The school year is ending, but the work is only beginning for students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
A handful of teens, graduates and current students are sacrificing their summer vacations to tour the nation for a voter drive. Using their new-found fame, a product of their outcry after surviving a deadly Feb. 14 school shooting, the students are embarking on a 20-state bus tour encouraging millions of voters to cast ballots in the midterm elections.
A pivot from their original platform centered on gun reform, the students are focused solely on getting otherwise disinterested citizens energized about voting.
“Real change is brought about by getting out there and making sure we’re holding our politicians accountable by voting, getting those out of office that don’t represent us the way they said they would,” recent Stoneman Douglas graduate Cameron Kasky said. “And getting those into office that are going to be morally just and represent the people.”
Kasky — who made headlines after calling out U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s donations from the National Rifle Association during a CNN Town Hall in late February — announced the voter drive Monday. He and two dozen others donning matching “March For Our Lives: Road to Change” T-shirts announced the tour at a news conference at Parkland Amphitheater, where the students just months ago held a vigil for the 17 killed in the rampage.
The effort by the students conjures up memories of the Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign in the summer of 1964 to attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi. It was organized by civil rights groups, including the most active group — the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — to expand black voting through registration, participation and education in the South.
The Parkland students’ tour will likely include stops at rallies, round tables, churches and schools, said Emma Gonzalez, another celebrity voice that emerged from the Feb. 14 shooting.
The stops were strategically picked to include areas plagued by gun violence — the first is Chicago on Friday, June 15 — and places driven by voters with views that differ from those of the Parkland students, Gonzalez said.
“We were aiming for areas that faced a lot of gun violence, or places that … I don’t want to say ‘expressed distaste for us’ but where we weren’t loved, so we can communicate with people who might have a problem with us and have a conversation with them to see if there’s any common ground,” she said.
The tour has 75 stops, including in caucus states like Iowa and South Carolina.
But the students aren’t campaigning for particular politicians, or even issues, said Chris Grady, who just graduated from Stoneman Douglas.
“We support policy over people. We do not endorse any candidates,” Grady said. As for the one policy or message the teens most want to promote: “Vote,” Grady said.
The tour includes current students, recent graduates and past graduates. It will be funded through donations from people in the country “who believe in our cause,” Kasky said.
Jammal Lemy, a Florida Atlantic University student and former Stoneman Douglas student, will join the tour. Lemy’s friend Joaquin Oliver died in the shooting, which propelled Lemy’s political activism.
“For me, it’s just been hard. But with the help of March For Our Lives and my friends, they’ve been the driving force behind this,” Lemy said. “We’re moving forward.”
Some students touring will be registering voters even though they aren’t old enough to cast votes. That’s no deterrent, though, said Alex Wind, an incoming Stoneman Douglas senior.
“I won’t be able to vote in the midterm election, so I hope everyone else will,” Wind said. “A lot of people are just discouraged by our political system. We’re really just hoping to ignite the passion of voting and pick leaders that represent us.”
Less than a mile from the amphitheater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High’s entrances were blocked by Broward Sheriff’s deputies, with a police watchtower rising overhead, although classes ended last week.
The school year’s end Wednesday will bring welcome closure to a tumultuous few months, but for the two dozen students who are dedicating their summer to the Stoneman Douglas cause, the saga is all but over.
“This is just the beginning,” Grady said. “We’re ready to get to work.”