What Hasn’t Changed? Milwaukee student activist Bria Smith and her fight after Parkland
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” – George Bernard Shaw
One year after the mass shooting at Parkland, the wounds remain fresh for many people as that community continues to heal. The event sparked a national discussion that has come up before but has always been shut down. Gun Control. This time student activists went across the nation fighting for change, encouraging other young people to get out and vote, which began a youth led movement.
For a long time teenagers have been regarded as a group that only cares about their social media presence and everyday activity at school. But that generation has not had the luxury of thinking that way, and many of them also refute that stereotype. Milwaukee activist, Bria Smith is one of those people.
Smith has been very vocal in the gun control movement, fighting for a cause overshadowed by the mass media’s sensationalized attention to mass shootings, and the own gun-violence in her community. Smith explained how she would always be someone that just complained. Eventually, after being told to “do something about it,” she was done being idle. Smith attended a suburban school with a completely white population, and experienced racism from the age of 6. She harnessed that anger and turned it into something productive, her activism.
What hasn’t changed?
Smith discussed her hope for the future, and what she saw as positive changes. She pointed out that “the wave of revolutionary young people entering political races, swinging states, hosting rallies, and protests were fighting against the system that oppress us. I see youth, from every marginalized spectrum, using their voices as fire as an igniting for change within their own communities.”
Smith discusses how the March For Lives movement was a kindle to the spark. They empowered young people to take action on policy, gave them platform to raise their voices, and make a change. Youth are a group that are the next voting force that can affect elections as much older generations, who are statistically more likely to vote. The March For Our Lives movement has spread the message that the young people should use that power to get their voice heard, that they should bring the force of change to the polls.
The trend has played out in cities all over the country. During the recent 2018 midterm elections, many youth and people of color stood up to support candidates who represented groups that had long been overlooked. Gun control was finally a campaign issue at the ballot box. The shift came as a contrast to past elections, since the issue was ignored during the 2016 election cycle. Time will tell if gun control remains an influential force in the 2020 Presidential elections, but it will continue to play a role on the platform of issues.
“I want people to understand that America is a country built on the culture of idolizing violence, and a society that embraces it. Implementing policies that best restrict the attainment of firearms, such as universal background checks is a small step to affect positive change.” – Bria Smith
Milwaukee lead the nation in the 1960s, thanks in part to Alderwoman Vel Phillips, to establish fair housing laws. It was part of the movement to desegregate neighborhoods, and to include people of color in the conversation for how to improve the community.
Since Parkland, Smith has been heavily dedicated to the Milwaukee community and what it needs. Milwaukee has been identified as on of the most segregated cities in the United States, and Smith wants to focus on reducing gun violence in the city. Gun violence disproportionately affects the minority communities of Milwaukee than it does the general white population.
Like many other student activists, Smith wants to see universal background checks, the banning of bump stocks, disarming domestic abusers, and enforcing a high capacity magazine ban. She continues to believe that legislation is important for the short term, with the necessity of reforming the country’s discriminatory system as the best way to ensure the long term health of urban communities.
Smith sees segregation barriers still in place, not specifically as a physical separations like the Jim Crow South but of economic inequity. She is a member of the City of Milwaukee’s Youth Council, and believes it is “one of the most powerful youth fronts” for Milwaukee. Smith was also heavily involved with the March for Our Lives movement and brought important insight to activists across the country.
“I remember being on the Standing Rock reservation with local Native American youth, as one of the stops on the Road to Change tour. We all sat in a circle, exchanging gifts, and laughs, and stories about our traumas that prevented us from succeeding. We stopped at Standing Rock, not because it was a community prone to gun violence, but because it was a community stripped of its rights. For years, youth there have advocated for their right to clean water on their own sacred land, but lost. Their voices were muted by corruption. I remember sitting there, holding hands with the youth of Standing Rock and their sharing tears. I remember feeling a connection and intimacy, our energies were so strong and positive. We voiced our hopes for the future. I remember feeling empowered and was reminded of why I wanted to immerse myself into activism. I remember Standing Rock.” – Bria Smith
The initiative offers an important platform for youth to be involved in legislation and implementation, something that has become a trend across the country as well. Smith believes that getting involved is really just to joining the conversation. It requires individuals of any age to be responsible, take action, and get informed.
Youth involvement in government continues to grow, whether it be direct lobbying, letter writing, or voting. Students in Milwaukee and across America want their voices to be heard. Smith encourages individuals to “enlighten themselves with the truths that young people are delivering to the table. We all should open our minds and hearts to listen and communicate effectively.”
The Vel Phillips Trailblazer Award for service to the community was bestowed on Smith by Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs on March 14, during the Girls’ Day at City Hall. The award recognizes selfless work to improve the quality of life for residents in Milwaukee.
“Through her leadership Bria has exemplified the spirit of Vel Phillips by helping raise awareness on key issues affecting Milwaukee and our nation, including gun violence, and she has especially captured the attention of young people as an engaging voice for change.” – Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs