Champions of Change Blog

  • Young Americans Building Bridges to Eradicate Gun Violence

    Sarah Clements

    Sarah Clements is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    I remember sitting in lockdown for hours, reading news that the shooting happened only miles away at Sandy Hook, my former elementary school. I remember waiting to hear whether my mother, a second grade teacher at the school, survived. She did. And I remember the feeling deep down, even hours after the shooting happened, that the only way I’d be able to move forward was if I advocated for things to change.

    About a month later, my father and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to join 6,000 other Americans marching for gun reform. I was introduced to the vast, diverse, and courageous movement of individuals working for safer communities. Back home, I joined the Newtown Action Alliance (NAA), a grassroots non-profit working for legislative and cultural change to reduce gun violence. Yet, I was one of the only students getting involved, and this incredible, positive outlet helping me transform my pain into positive action was invisible to my peers. In response, I formed and continue to lead Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, a branch of NAA that gives students the opportunity to raise their voices and make change.

    At first, Jr. Newtown Action Alliance only had outreach in Newtown. We held letter writing events in town and mostly focused on helping our town heal from the shooting. Soon, we started networking with other young people in the region and state, and we began travelling every three months to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress. Members also travelled around the country to hold workshops to teach students how to break down the issue of gun violence prevention.

    This year, the goal of Jr. NAA is to build bridges between urban, suburban, and rural youth to not only share our stories and experiences, but also to then use that knowledge, understanding, and source of empathy to strategize about how we can make our schools and communities safer together.

    Last month, our members met with members of the group Harlem SNUG, a gang violence mediation and conflict resolution organization working for safer streets. Our stories were different, but at the same time, we all experienced gun violence, and that allows us to better understand the ground upon which the other walks.

    Finally, I’m a Gun Violence Prevention Volunteer Lead at Generation Progress, the Millennial branch of the Center for American Progress. Our team facilitates a network of youth working on this and connected issues on the national level so that our movement is more efficient and so that the youth voice is front and center in this conversation. In February, we organized a national summit, and the three-day event brought more than 120 Millennials from 32 states to Washington, D.C. for intensive training on organizing and strategy for gun violence prevention. We are now creating the structure for this network and for a productive and efficient year of youth organizing.

    As a Millennial, I will not back down. We are literally fighting for our lives; fighting for a most sacred and fundamental right: for children to grow up. Far too many of our friends' fates have teetered on the barrel of a gun, and America turns its back each time. We can no longer wait for the voice of a loved one to be muted before we exercise our own, for if I have learned anything since 12/14, it’s that the rights I have the privilege to possess are worthless unless I fight for others to have them, too; and that includes the right to living in a safe community.

    Sarah Clements is a senior at Newtown High School and the Founder and Chairwoman of Jr. Newtown Action Alliance, a group of young people working to reduce gun violence through legislative action, cultural change, and bridge building between youth in different communities. She is also a Generation Progress Gun Violence Prevention Network Volunteer Lead.  

  • Voice for Change

    Pamela Simon

    Pamela Simon is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    Until January 8, 2011, gun violence was always something that happened to someone else. Like so many others, I glanced at the news reports of a shooting and moved on because I felt gun violence was something that would never touch my life. It happened to someone else's child, someone else's spouse, someone else's friend.

    All of that changed one chilly Arizona morning in front of a local grocery store. I was on the staff of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Congresswoman had just begun to talk with constituents at a Congress On Your Corner event. Suddenly, gunfire erupted. In less than 20 seconds, six people lay dead and 13 othersincluding Congresswoman Giffords and me were wounded.

    As my body and mind healed over the months that followed, I learned a lot about an issue that I previously had all but ignored. The numbers were staggering. 12,000 Americans are murdered with a gun each year. Countless other lives have forever changed by injuries caused by gun violence. The human cost includes traumatized family and friends, grief stricken loved ones and family members turned caregivers because of the damage inflicted.

    For too long, silence has been the response from elected officials and individual citizens despite overwhelming evidence of the problem. However, I quickly learned that silence is not what we need in our nation.

