Voices of Youth Against Gun Violence

Forum on gun violence brought together students and experts for a meaningful dialogue at the United Nations

The participants in the forum ‘Youth against Vun Violence” at the United Nations

By Kaitlin Drape – On May 17 nearly 150 people participated in the Forum Supporting the Voices of Youth Against Gun Violence at the United Nations, co-sponsored by Dianova International in collaboration with the NGO Committee on Mental Health, the NGO Committee on Children’s Rights, the Mission of Liberia to the UN and others. The overriding theme of the meeting was the power of youth to make a change.  It is indeed the very idealism which youth possesses which throughout history has shown that young people, in the words of one panelist, “are the conscience of society” and that they have the power to organize, mobilize public opinion, and shift attitudes and policies.

Vivian Gartayn Lombeh, Press and Public Affairs Office for the Permanent Mission of Liberia, welcomed the many young attendees at the meeting, and stated how important they are to achieving the goals of the UN. UN Resolution 2250 emphasizes “the importance of youth as agents of change in promoting peace and security,” partly because of their sheer numbers.  Indeed, World Bank data shows that 42% of the global population is under 25 years of age.

The attendees viewed an original video produced by students of Mt. Vernon High School, in the S.T.R.O.N.G. after school program, called #Never Again. It used music and excerpts from news reports about the Parkland attack, creating a message to end gun violence.  Joseph Miller, one of the student producers, said the students took this initiative because they were “tired of turning on the news and hearing that an act of senseless gun violence has occurred.”


Javier Hernandez Valencia, from the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, commented on the “universal nature of the problem” and that is it is “not just limited to the U.S.” The problem is endemic worldwide: two-thirds of reported armed violence in past years occurred in countries who are not in the midst of armed conflicts.  He cited the importance of looking at global strategies for solutions. He urged activists to look to the “vast experience from other parts of the world who struggle to create a life free of violence.”  The UN is in a unique position to create new models to combat gun violence.

Gerry Dyer, Chief of Office for the Global Partnership to End Gun Violence Against Children at UNICEF explained that one billion children have experienced violence, abuse or neglect, shattering lives, and causing a loss of trillions of dollars worldwide. He believes that the key lies in “a whole of society approach.”  It requires everyone getting involved.  He endorsed the WHO’s “Inspire” program which maps out a plan for ending violence against children.  The plan calls for implementation and enforcement of laws, norms and values, safe environments, parent and caregiver support, income and economic strengthening, response and support services and education and life skills.

Alex Clavering, the leader of the March for Our Lives in New York, explained that the U.S., as a large exporter of weapons, “has profited from gun violence aboard and tolerated it at home,” and moreover, has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child nor the Arms Trade Treaty.   Violence has gone “unchecked by lobbyists and corruption” at home.  He said that the group most vulnerable is “poor, black and brown, and underrepresented.” He expressed confidence that the UN can make a difference: “The UN was created to maintain the dignity and worth of all human persons and to achieve peace.”

“A black man in America is 13 times more likely than a white man to die in gun violence”

Corinna Davis, an activist from the New Jersey-based Students Demand Action, said the group helped organize the student walk-out on March 14, has worked with the press, conducted assemblies in local towns, and held voter registration events.  She brought two key issues into the discussion: the influence of race as a factor in gun violence and the issue of gun suicide and how both crises must be tackled through a change in attitudes.   She explained that a black man in America is 13 times more likely than a white man to die in gun violence and that U.S. violence is “rooted in racism.”  She also highlighted the issue of gun suicide which she said, “is usually left out of the narrative.”

Dr. Sylvester Rowe, former Ambassador from Sierra Leone, brought a global perspective to the discussion by discussing a “chain of solidarity” because the issue of gun violence “applies to villages and continents.”  This requires a truly global alliance. He explained how illicit arms flow throughout the globe to “countries where conflict reigns.”  Children are caught up in these conflicts both as “victims and perpetrators of violence.” These children must be rehabilitated and brought back into society through treatment, education and jobs. He explained that UN conventions should provide the guidance for change.

Dr. Alexander Kalogerakis, a clinical psychologist and a representative from the International Analytical Association, explained that two new modern dangers have shattered the sense of safety among children: terrorism and gun violence.  In addition to criminal gun violence episodes, hundreds of children have been killed each year from gun accidents in the U.S.  Awareness of the threat of gun violence has produced increased rates of anxiety and mood disorders here and throughout the world.   But the most gun deaths of young people aged 15-24 occurs in the U.S.   Among countries not involved in armed conflicts, 92% of those deaths occur in the U.S.   He was optimistic about the potential of youth to make a change.  Throughout history, he said, youth, with their idealism, “have been the conscience of society.”  Today, within the crisis of gun violence, young people have seen that our societies are failing to provide the basic requirements for safety and healthy psychological development.”

“Our societies are failing to provide the basic requirements for safety and healthy psychological development.”

Nupol Kiazulu, head of the Youth Coalition for Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, emphasized that this a new a new issue.  “Black and brown people have been trying to mobilize for years.”  Kiazulu, who was attacked and injured in Charlottesville during the “Unite the Right” violence, made the connection between gun violence and police violence.  In black and brown neighborhoods, she said, they are “overly policed.”  As she acknowledged, “We’re being terrorized in our own communities” and this intersection of issues must be addressed.  Voting is a critical element of change, she said, but pressuring legislators post-election is just as crucial.  “Stay on top of them,” she urged the attendees.

Mollie Toscano, a junior high school student activist from Brewster, New York, emphasized that every day seven children under 18 are killed every day in gun violence.  She noted that 67% of Americans favor gun control laws.  “What does it say about a country that puts gun ownership over the safety of its citizens?”  She and other students organized a pro-gun control sit in at the country court house and helped lead her school walk-outs. She is convinced that teens can make a difference if they believe in their power.  The message, she said, is, “Vote for our lives.”  Her goal is to motivate teens to understand their power to organize, demonstrate, make their voices heard, and especially to vote for candidates who support gun laws.

To watch the video of this event visit UN Web TV.