Children Are Supposed to Enjoy Their Lives

What did you do over summer break? It’s a common question for students getting ready to head back to school, and thousands of young scholars who were enrolled in Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® summer enrichment programs will have stories to tell from this year’s National Day of Social Action. Every July, students in grades K-12 at CDF Freedom Schools sites across the country take part in a special day to advocate around a critical issue affecting children’s lives. This year focused on gun violence, and many scholars got to attend marches, rallies, and meetings with legislators where they were able to share their own stories about how gun violence affects them and their communities. They were able to see the power of collective action, gained valuable experience in speaking up in front of new audiences, and learned the key CDF Freedom Schools principle that children are never too young to make a difference.

In New York, CDF Freedom Schools scholars rallied and marched at City Hall Park, where their call for adults to protect children, not guns was also a demand for their own right and freedom to live joyfully. One scholar put it this way as she stepped up to the microphone: “We should be able to walk the streets and have a good time at the park without being worried about getting shot or getting hurt…I think it’s unfair to all the kids and all the parents who have suffered through these shootings. It’s not fair. Kids are supposed to enjoy their life.” The scholars took part in a loud call and response: “What do we want?” “JOY!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

Later, a group of scholars dropped off letters asking New York City Council Members to take action against gun violence at Council Member Charles Barron’s office, where his chief of staff spoke with them about the history of Black freedom fighters and movements. The indomitable Ella Baker, whose legacy of servant-leadership is an integral part of the CDF Freedom Schools movement, was one of the freedom fighters whose picture was displayed prominently on the wall.

In Ohio, one of the 10 states with the highest number of gun-related deaths among children and teenagers, along with Texas, California, Illinois, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, CDF Freedom Schools scholars rallied at the statehouse and brought posters and letters to be left on display. At another rally in Knoxville, Tennessee, one scholar’s hand-lettered poster was decorated with large X’s and read, “Fight against gun violence/If you can’t use them right/Don’t use them AT ALL!” In Sacramento, California, where scholars gathered for a large rally inside the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, hundreds raised their hands when they were asked whether they knew someone who had been harmed by gun violence. In San Francisco, news crews captured a similar exercise where scholars were invited to step forward if they’d lost someone to gun violence or if they’d come close to being injured by guns themselves. When a reporter asked one scholar, 11-year-old Montae, whether he felt safe in his neighborhood, he answered, “Sometimes, no . . . I hear a lot of gunshots.”

In St. Paul, Minnesota, approximately 1,600 scholars and supporters marched to the Minnesota State Capitol grounds, part of a special week for Minnesota CDF Freedom Schools scholars that also included Youth Science Day at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Before the march, Tim Cryer, CDF-Minnesota’s Youth Development Senior Manager, explained some of the experiences children gained during all of the National Day of Social Action events: “What does it look like to protest? What does it look like to use your voice? Something that they can put their energy to, that they can get excited about with their peers—that helps them feel like they are part of the solution, and not just victims.” Several parents whose own children were killed by gun violence marched alongside the Minnesota scholars. One, Monica Jones, told a reporter: “We don’t want this to continue to happen to any more kids in our community.” Another mother, Marea Perry, said, “Through loss you can still love, and that’s what we want to continue to do, to represent the love that we have for our children, and the love that we have for other people’s children.”

Fewer parents would feel these mothers’ pain if every adult felt the same love for other people’s children and the same compulsion to protect children, not guns. Fewer children would need to speak out at rallies and marches if more adults were willing to act. How long will our nation continue to allow children to feel scared in their own neighborhoods, schools, and homes? CDF is so proud of all of these young people who are learning to speak up for themselves and their right to grow up joyfully and safely.