Two years ago, as he walked his girlfriend home from a bus stop, Ke’Shon Newman’s brother was shot nine times and killed in crossfire.
The Chicago high school student said the tragedy traumatized his family, leaving the fear that his mother might lose another son due to the conditions of their neighborhood.
After losing his brother, Newman said he suffered with depression. He finally got the chance to speak out about his loss when he joined B.R.A.V.E., the youth-led violence prevention youth council of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side.
“I wasn’t going to let my brother’s name become a statistic,” Newman said. “He won’t be just a regular kid that was shot on the streets. I’m going to make justice for his name. I’m going to make sure that everyone else who went through that can also get justice for their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their cousins, any family members that they’ve lost.
“I’m here to make justice because of the injustice that I see every single day of my life.”
University of Michigan awarded its 2018 Wallenberg Medal to two youth organizations working to end gun violence. Representatives for B.R.A.V.E. youth leaders and the student activists behind March For Our Lives in Parkland, Florida, accepted the honors Nov. 14 in Rackham Auditorium.
B.R.A.V.E. (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere) was formed in 2009 to train youths to be peacemakers with their peers and leaders, while giving them the opportunity to create social change through leadership, community organizing, activism and public speaking.
Over the years, B.R.A.V.E. activists have led peace initiatives in their community and have taken to international, national and local platforms to advocate for peace and justice in Chicago.
March For Our Lives was born after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which a gunman killed 17 people.
The student activists of March For Our Lives have created a movement aiming to end gun violence and hold elected officials accountable. Primary goals include funding gun violence research, requiring background checks for all gun purchases and promoting safe storage and mandatory gun theft reporting.
At the ceremony, representatives from each group received the Wallenberg Medal and delivered the annual Wallenberg Lecture.
The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors the legacy of U-M graduate Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II.
The award is given annually to those who demonstrate the capacity of the human spirit to stand up for the helpless, defend the integrity of the powerless, and speak out on behalf of the voiceless.
“(Wallenberg’s) legacy for us is the conviction that one person can make a difference and that courage is the indispensable civic virtue,” said John Godfrey, chair of the Wallenberg committee.
This year marks the first time the medal has been conferred upon an organization, and the honorees are the youngest recipients in the 26 years the university has given this award.
At the ceremony, President Mark Schlissel said the honorees have demonstrated a “level of engagement that is so desperately needed in our society.” He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that gun deaths are the second leading cause of fatalities for children in the nation. Gun violence is the number one leading cause of death among African-American children.
“We must honor and bring attention to the young people in our nation’s neighborhoods who are standing up and demanding change,” Schlissel said. “Those who are ensuring that we do not forget the lives taken and the communities forever saddened. Those who work tirelessly against violence and injustice and who carry forward the greatest qualities of Raoul Wallenberg.”
In his remarks, Alex Wind, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High and one of the representatives from March For Our Lives, cautioned audience members against only caring about issues once tragedies affect their personal lives.
“You don’t want to wait to see your brother, you don’t want to wait to see your best friend, your parents, your children in a casket,” Wind said. “You want to be able to have prevented that.”
Sofie Whitney, a recent graduate from the high school, recounted the day of the tragic shooting that targeted her school as well as how the March For Our Lives movement was born.
“It’s amazing to see that everyone is realizing now change-making doesn’t have an age limit, and as long as you’re passionate about something and as long as you truly believe that you’re doing the right thing, quite literally anything is possible,” said Whitney, a co-founder of March For Our Lives.
Rie’Onna Holmon, a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Chicago and a member of B.R.A.V.E., recounted an experience in which her bus was caught in crossfire, and said she can still hear the gunshots in her head.
Holmon noted the systemic root problems that cause gun violence, such as poverty.
“I’m here today to make sure everybody here, if you’ve been through something — even if it wasn’t a shooting — if you’ve been through something that traumatized you, that bothers you, get out there and voice your opinion,” she said.
After their remarks, the four student activists participated in a Q&A. They discussed the role of social media in their lives, the difficulties in organizing and how adults can support their missions.
In closing, Newman noted the importance of finding ways to authentically tell one’s story instead of allowing others to reduce it to appealing sound bites.
“Make sure you tell your story, and don’t let nobody change it.”