    Shortly after I retired from Congresswoman Giffords' congressional office in 2012, I heard the news of the mass shooting in a Colorado theater and it felt personal. The victims of gun violence were no longer somebody else. I was tied to them in a bond of terrible knowledge. The time for me to take on this taboo subject had arrived. I knew I had to use my story to be a voice for change. A few days later, I joined with other survivors from the Tucson tragedy to call on our leaders to address gun violence in our nation.

    Over the months that followed, Mayors Against Illegal Guns brought together survivors of gun violence from around the country. As we told our stories, however painful, we found that there was healing in being part of the solution. We spoke out on the need for common-sense gun laws that would help save lives.

    Over the past two years, I have worked to connect concerned citizens and survivors with organizations that can amplify their voices on gun violence prevention. I have been inspired and honored to work with the many groups that share our common goal of ending gun violence. I have had the privilege of speaking to our nation's leaders, members of Congress, state legislators, local elected officials, civic organizations, countless media interviews and hundreds of individual conversations with people wholike mewant a country that is free from gun violence.

    Starting in Tucson, I have used each time that I have spoken to groups or the news media as an opportunity to challenge my own community to be part of our larger call for action. It has been exciting to work with citizens who have come together to work on gun violence prevention and who have produced significant change at the local level already. They in turn are engaging others.

    Alone, I am one voicebut joining with so many otherswe are breaking the silence and beginning to move toward meaningful change. I feel deeply honored to have been selected as a White House Champion of Change.

    Pam Simon taught middle and high school for over two decades after which she served as Community Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was wounded during the Tucson shooting and has spent the past two years working on gun violence prevention.

  • Gun Violence Prevention: Crisis Intervention Through Mental Health Support Services

    Nosheen Hydari

    Nosheen Hydari is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    It’s 3 a.m. and I receive a call from our crisis line about an inner-city Chicago family with a teenage son who has threatened his mother with a weapon. It’s my job to assess the level of danger in the home. So, I immediately call the mother to understand her safety concerns. Next, I notify my on-call supervisor and together we develop a plan to reduce the level of threat and ensure the son gets to a safe place for a face-to-face assessment.

    This is crisis intervention. And as a crisis therapist, I use my training to de-escalate the crisis and ensure the safety of all those involved. I go into some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago to meet people where they’re at, such as hospitals, residential and group home treatment facilities, and the detention center. This means that I listen to people’s storiesthe stories that have led them into crisis. I see people in their most difficult times and offer compassion, validation and solution-focused attention at moments of deep vulnerability.

    I’m a crisis therapist at Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4), a leading community mental health agency in Illinois that provides a wide range of mental health services, crisis intervention, prevention services, parent education, and substance use treatment to at-risk children, adults and families.

    In my role, I provide crisis assessments for hundreds of Chicago children and adults in severe psychiatric distress. I am trained to make an immediate decision about an appropriate level of care for the person in distress, which is either inpatient psychiatric hospitalization or outpatient services.

    Through early crisis intervention, we have the opportunity to disrupt a potential threat of violence from escalating into a serious incident of harm to someone. The earlier people call to report a crisisthe better chance there is of stopping an act of violence.

    We can all make an impact in our communities by helping to increase the availability of mental health services and public education programs, and raising overall awareness. C4 offers a public-education program called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). MHFA is an evidence-based, in-person training program that provides individuals and groups with the skills necessary to identify, understand and respond to someone who is experiencing a mental health problem or mental health crisis.

    Gun violence prevention happens through early crisis intervention, access to mental health services and public education programs. Anyone who cares to get involved can be part of the solution to help people who are at the front lines of violence. Those who volunteer time to mentor at-risk youth are part of the solution. Those who support programs that lower violence and positively impact the communities are part of the solution. Direct service workerscounselors, teachers, mentors, coaches, organizers and advocates are all part of the solution.

    All of these efforts continue to create positive change in our communities, starting from the foundation and building up.

