Film director Kim Snyder spent three years documenting their work to make “Us Kids.” The documentary was shown Saturday at Boulder High School as part of the 17th annual Boulder International Film Festival’s youth program.
Before the free screening, Snyder and featured survivor and activist Sam Fuentes were joined on a “Listen In” panel by Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver, STEM Highlands Ranch shooting survivor Lucy Sarkissian, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and Denver teacher and organizer Tim Hernández.
Snyder said she finished her 2006 documentary, “Newtown,” about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, still “really wondering about the cost of thousands of traumatized youth” from gun violence, especially in communities of color. Then she watched as, just a few days after 17 students and staff members were killed in the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, survivors began speaking out against gun violence.
The teen activists organized a national school walkout on the one month anniversary of the shooting, with more than 3,000 schools across the United States participating. Boulder County middle and high school students joined the walkouts, while Fairview High brought several Parkland students to speak at their event.
That summer, joined by Milwaukee teen Bria Smith advocating for the students of color ignored in gun violence conversations, they traveled across the country on a speaking tour. The film also documents their successful get-out-the-vote efforts, with a record number of young people voting in the midterm and 2020 elections.
The teens talk about how they were driven to create change, even as they try to heal from their own grief and trauma and are targeted by hostile counter protestors. Fuentes, who was 18 and in a Holocaust studies class when she was shot in the leg and injured by shrapnel, says thoughts of friends who were killed spurred her on.
“That’s what I think about, if they were still alive, what would they want,” she said in the film.
At Saturday’s event, she said being a youth activist requires education on social justice and human rights issues.
“We’re trying to come to the root causes of gun violence,” said Fuentes, who is now 21. “There are so many things here that young people are pulling back the layers on.”
Lucy, who was in eighth grade at STEM School Highlands Ranch during the 2019 shooting that killed one student and injured eight others, started Cupcakes 4 Change. Her aim is to combat loneliness and isolation through cupcakes, providing a second cupcake to share with each purchase.
“I want to prevent tragedies at an individual level,” she said.
She walked out in seventh grade in protest after the Parkland shooting, saying their activism “showed me it was possible to make change.”
She said it’s important to support those who are struggling and to not forget that mass shootings create long lasting trauma.
“It still hurts,” she said.
Fuentes added it often takes a mass shooting to galvanize a community.
“We would never have a town hall like this if it wasn’t for a tragedy,” she said.
Weaver said the community is still grieving the March 22 mass shooting that killed 10 people killed at the south Boulder King Soopers, with change required for healing. He praised three gun violence prevention bills signed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month that expand background checks, create a gun violence prevention office and give local governments more authority.
“It’s very meaningful, what’s happened in the Legislature,” he said.
Snyder said she’s afraid the younger generation will become demoralized from the slow pace of progress and disengage from politics. Lucy added young people need to hear from politicians who will address their concerns, including gun violence and climate change.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse said mass shootings are something he “thinks about constantly,” especially with a 2-and-a-half-year-old starting preschool soon.
“It has to end,” he said. “I wish that Congress could muster even a minuscule amount of the political will that you all have shown.”
He said federal laws need to require universal background checks, close gun show loopholes and ban assault weapons, adding all of those are supported by his constituency.
“They’ve had enough,” he said. “They don’t want any more excuses.”
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