Marshall Ganz1 tells us that to affect change—you must be able to communicate effectively. At Harvard's Kennedy School, he teaches about organizing for change and leadership. Not the kind that is born of ambition, but the kind that is born of passion. Central to the concept of leadership is the ability to communicate 3 ideas—who you are (story of self), who is your group (story of us), and why action is needed immediately (story of now).1 When individuals create effective personal narratives, their passion and purpose are clearly articulated. Personal narrative can become public narrative, which is central to movement building, organizing, and advocacy. Some elements of this are intuitive. Educators, parents, and leaders have long used narrative, or storytelling, to teach important lessons. Often, stories help us make choices and guide us toward the moral resources (hope, empathy, self-worth) to respond mindfully and courageously to urgent challenges.
Recently, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland Florida have emerged as leaders and have succeeded in bringing important lessons to our country, by creating a powerful public narrative—without formal training or coaching. The lessons have to do with leadership and the role of public narrative in leadership. They have a deeply embedded narrative, and they are courageously sharing their stories of self, of us, and of now. They did not choose this story, but they now own it, and have boldly used it to demand change. On Valentines Day, 2018, they survived a mass shooting, when a young man with an assault rifle killed 17 people, all students or teachers at their school. Their narratives are being heard all over the world; they will not be silent. They are uniquely qualified to lead change.
THE STORY OF SELF
Ganz and Han1,2 tell us that elements of self can be illustrated through storytelling, sharing a poignant event, or recounting a moment that shows ones value's and emotion. This technique is the core of a public narrative. The Parkland students' story of self is riveting. Individually, these students share a unique experience; they may have hid in closets, witnessed friends shot in the back while running away, watched others bleed to death, or crawled to help their classmates hide or find cover. Some were injured; many saw scenes of horror; some only heard shots fired. All feared for their lives. They lost friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, and teachers. These personal experiences are vivid, the fear still present, their feelings real and raw. Simmering within this unimaginable grief lies another emotion—they are angry.
THE STORY OF US
They united to articulate the “story of us”—and it is even more heartbreaking as they are also speaking for many who cannot speak for themselves—their classmates who did not survive. They speak for the children from the kindergarten class in Sandy Hook, who were too young to take up this fight. They speak for every family who has lost a loved one to gun violence and those yet untouched but who go to school everyday and practice live shooter drills. They speak for the students not yet attacked, but at risk each day. They speak for every parent, who cannot voice their worst fears.
As a group, they are forever united in the events of that day. They are the generation of mass shootings, and they have been transformed. Parkland survivors have a unique platform as survivors of a mass shooting. Most were not born when Columbine occurred, yet their lives have been informed by multiple mass shootings. Their reality has been drills, fear, and destruction seen all too often on TV. They speak for the adults, the politicians, and the leaders whose voices have failed to affect change.
THE STORY OF NOW
The story of now is undisputable, summed up in their simple hash tag #neveragain. Now, they will do what adults, politicians, and educators have not been able to do. Now is the beginning of never again! They will make America safe again.
These emerging leaders tell stories of emotional and physical threat, fear, loss, and survival. Although they have no formal training, they are creating a personal and public narrative; an advanced leadership skill. They possess key elements of this technique, as they are firmly rooted in authenticity, courage, and strength, with the authority of only those who have confronted such horror. The students are doing exactly what Marshall Ganz teaches: “That by linking stories of self, us, and now, public narrative communicates the moral authority of the speaker, brings the shared hurts and hopes of their constituency alive, and offers a hopeful, if challenging, opportunity to respond.”2
As each student speaks, they invoke emotional and moral resources to motivate courageous responses to threats—the threat that became real when a troubled young man killed 17 people they loved with an assault rifle that is easy to obtain. Amid this unimaginable event, they illuminate hope over fear, as they loudly call out injustice and demand change. They are speaking directly to a constituent group—all students who want to be safe in school, all parents who want the same for their children, and all citizens who worry about the threat of gun violence.
This type of moral authority must come from an informed, authentic place—one where the heart and the head collide. It is quite remarkable that these kids, without formal training, communicate so effectively. They did not choose this story, but it is uniquely theirs. As they accept ownership and responsibility, they are moved to take action. Unfortunately, they are uniquely qualified to do this.
Ganz teaches, “The core of a story is a plot, a moment of choice in which a protagonist is confronted by a challenge for which he or she is not prepared, but which he or she must nevertheless face, the outcome of which we take away as the ‘moral.’ Why do we pay attention? Because it is in plot moments that we most fully experience the gift of agency as human beings—moments of real anxiety, to be sure, but also of exhilaration—when our choices matter most, but we are least prepared to make them. And because we identify empathetically with the protagonist, we not only ‘understand’ the dilemma with our heads, but we experience the dilemma in our hearts. This is why our families, faith traditions, cultural traditions, organizations, movements, and communities all teach through story.”1
On Saturday, March 24, the Parkland students organized March for Our Lives. Students and supporters marched in Washington, DC, and over 800 similar events took place in other parts of the country on that day.
One of the key messages of “US” is that they are the future, the immediate future. They are the future voters and leaders of our country. This week they appear on the cover of Time Magazine. Tomorrow we may see them in congress, leading organizations, teaching students, and influencing others to organize for change. They may not be able to vote today, but soon will use their voices and their votes to move the needle on this topic—by moving politicians out.
A key message of “now” is that mass shootings have become epidemic and like all epidemics must be addressed from all sides. Now, they refuse to sit idly by as gun violence seeps deeper into community after community. Journalism students, the editorial staff of The Eagle Eye, the school newspaper for Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, became guest editors to The Guardian on March 23, 2018. In this editorial, students present a manifesto, highlighting 8 specific goals to fix America's gun laws.3 The recommendations reflect the work of leaders, as they continue to use their personal experiences to inform a public narrative to change hearts, minds, and laws.
We all have much to learn from this remarkable group of young adults.