    Nosheen Hydari, AMFT, is a Crisis Therapist for the Emergency Services On-Call team at Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4). C4 is a leading community mental health agency in Illinois, providing a comprehensive range of mental health services, crisis intervention and substance use treatment to more than 10,000 low-income children, adults, and families each year.

  • Everyday Solutions to Help Prevent Gun Violence

    Mark Barden

    Mark Barden is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    December 14, 2013 marked one year since I lost my son, Daniel Barden, age 7, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Since its inception, our organization, Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), has had conversations with hundreds of parents across the countryparents who are gun owners and non-gun owners, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, people of many faiths, and across the economic spectrum in an effort to learn how we might prevent this type of tragedy from happening again.

    What we found was that a parent’s love and concern for their children comes before everything, including their politics. That parentsboth gun owners and non-gun ownerswant to act now, in their communities, to help prevent gun violence.

    In that powerful spirit, we launched Parent Togethera nationwide program that educates and empowers parents, who place their children’s safety and wellbeing above all else, to make changes in their community to help prevent not just the next Sandy Hook but also the hundreds of thousands of other acts of gun violence every year, in every state.

    What does this mean? SHP is looking at programs that teach and incentivize children to reach out to their peers who are isolated and help them make connections in their school and community in order to prevent isolation. We are also reviewing programs that train parents, teachers, and pediatricians and other medical professionals to help these at-risk children as early as possible. Finally, it means identifying programs that provide ways to speak up and reduce the fears and stigma for teens to notify adults when they hear about possible violence.

    We do realize that in order to make change, we have to start with the basics. What do we agree on? That we all love our children. What can we find common ground over? Protecting those children. Parents united by love can do anything, and if you join us, together we can prove that. Please go to the websitesandyhookpromise.organd Make the Promise to Parent Together to prevent gun violence.

    Mark Barden is the Director of Advocacy, leading policy and outreach efforts for Sandy Hook Promise. He serves as a spokesperson for the organization since the tragic loss of his son Daniel, a first-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

  • Texas Gun Sense: Firearms Policy and Advocacy in the Wild West

    John Woods

    John Woods is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    Prior to April 16, 2007, gun violence was—for me—something that happened on the pages of a newspaper or behind the television screen. That Monday morning, however, I discovered first-hand the cost of America’s moral failure on firearms policy. I lost Maxine Turner, the girl I loved.

    I moved to Austin a handful of weeks later to begin a biology doctoral program. My involvement with the gun violence prevention movement began when lawmakers started discussing how to “prevent another Virginia Tech,” which they argued was best accomplished by forcing colleges to allow guns in classrooms—an ideological agenda having nothing to do with campus safety.

    Scientists love to believe that people make decisions rationally—that 32 innocent people dying in an act of terrorism should be sufficient justification for significant reform, particularly when there is so little downside to something as simple as expanding background checks.

    Unfortunately, rational decision-making is rarely a part of the gun debate in America. Texas lawmakers had no interest in talking to the Virginia Tech survivors, nor in reading the VT Review Panel Report, nor in learning that workplaces allowing firearms are 5–7 times more likely to experience homicides.

    Indeed, the gun debate in Texas has been filled with manufactured misinformation. The NRA has done an admirable job, for example, of supplying the public with an alternate history—that the University of Texas shooting was mitigated by armed civilians. Survivors and law enforcement remember it quite differently: armed civilians needlessly complicated the police response.

    We founded Texas Gun Sense to counter gun lobby disinformation with an objective, fact-based perspective. After the inconceivable events at Sandy Hook, America seemed ready to talk about guns again; and we knew already that Texas was prepared, its legislature having twice rejected the “campus carry” bills—which many observers viewed as sure to pass in an overwhelmingly conservative Texas legislature.

    Like Texas Gun Sense, the vast majority of Texans support the right to bear arms but also—perhaps contrary to stereotypes—believe that with rights come responsibilities. So it is unsurprising that the term “gun sense” was invented in Texas by Texans. We want what nearly every other American wants: the freedom to live and raise our families in safety.

