WASHINGTON, DC—The PRovoke19 conference in Washington, DC, came to a powerful, moving and inspirational conclusion on Wednesday afternoon when Stephanie Cutter, founding partner at Precision Strategies, spoke with three of the young people who make up the leadership of March for Our Lives, the movement born out of the tragic shooting in Parkland, Fla., on February 14, 2018, that claimed the lives of 17 people and wounded 17 others.

Cutter, whose firm has worked with the movement, discussed how the students channeled their pain and anger from that day into creating an authentic grassroots movement that has had the kind of impact many professional public affairs and public relations people can work a lifetime without ever achieving.

“Even in the first hours after the shooting we were thrown into this world of inevitably political victimhood,” said Lauren Hogg, the youngest founding board member of March for Our Lives—she was just 14 at the time of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting. “We were going to be seen as political figures simply as a result of people knowing who we were.

“The challenge was mobilizing that idea—the connotation of being another survivor of gun violence—into something that would help to make sure that others like our friends and our teachers would not become victims of gun violence in the future.”

Hogg, like many of the March for Our Lives founders, had taken media studies courses before the shooting, and found the experience invaluable. “About a quarter of us were in TV production learning about things like the news cycle. Then there were the theater kids, who knew how to present themselves. And the debaters knew the issues, they knew about the NRA and the arguments they would make.”

The students came together quickly, many of them making themselves available for television and media interviews, others expressing their feelings on social media,

“Social media is something our generation is fluent in in a way that the older generation finds it difficult to grasp,” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the shooting, “We know how to communicate with our peers, and Twitter is the place to do it. I was angry and I was voicing my anger on the only platform I knew I could, and those tweets started going viral. And suddenly we were waking up and finding we had verification badges.”

Ariel Hobbs, a senior at the University of Houston who joined the movement to help plan the March in Houston, added: “Running to social media is the most instinctive thing for us to do. When we feel something, that’s where we run to. It’s one of the places where we can truly say what we feel and it will come across the way we want it to. You realize my voice is being heard and I do have the power to get this message out there.”

“Very early on, social media became a powerful tool,” Hogg explained. “But we knew it was like a grenade, because one false move, a few wrong words, and it could have blown up in our faces. It was a positive way of getting people to pay attention but it was also a very dangerous thing.”

Even in the face of incredible hostility—personal attacks that went after everything from some students’ sexuality to others’ perceived academic issues—the students handled their social media presence with great aplomb, practicing a kind of social media jujitsu that ensured the criticism backfired spectacularly.

Those first few days of the movement that would create the March for Our Lives were a mix of spontaneity—responding to media interest, finding ways to express hurt and anger—and strategy, as the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students recognized the need to build a broader and more diverse coalition that was bigger than one school shooting.

“We weren’t diverse to begin with,” Tarr acknowledged. “We were a bunch of affluent white students. We received some warranted criticism to begin with and we knew we had to grow and learn from it.”

Said Hobbs, an African-American who now serves as a student board member: “Gun violence is a diverse issue. There’s no way to speak about it and not think about inner city gun violence, or not think about intimate partner violence, or not think about suicide, or not to think about the issue in immigrant communities where people might be afraid to call the police.

“So we have taken steps to include every single community that is affected by gun violence in this movement.”

In early March of 2018, the students published their specific proposals for addressing gun violence, including:

  • A complete ban on "semi-automatic weapons that fire high-velocity rounds";
  • Universal background checks and "a database recording which guns are sold in the United States, to whom, and of what caliber and capacity they are";
  • Raising the gun purchasing age to 21; and
  • Closing the gun show and secondhand purchase loopholes.

Just one month and 10 days after the incident in Parkland, more than 800,000 people came together in Washington, DC, for the national March for Our Lives, with many thousands more joining smaller marches in cities across America.

“The March was a combination of organic growth and an incredibly strategic plan,” Tarr explained. “We were all doing media interviews and talking to people who wanted to listen and we wanted to take that interest and turn it into something that could make a real difference, and the answer to us was a march similar to what we had learned about when we studied the civil rights movement, building on that history and tradition.”

The movement did not end there. The next step was a bus tour, that combined listening and outreach with voter registration.

“We were acknowledging that gun violence looks different in every single community and we need different solutions in those communities,” said Tarr. “I was on the southern tour, and we were navigating a culture that is very, very pro-Second Amendment in a way that doesn’t leave a lot of room for conversation. We had some interesting conversations and got some very interesting death threats. But we understood that we had to listen to people before we could understand how we might change their minds.”

Hobbs was invited to participate in the tour at 11pm on the night before the bus from Houston was due to leave for Albuquerque.

“It was life changing,” she told the audience. “I had read the statistics and talked with people in my community and studied the information online. And I found out I didn’t know at all. I didn’t know that in my own state, suicide was the main cause of death for young males. That tour changed my life, and changed my life for the better.”

It also provided a platform for ongoing communication.

“I did a lot of tweeting about the stories I heard. The people who were telling those stories, we were moved and we were changed and I wanted the rest of the world to hear these stories. And I started asking people can I take your picture and use your words, because they should be elevated so you can tell your story to the people who aren’t in this room. They were giving us a piece of themselves, and entrusting us with that, to help them be heard.”

The bus tour also spawned creative ideas.

“One example of ingenuity that came from us just being stuck on a bus together, was this idea of having a QR code in the form of an American flag and when you scanned it you could register to vote,” said Hogg. “We gave away thousands and we sold thousands and it took away that thing of people saying it was too difficult to register to vote, it was too complicated.”

The tour registered more than 50,000 young people across the country to vote—a major factor in the dramatic increase in voter turnout among young people during the midterm elections of 2018.

Said Tarr, “The strategy to get a 55-year-old to vote is not the same as the strategy to get an 18-year-old to vote. We knew people of our generation cared, and we knew they were incredibly policy-driven. We wanted to show people that their votes could matter.”

And Hogg added: “It was very helpful that we met them where they were. They saw themselves when they saw us. And our narratives, and narratives from people around the country made them feel as though that voting was not just an act of good citizenship, it was an act of survival. They felt as if they needed to do this.”

After achieving political success at the state level—67 separate pieces of gun control legislation have been passed in 26 states plus the District of Columbia—March for Our Lives has recently published a more comprehensive “Peace Plan for a Safer America,” asking politicians to take a stand on gun violence in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

“We want to force candidates—not just for president but in every race—into the spot of having to talk about it, having to take a position for and against tangible actions that will make a difference,” said Tarr.

Opposition continues, of course.

Said Hogg, now 16: “I’ve been doing a lot of work on the Hill, and just a couple of weeks ago I was at a hearing on banning assault rifles, and there was a Representative there—I can’t remember his name, he’s not important—and he was in a room with families from Sandy Hook and Parkland and he put up a photo of himself with a AR15 and an American flag. That was his response to the points we were making.”

She acknowledged that “it’s disappointing to me to be a 16-year-old and to be the adult in the room.” But for the rest of us, there’s hope in that fact. The March for Our Lives has accomplished enough in the past 18 months to suggest that Lauren Hogg and Ariel Hobbs and Delaney Tarr and their fellow board members—and not that unnamed, unimportant Congressman—are the future.