My conversation with Samantha Fuentes

Discussing Gen Z’s activism with a gun violence survivor


Madeline Bruce

A crowd of people hold up peace signs at the March for Our Lives in March 2018 as a sign of solidarity with the survivors of the Feb. 14, 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Madeline Bruce, Features Editor

As the current generation of young people, known as Generation Z or “Gen Z,” came of age, society not only saw a rise in youth activism, but a spike in it as well. Gen Z, made up of those born roughly between 1996 and 2012, is thought to be the most politically active generation since the Baby Boomers mobilized during the Vietnam War. This spike in youth activism was especially evident in the direct aftermath of the 2018 Parkland shooting, which killed 17 students and teachers and wounded 17 more.

Survivors of the shooting collaborated with young people not only across the U.S., but around the world to take a stand against gun violence and the intersectional injustices that come with it – racism, sexism, and classism, among other things.

My friends and I were a part of that collaboration in 2018. I stood in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., at the end of March with the sun beating down and the spring breeze carrying the sound of “Happy Birthday” being sung by upward of 800,000 people to Nick Dworet, a senior who was shot and killed on that tragic day in February. Survivor Samantha Fuentes started and carried us through the song, standing up on a stage in the middle of the nation’s capital just over a month after she herself was shot.

Flash forward about three years, and I’m sitting in my bedroom on a Monday night talking to Fuentes over the phone.

Like many teenagers, Fuentes’ life before the shooting was “pretty average,” as she described it. She went to school, worked part-time as a waitress and had a small group of friends. As a very angsty teenager, she said she had the view that everyone is doomed to their own circumstances, and, like a lot of Gen Z, she endured with many major events.

“I grew up with a lot of historical changes as a kid,” she said. “I was raised by a single parent below the poverty line, and you’re kind of molded to not have a particularly fond relationship between yourself and the democracy of the country when you experience those things. I didn’t see myself playing a major role in that, as someone who was much younger.”

All of that changed on Feb. 14, 2018. She said that her priorities altered after experiencing an event in which her life was put into question. Now connected with the community of gun violence survivors and student activists, she was met with a myriad of emotions, as well as resulting PTSD, survivor’s guilt, anxiety and depression.

As two people who come from very different backgrounds and grew up over 1,000 miles apart from each other, I didn’t expect us to have so much in common, but as our conversation carried on, I found myself feeling less alone than I had before.

As an activist myself, I struggled with all of the implications that came with being involved in a cause.

For Fuentes, activism was an outlet for her grief and her story. She told me she wanted to do something productive with what happened to her, so that she wasn’t just another statistic.

For me, activism was a calling. In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, something about those affected and the event itself — which was preceded by many historical incidents of gun violence in my lifetime — resonated with me, and I felt a call to stand up in my community.

In the direct aftermath of my activist work, I was met with a number of negative emotions that I was unable to process because they were so unique to myself and my situation that no one around me could possibly help me work through them.

I sat with that for three years, wondering what was possibly wrong with me. My conversation with Fuentes made me realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me.

“Activism is exhausting. It’s a thankless job, and it’s a helpless job,” she said to me. “Once you lose the momentum, the passion and the dedication, the authenticity eventually goes away.”

We empathized with each other on the reality of activism burnout, isolation, exhaustion and the life span of activist causes. I felt like I finally had the answers I had been looking for when I got involved in activism three years prior. Everything became clearer – the negative emotions I felt following my work, the feeling of unworthiness I felt as people who worked with me and called themselves activists gave me no credit for the work I did and the time I dedicated to our initiatives. I felt like I wasn’t a true activist, because I didn’t stick with the causes and appear in public as much as they did, but Fuentes made me realize the reality that the people who made me feel like this were the ones who weren’t the activists.

“Performative activism is worse than no activism at all,” she said. “And especially those who have been doing it for long can tell your intentions and your authenticity. Everyone deserves to make a difference in this world, but it has to be for the right reasons. Especially in this case, it’s a matter of life and death.”

This was even evident within the March for Our Lives team, she said. Many people who did behind-the-scenes work weren’t recognized because the media created a select few from the group as figureheads of the movement, making them into idols.

“This isn’t just a lifestyle, or a photo opportunity or a hashtag,” she said. “These are real people’s lives. It’s not a popularity contest. This is about making a difference for the better.”

That isn’t – and should never be – the purpose of activism. Many of the students I worked with called themselves activists but only did it for attention. They made it a priority to take pictures of themselves at the March for Our Lives, post said pictures on social media and appear on local news outlets, bragging about the so-called work they were doing. Meanwhile, my friends, teachers and I were the ones who were planning the trip, collecting funds, booking a bus and creating an itinerary, making the trip to the march possible while also bringing awareness to the cause of gun violence.

Talking with Fuentes about this felt like I was not only being heard, but I was being understood.

We also talked about the issue of activist burnout – knowing there’s endless work to do but feeling like you’re unable to continually fight for causes due to many factors. It feels like it’s a never-ending cycle when social justice issues always exist, Fuentes said.

Juggling a personal life with activist work is something that I thought I only experienced and that it made me a bad activist or maybe even took away my right to call myself one. From Fuentes, I learned that it’s not, and that activism is a cyclical thing.

“It’s a call to action when it’s needed, and hopefully that comes in cycles,” she said. “Realistically, I couldn’t do this for the rest of my life, because I would be so exhausted. So, hopefully there’s someone in the next generation who will be another me for this cause.”

Activism doesn’t involve constantly “being an activist” or consistently fighting for a cause in an outward fashion. No act is too big or too small in the realm of activism. If posting on social media is all someone can do, that still makes them an activist. Ultimately, personal issues and events sometimes take precedence over activist causes, and that’s OK.

“Your passion and your loves don’t adhere to your schedules and the ups and downs of life,” Fuentes said. “Those problems will always exist, but so will yours. That’s why it’s important to not beat yourself up about how you perform.”

Still, it is important to dedicate yourself to activism for the right reasons, and not for popularity or attention. That is the advice Fuentes has for young people who want to make change.

“If activism is something that, as a young person, you’re inclined to do or interested in, it has to be because you’re passionate about that topic,” she said, “and it’s the right thing to do.”


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