Give the kids a chance: An open letter to the people who want to help the Parkland students

Give the kids a chance: An open letter to the people who want to help the Parkland students
© Greg Nash

I worked with an organization where I was told, more than once, “Find a parade, run to the front, and unfurl our banner!” In other words, translate the momentum sparked by others to ensure my own success.

Most nonprofit leaders we know would cringe at the idea of doing this; and yet, it happens. Despite their best intentions, seasoned leaders and activist interventions in “movement moments” like the one the Parkland, Florida students started can be unhelpful or, even worse, simply a way to advance their own cause. 


Having had the privilege of spending the day with seven of the student leaders from Parkland, and as we approach the March for Our Lives Saturday, it’s clear there are a few ways we should be showing up for their cause right now — and a few things we should avoid doing if we really want to support the organic movement they’ve catalyzed.  


Remember, it’s not about you. It’s hard. You may be incredibly passionate about the topic of gun control or youth civic engagement. You may have worked for years on these issues and feel you have lots to offer. But it’s not about you right now. It’s about the country listening to a group of young people who are resonating with the press, engaging more people on Twitter than the president of the United States, and meeting with elected officials all over the country. 

Do not take this opportunity — their tragedy — to raise money for your cause. Do not use their names, their faces, their words to garner financial resources or celebrity endorsements for your organization or your cause. It may work in the short-term and you may get an infusion of cash — but it will be at the expense of a fruitful long-term relationship with these inspired, inspiring young people whose faith in existing institutions is already pretty low.

Cut them some slack. It’s only been five weeks since these high school students experienced an incredible trauma. They are so fierce and so passionate that it can be easy to forget that they are still processing their grief. They’ve been thrust into the public spotlight and are handling it amazingly well — better than a lot of seasoned operatives would.

They are incredibly willing to engage with people who don’t agree with them and they are incredibly open to feedback about how they can do things better. In fact, they are sponge-like in the way they consume information and recommendations. They’re becoming experts on a topic quickly and publicly.

At a recent event at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, one of the young leaders, Matt Deitsch, noted the lack of diversity on the stage, saying, “It makes me absolutely sick that we’re not sharing the stage right now, but I promise that when you see us on Saturday [at the March for Our Lives], we will be.” 

The students have heard the calls to make this movement as inclusive as possible, to center the communities hit the hardest by gun violence. They’re learning the best ways to do that and traveling to Chicago and Liberty City to hear from young people there about how they can be most helpful. We should acknowledge their commitment and help them make good on this promise of inclusion.

Hand over control. The Huffington Post recently revealed the composition of the March for Our Lives board of directors. As the article put it, “students may be the face of the new gun violence prevention movement, but there are also adults working behind the scenes.”

As this moment grows into a movement and a formal organization, control over resources and messaging should be governed by the students. In the five weeks they’ve been active, these students have proven themselves to be thoughtful, passionate and committed to the cause. Given that some of the students involved are 18 years old, they are legally able to serve on their organization’s board of directors. Those who can’t should be allowed to choose a parent, teacher or trusted friend to represent their interests until they can.

The bottom line is this: The students should control the direction of this movement. If you’re worried about how they’ll spend your money, don’t donate. If you’re excited about what they’re doing and trust their instincts, why hold them back with the potential bureaucracy that holds so many nonprofit organizations back?

Let these kids determine what kind of support they need and who they need it from. They have demonstrated an incredible willingness to take feedback and an almost-extreme willingness to listen, learn and find a way to do better. They’re committed to driving results and making sure this goes beyond social media — look at how quickly they pivoted to voter registration after the shooting. They’re registering voters, meeting with lawmakers, and organizing marches nationwide. Let’s trust this next generation and see what they can do.

Share best practices with kindness. Millennials can assess authenticity like no other generation. These kids know if you’re genuine about helping them or if you’re looking to profit off the way they are turning a tragedy into an opportunity. They can use help, certainly. They don’t know what they don’t know yet and there are so many ways in which they will need support as they move beyond Saturday’s march. 

But share best practices and lessons learned kindly and compassionately. Respect their creativity and passion and understand their willingness to learn from those who have been doing this a lot longer is real — they just want to have a two-way conversation with you, not receive a lecture. They need mentors and they’ll need confidantes. Ask how you can help and show up for them.

For a generation, many of us have waited for a moment like this and for leaders like the Parkland teens. They are now marching for their lives — and ours. We can try to run in front of them to plant our flags. Or we can trust them, get behind them, and see where they will take us.

Ashley Spillane, a strategist focused on the intersection of politics and pop culture, is the former president of Rock the Vote and currently a fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.