Jaclyn Corin had gone through active shooter drills and classroom evacuation plans. But she was still shocked when one of the deadliest school shootings in history took place in her own community.
Corin, then 17, survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Seeing her school’s name alongside other locations of tragic mass shootings – Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado – would define the rest of her life.
“We were the generation that grew up post-9/11 in a country filled with violence,” said Corin, who is one of the founding members of March For Our Lives, a student-run gun violence prevention organization founded in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
Born between the years of 1996 and 2010, GenZers have grown up in an era where gun violence is frequent, immigration is a hotly debated topic and the deteriorating climate is acknowledged as a crisis. They are now coming of age during a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting black and brown communities, and as protesters take to the streets to call out racism and police brutality.
One in 10 eligible voters this November will be a member of GenZ.
Certain members of GenZ, including Corin, are adamant that the time for revolution – in the streets, online and at the polls – is now. They believe that they are uniquely positioned to affect change because of social media and the way it unites the generation.
By the numbers
GenZ is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. According to Pew Research, only a slight majority (52%) of post-millennials are non-Hispanic white, compared to a larger majority (61%) for millennials 10 years earlier.
Some experts suggested that GenZ is particularly accepting because of the way that diversity has been normalized within their generation since birth.
“This generation has grown up in a world that is considerably different than GenX, even Millennials. They’ve had friends, families, relationships with people who have been different than you based on whatever the difference is: socioeconomic, gender identity, and therefore, they’ve noticed that those friends and family members, even acquaintances are really no different than you as a generation. That is part of the reason they’ve been filled with so much empathy,” John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, told CNN.
And while GenZers have grown up in an increasingly more diverse environment, they have also come of age amid political division and violence.
In November 2016, right around the time that the oldest members of GenZ were starting college, America was more politically divided than during years prior, according to Pew Research. Pew Research found that both party coalitions have been reshaped by an aging US population, levels of higher education, and racial and ethnic diversity. On the eve of the 2016 election, the parties were moving further and further apart. The Democratic voter base was becoming younger and diverse quickly, while the GOP voter base was aging, but diversifying more slowly.
In 2019, there were more mass shootings than days in the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an online database that has tracked American gun violence since 2014. And, while this generation is the most diverse, in 2019, the likelihood of encountering gun violence differs by race. According to Giffords Law Center, the legal and policy oriented wing of Giffords, an organization dedicated to research around gun violence prevention, in 2019, unarmed Black civilians were about five times more likely to be shot and killed than unarmed white civilians.
Some researchers suggest that gun violence has been considered an everyday element of life in black and brown communities, and so it has been ignored for years, often seen as an issue separate from mass shootings. But, as GenZ gun violence prevention activists point out, when they address gun violence in 2020, they are referring to both rare mass shootings, as well as prevalent gun violence in communities of color.
‘GenZ was woken up earlier’
Eva Lewis, 21, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, a predominantly black area. She lived in a low-income, “matriarchy with a single mom” household, and described seeing “chaos left and right.”
“Just hearing about black death every day, Chicago,” she said. “You’re used to it. One person killed. Two people killed. Three-year-old killed. Four-year-old killed. This person killed by police. This person killed by a neighbor. This person, that person, this person. That’s traumatic. And there’s only a point of time where you go through stuff like that, there’s only so much time when you can go through stuff like that until you react.”
Lewis attended a school on the North Side, a more white, affluent part of Chicago, and said she dealt with racism. During that experience, she said she became curious about the structures in place around her.
“I just wanted to get to the bottom of it and figure out how we can improve the experiences of black people,” she said.
Chicago has been historically segregated, even after the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1960s. A large part of racial inequality in the city has been exacerbated by segregated schools – according to NPR, just over 10 years ago, a federal judge lifted an order that mandated Chicago Public Schools to integrate by race. Ever since, the schools have been even more separated by race.
A pivotal moment for her generation, she said, came after the death of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watch-guard in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. Lewis, who was 13 at the time, described his death as “incredibly traumatic.”
“But when Trayvon Martin was killed, it made a lot of people click and be like, wait a second. Like, we are not past this,” she said.
Lewis said her mother took her to her first protest after his death.
“For me, being a GenZ-er that is a black woman, and also growing up in a matriarchy where I had a single mom, and then, my grandma was really like, the head person … to hear their stories and see what they went through down South and, just like, to see that parallel to my own life, it’s tiring because you hear, oh, we had the civil rights movement, we went through this,” she said.
“We’re tired of waiting,” she said. “And being young and seeing the implications of colonialism on our parents and grandparents and their parents, you don’t want to go through that, too. I don’t want to be older and tired. I want to be lively and cared for and feel cared for and I want to see our community thrive.”
Lewis is far from alone.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts, said that in previous years, youth dissatisfaction led to inaction. But in 2018, with the March For Our Lives, “fed-up” members of GenZ took action in high numbers, leading to the highest youth voter turnout in a quarter century during the 2018 midterms.
“This builds on a lot of people’s work,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, adding that politicians like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have run on platforms committed to diversity and inclusion.
Kawashima-Ginsberg also noted that the Occupy Wallstreet movement spearheaded mostly by millennials in 2011 brought more progressive conversations into the mainstream. Occupy Wallstreet called out issues of economic injustice, focusing on the unequal distribution of wealth between the top 1% of income earners and the rest, as well as the war in Afghanistan, and climate change. The movement was purposefully leaderless and decentralized, serving as a catchall for disaffected young Americans.
“GenX used to receive the message that we all have an equal chance. Now we know that we don’t,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “GenZ was woken up much earlier.”
