Last Saturday morning, six high school students from the West and South sides of Chicago boarded an airplane at O’Hare, stepped off the plane three hours later, crowded into a van driven by a woman they’d never met and before long were standing outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Among them were Vashon Edmondson and Trinity Cole-Reid, him in a shirt that said “Danger Educated Black Man” and her in one that said “I Care.”
Vashon and Trinity knew what had happened in Parkland, how a former student had killed 17 people with an assault rifle on Valentine’s Day, but still they weren’t prepared for what they saw.
So many memorial flowers, teddy bears, pinwheels, balloons, posters and photographs, a vast field of mourning.
“I’ve seen memorials in Chicago,” Trinity said a few days later, back home on the South Side, “but in my neighborhood, it’s more like one bear, one poster, one candle, one balloon.”
When they got on the plane that morning, they weren’t sure exactly where in Parkland they were going, or who they were going to meet, and Trinity wasn’t sure at first who was the woman who had picked them up at the airport. She felt anxious wondering whether the woman had lost a child in the shooting.
She was relieved to learn that it was the mother of Emma Gonzalez, the girl with the shaved head she’d seen on the news passionately talking about the need for stricter gun laws.
Soon, after their stop at the school, they drove to Emma’s house.
“There was security and a gate,” Trinity recalled, “lots of turns past lots of big houses with lawns.”
She felt a thought flicker past: “I wish I could live like this.”
The house was bigger than any she’d ever been in — “like something out of a movie” — and Trinity took off her shoes because she worried about getting the carpet dirty.
Then Emma appeared, so exuberant and welcoming that this unusual encounter between strangers started to feel like a reunion of friends.
The trip had been planned quickly, after Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, called the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church on the South Side.
Could Pfleger recommend two students to join four from North Lawndale High School on a visit to Parkland?
The purpose was simple and hard: Unite the students across race, class and geography to help them see that gun violence, which disproportionately affects young people, is a common cause.
In the weeks since the shooting, the crusading students in the wealthy, predominantly white town of Parkland have received a lot of attention, most of it positive. Their prominence has hurt or rankled people who don’t see the same praise and publicity given to crusading students in less advantaged places.
“I felt that way before I went down,” said Lamar Johnson, who runs the St. Sabina’s youth violence prevention program attended by Trinity, a senior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and Vashon, a senior at Hansberry College Prep.
Why, he wondered, were they going to Florida? No one came to them to talk about the violence in Chicago.
After a few hours in Parkland, his resentment melted.
The Chicago students and the Parkland students sat in the Gonzalez living room at first, then out by the pool. No reporters, just young people talking to each other.
The Chicago students explained that while their city wasn’t the war zone often depicted on the news, it was a place where, in Vashon’s words, “anything could happen at any moment.”
In Chicago, they explained, young people are accustomed to the vigilance required to walk down a block; to school security so tight it makes them feel like criminals; to July 4 celebrations when it’s hard to tell gunfire from firecrackers.
Vashon told them about the night his mother was shot in the chest and face, caught in the crossfire during a robbery.
As he told that story, he recalled later, “I saw a couple of eyes open wide.”
The Parkland students talked about what had happened to them, as well, and Trinity, listening, thought that one difference was in how much support they’ve received for the trauma they’ve endured.
“I didn’t feel resentful,” she said, but she wondered what would it take to get more support for Chicago’s young victims of violence.
A critical moment came when one of the Parkland students apologized for the privilege they took for granted.
“Any barriers that could have divided us,” Johnson recalled, “completely disintegrated at that moment. I was in tears.”
So were several students, from both places.
It wasn’t all politics and violence. The Gonzalez family supplied bathing suits and the Chicago kids went swimming. Pizza was delivered.
Later, Emma tweeted about the meeting to her 1.2 million followers:
“Yesterday, the members of @AMarch4OurLives got to meet up with some of the most wonderful and most strong spoken students of Chicago. ‘Florida’s safest city’ and one of the cities in America most affected by gun violence came together to share stories, ideologies, and pizza.”
She continued: “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these few weeks alone.”
In another tweet, she added, “People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time.”
When Vashon and Trinity left Parkland that evening, they felt they’d gotten heard and gotten help. They came back to Chicago — to a church that keeps a large wall out front filled with photos of children who have been shot to death — feeling hopeful.
They felt inspired to learn more about gun laws and pay more attention to elections, knowing they’re the next generation of voters.
“Emma was saying you can’t let adults tell you you don’t have the power to do anything — you do,” Trinity said.
In the days since, the students have been in touch by text and social media. They hope to connect at the March for Our Lives on March 24 in Washington, D.C.
Before they left, Emma invited them to come visit this summer. They invited her to Chicago for the Fourth of July.
They felt slightly changed, which is how you begin to change the world.