Column: 'Make your voice heard'

Gloucester High School principal James Cook, left, and Alexander Oaks, right, the Gloucester Writers Center’s 2019 Amiri Baraka scholarship winner. Larry Oaks photo

Editor’s note: On Aug. 5, Gloucester High School Principal James Cook named Alexander Oaks the Gloucester Writers Center’s 2019 Amiri Baraka scholarship winner. A recent Gloucester High School graduate, Oaks will attend Trinity College in the fall, majoring in political science while also pursuing journalism. At GHS, he served as editor-in-chief of The Gillnetter, the school newspaper. The Writers Center’s Baraka award is named in honor of the late poet and activist and funded by the Kanter Kallman Foundation. During the Aug. 5 gathering, Oaks read an essay that he originally wrote for last year’s GHS student walkout calling for an end to gun violence. That essay is reprinted below.

Before I read the piece I have chosen to share with you all today, I would like to use this opportunity to thank Mr. Cook for nominating me to receive the 2019 Amiri Baraka Scholarship, and to thank the Gloucester Writers Center for accepting that nomination.

So, I had an essay composed about the importance of both writing and activism, and what dabbling in both has taught me about equality, social change, and the importance of being an active, engaged citizen. However, the piece I have chosen to share with you is one of unique importance to me and one that I believe is especially impactful after the tragedies that have occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, this past weekend. This speech is the one I delivered on March 15, 2018, to a crowd of about 300 Gloucester High School students assembled to remember the victims of last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and call for the implementation of gun control legislation.

“I think we all know why we’re out here today. It’s to protest gun violence. It’s to catalyze change. And it’s to remember those who have been lost already.

Before we start though, I want to make a couple acknowledgements. First, to the administration for being so open to student suggestions. There are schools around the country that aren’t as open as ours, that are restricting their students’ freedoms. So we’re thankful to Principal Cook and the rest of the administration for being so open to our ideas. To the Gloucester Police Department, for ensuring our safety and being open to the concerns of the community and keeping us safe. To the various students who have worked so hard to make this a reality. And to all of you for being out here.

Like I said, we’re out here to catalyze change, to raise awareness about gun violence and the danger that it poses to students, and to remember those who have been lost not only in Parkland, Florida, but also in every shooting around the world and in the country.

To start off, I’ll be honest with you guys. There’s honestly no place I want to be less than out here. I don’t want to be out here worried about my livelihood. I’d rather be inside stressing about a test or at home worrying about college. And I think we’d all rather be doing that because it shouldn’t be the jobs of a bunch of teenagers to ensure public safety. There are people who get paid to do that in the government. It shouldn’t take the brutal death of 17 kids and teachers to get this conversation going, but unfortunately that’s what it’s taken.

The responsibility to catalyze this change should never have fallen on the shoulders of teenagers, but here we are. Yet, I’m encouraged by this crowd I see in front of me. There are people from all grades, from all political leadings, from all walks of life and we’re all out here united by our desire for change and safety.

We deserve more. As human beings, we deserve safety and security in our classrooms, and at home, and around the country. But a fire clearly has been lit that cannot be ignored anymore. As young people, we often fall into the habit of thinking that our voices don’t matter as much as those who can vote, and those who have money, and those who have established power. But that isn’t true. Clearly politicians are finally starting to pay attention.

We are out here as one voice telling people we want change, and we demand change. Yet, unfortunately, one day of protest isn’t going to bring about enough change that’s meaningful. It’ll take more than a walkout to fix the epidemic of gun violence in our country.

So, I urge all of you here today who have a degree of interest in your own safety to get involved, get active, and make your voice heard. You can do this by registering to vote, signing petitions online, getting involved with candidates. However you make your voice heard.”

Justice-centered activism has long been something I have felt uniquely passionate about. Before I was old enough to hold articulate political views or have a personal set of morals and values, I believed in an innocent, elementary equality. Like that everyone in my Kindergarten class should be able to participate in show and tell, and everyone in my third grade class should be allowed to play kickball at lunch; regardless of what they looked like or which part of town they come from.

Nowadays, my opinions are a little more sophisticated, if only slightly. Even as my views have developed and become more articulate, my beliefs are still fueled by one simple truth: that no matter what someone looks like or which part of town they come from, they deserve equal rights, opportunities, and treatment. So, over the last decade or so, as I have protested in New York City, marched in Boston, organized in Gloucester, and spread my beliefs as far as I can, my commitment to activism remains steadfast because I am motivated by the basic truth that all people deserve decency.

Thank you.