Video Campaign Gives Chicago Teens a Voice against Gun Violence
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Hundreds of teenagers in Chicago are commencing the new school year equipped with a deeper understanding of the factors behind gun violence in their communities and how their voices can play a crucial role in combating it.
Gun violence disproportionately affects young people across the nation and has become the leading cause of death among children and teenagers in the United States. Many individuals, driven by fear and anxiety, believe that carrying a firearm will make them safer. Consequently, more teenagers are now carrying guns compared to two decades ago. However, these young individuals are also aware that this escalating arms race does not contribute to community safety; rather, it leads to more deaths and injuries.
Within this paradox lies the potential for a safer future, and it is the teenagers who can lead the way, as the decision to pick up a gun is not inevitable. The narrative that only having a firearm can ensure a young person’s safety is false and can be transformed.
This summer, Project Unloaded collaborated with Chicago Public Schools and After School Matters to engage approximately 350 teenagers, aged 14 to 18, from communities heavily affected by gun violence. We provided the students with information about the risks associated with guns and challenged them to develop social media campaigns that could effectively communicate to their peers that possessing a gun is not a viable solution for safety.
Initially, many of the teenagers expressed skepticism. They doubted the significance of their voices in addressing gun violence and were uncertain about the possibility of stopping it. However, as they delved deeper into the misconceptions that prompt young individuals to carry firearms and witnessed how the voices of teenagers had made an impact in other public health and social justice issues, their attitudes underwent a shift.
Throughout the six-week program in partnership with Chicago Public Schools, the students heard from experts on gun violence, interacted with professionals from major advertising agencies, and learned how teenagers can influence cultural change. They practiced having conversations with their peers about the risks associated with gun use and brainstormed effective approaches to initiate these important dialogues. Finally, the teenagers created their own social media content discouraging gun use and devised strategies for large-scale campaigns that could disseminate the fact-based message that owning a firearm increases the likelihood of gun violence rather than reducing it.
We specifically encouraged the program participants to develop social media campaigns for one simple reason: Teenagers are most effectively reached through their mobile phones and peer networks. This has been a strategy we have employed at Project Unloaded since our establishment in 2021. Within this short timeframe, our prominent campaign "Young people are SNUG (Safer Not Using Guns)" has already reached over 3 million teenagers on platforms like TikTok and Snapchat. During this summer alone, over 120,000 young individuals engaged with our social media content and visited our campaign website to access more information about the risks associated with gun use. When teenagers are equipped with factual knowledge, many of them alter their desire to possess a gun.
Similarly, by the end of their six weeks in the program, many of the Chicago students recognized the potential impact of their voices and ideas. The program concluded with a pitch competition in front of a panel of judges and hundreds of their peers. The winning team’s campaign idea featured a compelling and straightforward slogan: "Guns don’t grant you power."
Teenagers aspire to have power, and when it comes to instigating social change, they possess a considerable amount of it. Consider Claudette Colvin, who was only 15 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months prior to Rosa Parks. Her decision sparked a movement. Years later, as teenagers became aware of how tobacco companies’ marketing targeting young people was contributing to the prevalence of lung cancer, they stopped smoking and transformed the cultural perception of cigarettes from being "cool" to "uncool" within a generation. Two decades ago, almost 25% of teenagers smoked cigarettes. Today, less than 5% of teenagers smoke.
History is replete with examples like these, where teenagers serve as catalysts for significant societal transformations. Nowadays, their adept use of social media can accelerate the flame that facilitates narrative and cultural changes. Campaigns aimed at changing narratives have the power to improve the world.
Teenagers comprehend the accessibility of guns and understand that this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. However, they also possess a clear-eyed vision for the future. In a subsequent summer program with After School Matters, we requested young people to create social media content and art projects illustrating the impact of guns on their communities. In one art project, a student wrote, "Guns give rise to feelings of violence and fear. Without them, our communities could become ‘communities’ once again."
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