Our daily reality of gun violence and trauma: Q&A with teen activist Edna Chavez

(Courtesy of Alex Brando / Associated Press)

(Courtesy of Alex Brando / Associated Press)

Taking the stage at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. earlier this year, 18-year-old Edna Chavez described her daily reality of gun violence and trauma: “I have lived in South Los Angeles my entire life and have lost many loved ones to gun violence. This is normal. It's normal to the point that I learned to duck from bullets before I learned how to read.”

Edna shared how her 14-year-old brother Ricardo died during a shooting outside their home — every year routine gun violence in the U.S. kills thousands of victims like him and disproportionately affects communities of colour. Edna asked the crowds to chant Ricardo’s name and to remember her words: “Mi nombre, my name, is Edna Lizbeth Chavez. Remember my name. Remember these faces. Remember us and how we’re making a change.”

(Courtesy of Nicholas Kamm / Getty Images)

(Courtesy of Nicholas Kamm / Getty Images)

As a youth leader at Community Coalition — a nonprofit that works to combat addiction, crime, violence and poverty in South L.A. — Edna is helping build the next generation of student activists. I spoke with Edna to discuss the trauma of gun violence, how the government can support students of colour and her advice for other young leaders.

Luzelena Escamilla (LE): Tell me about yourself and your activism.

Edna Chavez (EC): I was born and raised in South Los Angeles. I got involved during the elections in 2016. Like many of my peers and people in my community, I was heavily impacted by the election. My father was deported and that really took a toll on my life. That is when I decided I couldn't let my pain take over me. It was a call to action. I started getting more involved with Community Coalition. I started asking questions. I reached out to one of my mentors who actually helped me partner up with an attorney and we created "Know your Rights" workshops. We did outreach here at the Coalition in communities and also at my school.

(LE): Can you tell me more about Community Coalition and your role there?

(EC): Community Coalition is a nonprofit here in South L.A. I am part of their youth leader program called South Central Youth Empowered Thru Action (SCYEA). We focus on black and brown youth, making sure that we are able to build our leadership skills. SCYEA works with five different high schools around South L.A. They give us resources such as tutors for school and make sure that we are on top of our academics. We also have a wellness coordinator. Being an activist and a student, we have to make sure that self-care is part of our routine and we are OK mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically.

(Courtesy of Arlene Mejorado)

(Courtesy of Arlene Mejorado)

(LE): What do you wish more people understood about gun violence in South L.A.?

(EC): I want them to understand the day-to-day gun violence that we face. As students, I want them to understand the trauma that sticks with us. The lack of mental health resources that I mentioned in my speech — we have to travel outside of our community in order to get help.

It's also violence that has been ignored for decades. Now that young leaders have this platform — especially black and brown youth — we are making sure that the cycle is broken.

(LE): Do you think the conversation around gun control is changing?

(EC): Yes, to some extent, people do listen and understand. But there's another part where they’re just listening and not really using their own platform to expand and pass that message on. This is an ongoing conversation, not just in South L.A. but everywhere.

(LE): Do you have any advice for someone who cares deeply about this issue on how to speak out?

(EC): Don't just speak about issues with your friends. You have to make sure that the message is out there. Know that your voice matters and don't stop once you get momentum.

(LE): What changes do you hope to see in public schools in your community?

(EC): Inner-cities schools need more funding. We need more resources — better books, better buildings, more teachers and smaller classes. Mental health resources and internship and mentorship programs for students, because there are students that may have to provide for their families as well. There are schools that don't even provide AP classes. We need AP classes as students of color. We want to strive for a higher education — we know that we deserve better.

Seeing so much pain, seeing so much anger, it gets your momentum moving but it also makes your blood boil to a point where you are just like, all right, well, what are we doing to make a change?
— Edna Chavez

(LE): What are the next steps that you want to see our generation taking against gun violence?

(EC): Outreach. Ask questions. Really challenge those in power — whether it is your principal, a teacher or a member of Congress — really challenge them.

Work across generations. The older generation should invest more in our youth. Invest in the communities because whatever happens in the communities affects the youth.

(LE): Where does your courage and inspiration come from?

(EC): My mother and my sister. They are both strong, independent women. My mom being formally undocumented and being a single mother, then my sister having to take the role of being a mother at the age of 13. It was always very hard. Both of them as mother and sister had to play the role of mother and father for me.

It also comes from my community. I always say I am a reflection of my community and my community is a reflection of who I am. Seeing so much pain, seeing so much anger, it gets your momentum moving but it also makes your blood boil to a point where you are just like, all right, well, what are we doing to make a change?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is also available in Spanish.

Through Assembly, Malala Fund is helping girls around the world share their stories. Subscribe to receive our newsletter and learn about the next generation of leaders.

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About the author

Luzelena Escamilla is the operations intern at Malala Fund. She is studying political science at George Washington University.