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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Turn & Talk / Willow Taylor Yang on Teen Voice and Gun Violence

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    EngagementSocial-emotional learning
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      Willow Taylor Yang is a 16-year-old sophomore at The Nueva School in San Mateo, California, where she is editor in chief of her school's newspaper. She was a senior project reporter for Since Parkland (sinceparkland.org), a yearlong effort by more than 200 teen journalists across the United States to report on each child or teen death by gun violence in the year following the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
      How and why did you get involved with Since Parkland?
      I found out about the project through Katina Paron of InsideClimate News, an editor I'd worked with on another journalism project. At first all I knew was that it involved writing about gun violence in some way. I was immediately intrigued because I'd been looking for a way to add my voice to that conversation. I had been seeing things in the news and feeling both helpless and hopeless at the same time. I wanted to find a way to make that change and be part of that change.
      I ended up writing 21 stories for the project, but I had no idea how large the scope of it all was until about a month or two before it was unveiled.
      Were there any stories you wrote that stayed with you or stood out in some way?
      There was one story in particular that affected me—a sibling duo, Mina and Andy Kim. Mina was 11 and her brother Andy was 10, and they were killed by their father in Maryland. I had this weird attachment to Mina. I didn't know her at all, and had obviously never met her, but she reminded me of me. She was also an Asian American girl, had glasses like me, and she had a younger brother like I do. While I was reporting on their stories, I couldn't help but imagine, "What if that happened to me? What if I were killed? What if my brother were killed?" It really struck a chord.
      Many of the victims I wrote about were not killed on purpose—they were cleaning their gun in a parking lot, or it was a case of mistaken identity or being in the wrong place. The accidents were terrible to me because it really brings home that this can happen to anyone. That this can happen to me.
      Do you feel that teens get enough opportunities to speak out about issues and create change?
      I think the widespread use of social media has helped give teens more of a voice. They can speak up on these platforms that anyone can get on—which can cause problems, too—but it's also been so important. With the Since Parkland project, we took to Twitter, created hashtags and posts, and got the project trending. That's just one example of how it can be incredibly powerful.
      What can schools do to encourage teens to have voice and to get involved in their school, the community, the world?
      I'm very fortunate that I go to a great private school where our administration gives us a lot of freedom to create social justice clubs and host events we are passionate about. We also have a cool program called Science of Mind, which encourages social-emotional learning and thinking about and expressing your opinions. It allows us to have a safe space to talk about social justice issues in our community.
      I think more schools can create and allow for a space for these kinds of conversations—and also facilitate them so things don't get out of hand. A safe discussion, where people can feel they won't be ridiculed or shut down, is beneficial to anyone. But it's especially good to create strong teen voices.
      Has the work you've done with this project inspired you to pursue a career in journalism?
      I've always been really into politics, but I was especially sparked by the 2016 presidential election. During that election, I launched a project called Voter Face, which was like Humans of New York, where I interviewed 132 strangers on the street about their political leanings. It was my first real foray into politics. Since then, I've done internships and programs, but Since Parkland has by far been the most meaningful and impactful project I've done. It's shown me how a grassroots movement, outside of the structure, can really change people's minds.
      Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

      EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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