    Texas Gun Sense has already found some success pursuing a fact-based dialogue. In February, the Travis County commissioners voted against renewing gun show contracts for county property absent guarantees of background checks on private sales. Organizers successfully defeated the guns-in-classrooms legislation for the third session in a row using white papers we prepared. We offered Texas a trustworthy source of information on firearms policy for the first time in years.

    Texas has a history of good gun sense, a legacy which Texas Gun Sense hopes to solidify. In 1994, when it was still legal for domestic violence offenders to purchase firearms, a local constable suggested that Austin Police Department simply fax relevant arrest records to any gun dealer requesting a background check. It worked, and a short time later the legislature codified such offenders as prohibited purchasers—long before it became federal law. By 2009, Texas had closed the mental health reporting loophole which enabled Maxine’s killer to buy his firearms—under unanimous consent and signed by Governor Perry.

    What we do in Texas has broader implications—36 Congressional seats and several native sons in the White House. Many federal officeholders spend time in the legislature—where we are on the front lines, discussing universal background checks. The work Texas Gun Sense does has national impact, and on everyone's behalf, I thank the White House for the recognition.

    John Woods, Ph.D., graduated from Virginia Tech and helped found Texas Gun Sense, a state-focused educational charity which promotes a fact-based dialogue on gun policy and works to educate lawmakers and the public on universal background checks in Texas. Dr. Woods now serves on Texas Gun Sense’s advisory board and is a post-doctoral fellow at West Virginia University’s Applied Space Exploration Laboratory and the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center.

  • Transforming Pain into Power

    Jamira Burley

    Jamira Burley is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

    We live in a world that constantly tells young people that "we are the future," and in doing so, we forget about the contribution that youth can make right now. However, young people can’t make that immediate or eventual difference if there are endless barriers to their success.

    Since the murder of my brother Andre in 2005, I have worked to prevent other young people from experiencing the same adversities that I didwhether that means training the next generation of city leaders through my job at the Philadelphia Youth Commission, or meeting with members of Congress regarding comprehensive gun reform.

    My whole life, I was surrounded by people who couldn’t see beyond their own zip code; people who didn’t know how to be more because no one in their family ever was. That is why I am honored and appreciative to be selected as a White House Champion of Change for Gun Violence Prevention. I accept this recognition not for myself but for every person who stands beside me in this work. We recognize that everyone is affected by gun violence and if we’re going to prevent another young person from losing his or her life to the barrel of a gun, we have to work together.

    Nine years ago I didn’t choose this work, it chose me. I like to think that I was a pretty normal student. Like many, I faced my own share of adversities, but nothing I thought I couldn’t handle—even after the repeat incarcerations of both my parents and all 10 of my older brothers. That is, until I received a phone call that changed not only the way I viewed the world, but also my place within it.

    My brother Andre was murdered one month before his 21st birthday. Since Andre’s murder, stories like his continue to happen every single day in America. Stories in which young people are dying before they are even old enough to vote; where the price of leaving your home may be death. Our streets are becoming battlegroundswe have made kid soldiers out of our youth, criminals out of the disadvantaged and funeral attendees out of all of us.

    Thirty-four Americans die every day because of guns. Guns are becoming more accessible than textbooks and supermarkets. Yet we continue to serve them up to the unfit and unqualified, resulting in mass murders and mass shootings. So I ask: what can and must be done?

    Shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, as a member of the Roosevelt Institute, Millennial Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, we developed a list of policy recommendations addressing gun violence in America. I also have the privilege of helping to lead the Philadelphia youth engagement strategy for the National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention and Cities United. Cities United is an initiative created by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with a goal to reduce the homicide rate for black men and boys. Through this work, Cities United has partnered with more than 50 different mayors, foundations and federal agencies across the country.

    My brother’s death set the foundation for the work that I devote my life to, but I also recognize that this is bigger than Andre. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and allow gun lobbyists to place band-aids on gunshot wounds. The time for change is now. The body count continues to rise. Gravesites don’t lie and bullets end lives, but we can change that; we can do something about it.

    Jamira Burley is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. She is also a member of the United Nations Global Education First Initiative, Youth Advocacy Group and co-founder of GenYnot.