deaths in numbers and statistics, but don’t ever allow the numbers to erase the people who died. Try to remember the real impact of the thousands and thousands of lives gun violence takes each year. Don’t let the numbers obscure the fact that someone lost their life, that they are no longer on earth. With Parkland, it’s easy to just hear numbers and not think of the effects of 17 people dying — that’s 17 families, 17 groups of friends. All the people the victims were connected to continue to be impacted. Let the memory of the people killed and those that loved them motivate you when things get challenging. Remember what brought you to this work in the first place and always give your best self.
Find your own space. You don’t have to join one of the big national movements. There is so much activism going on within small communities across the nation. Also, people often think they need to dedicate their time and resource to a certain kind of gun violence, based on what’s portrayed in the media. Your efforts don’t have to be limited to any specific type of gun violence. Maybe you care more about domestic violence than you do urban violence, or gun suicides, or accidental shootings. Do whatever you’re most passionate about.
Educate yourself. There are a lot of resources out there that talk about the different facets of gun violence. Never stop learning about the issue.
Be patient. Progress is cyclical and you won’t see immediate results. In Chicago, there were times when gun violence in the city would decline, followed by times when it would be more intense. It’s a cyclical thing, but you have to think about the long term. Maybe right now you can’t tell, but eventually, your activism will have an impact.