From fighting for immigration reform, to walking out of school to raise awareness around gun violence prevention, and striking from school on Fridays to save the climate, in the past decade, many GenZ-ers across the country have expressed their dismay with a culture that tolerates violence and are committed to learning how to combat injustice.
“We are all educating ourselves, especially in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, on racial injustices, especially injustices toward the black community. We are beginning to understand just how different a lot of our lives and upbringings are. Even in the last two weeks, I’ve seen so many people that weren’t formally engaged in politics or civil rights take a step in the ring and say, I need to be a part of this fight because I’ve been lucky enough not to understand,” Corin said.
During the summer of 2018, Corin led March For Our Lives’ cross-country voter registration tour, Road to Change, to mobilize young voters. From connecting with young people across the country, Corin saw that GenZ was tired of growing up with active shooter drills and the constant fear that their community could be next. Corin started the March For Our Lives chapter network, which provides tools and resources to groups of organizers nationwide who mobilize their communities on the issue of gun violence prevention. The network uses social media to connect across the country.
As Della Volpe notes, “little victories,” have been made in the wake of Parkland and the March For Our Lives in 2018, including the high youth voter turnout in 2018, which helped elect young politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley.
Since 2018, many gun violence prevention laws have been passed at the state level. Since Parkland, 137 gun safety bills were passed in 32 states and Washington, DC, according to Giffords. In 2019 alone, 70 gun safety bills were signed. And youth support was a driving force behind the Green New Deal, a sweeping policy proposal to combat climate change that has stalled in the Senate.
But more work remains.
Now, as nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd continue for a third week, members of GenZ are saying that this time, the energy feels different.
The protests pushing for racial justice following Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis have been highly localized across the country. Kawashima-Ginsberg noted that pressuring your local police office to enact change is different than protesting President Donald Trump or a border wall at the national level.
‘We are the social media revolution’
In 2019, young Americans felt anxiety as much as joy, according to the Harvard IOP’s Spring 2019 youth poll. About half of young Americans reported experiencing anxiety, correlating to the number of young people who fear for the state of our country, according to the same poll.
Oftentimes, GenZ is referred to as iGen, because of the generation’s dependence on social media and technology.
Leah Shafer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests that the rise in feelings of anxiety or worry among teens correlates with a rise in teens’ dependence on social media and technology.
But technology also has its benefits for youth organizers.
“Digital media can be a space that scrambles geography and racial backgrounds by bringing people together around shared interests rather than where you live. We see that partnerships are emerging,” Henry Jenkins, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and the author “By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism,” told CNN, using the March For Our Lives as an example.
Jenkins noted that while the March For Our Lives movement began in an affluent, mostly white community in Florida, March For Our Lives organizers made the effort to connect with members of the Black Lives Matter movement and those who face police violence and gun violence in their everyday life as the movement went national. While members of GenZ growing up in different areas may be different, “they formed alliances and called attention to the shared and overlapping identities that they had,” Jenkins said.
While Corin recognizes that young people have been at the forefront of social change for generations, from her experiencing connecting with GenZers all over the country, she believes her generation is uniquely positioned to make change because of social media and the level of empathy it enables.
“GenZ not only has social media tools to connect with one another in an instant, but we also have this culture where we’re all so willing to fight for each other. This is one of the most understanding and empathetic generations we’ve ever seen. We are making this a collective fight and we understand that if something doesn’t affect us immediately, it might affect people in our community or people in our generation that we might not even know,” Corin said, speaking to the ability of GenZ-ers to stand up for each other online.
Nia White, a 17-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, NY, echoed Corin’s sentiments.
“Prior to this revolution, ‘cause that’s what it is, civil rights organizations worked together but didn’t necessarily see eye to eye all the time. Now we’re all on the same consensus and realizing, it doesn’t matter how we’re going about it, but what the end result is supposed to be, which is freedom for everyone,” White told CNN.
“We are the social media revolution. We are the social media generation. We grew up with Facebook, Instagram, every sort of platform. When you see black people, black men, black children, black women… just people of color in general gunned down, choked down, shot up in their own communities and you seeing nothing done about it, it gets you so frustrated,” White said of the violence she sees online.
“Violence is everywhere,” she said, adding that her community in East New York is prone to gun and police violence. Similar to Corin and Lewis, the first protest she attended was in response to gun violence.
Violence did not start with GenZ. But because of social media, perpetual violence is more visible. As a result of social media, Jenkins explains, incidents that may have previously been considered isolated issues have been brought together under a singular hashtag, such as #BlackLivesMatter.
“Social media didn’t cause that awareness, but enabled that awareness,” Jenkins said, adding that the ability for members of GenZ to document their own lives and experiences, and the accessibility of social media platforms, helped GenZers express themselves and what they were going through in real time.
Jenkins added that GenZ uses the same social media platforms to tell their friends what they’re up to on a Friday night as they do to tell stories of injustice. While GenZ may use Snapchat to post a selfie, GenZers now also use the app to document political opinions and theories for how to dismantle systemic racism.
But while White remains frustrated by the perpetual violence she witnesses both online and in her own community, she is optimistic about GenZ as change-makers.
“We are able to amplify ourselves. Everyone is on the same page. We are on the same wavelength, and give each other information, then you’re more likely to go out and give to others,” she said. “We are in the social media stage where it’s like, everyone is for everyone. Whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, etc. we make sure these messages go viral. This movement is more than me. It’s more than any of us now. It’s worldwide now.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Eva Lewis’ quotes about Trayvon Martin and description of her own experiences. The location of Martin’s neighborhood has also been corrected.