Like most happy, over-achieving teenagers, Nza-Ari Khepra, 18, never thought she would experience the effects of gun violence. But on January 23, 2013 everything changed when one of her best friends, Hadiya Pendleton, was killed in a park a short distance from President Obama's Chicago home.
"After Hadiya’s death, our group of friends realized were living in a bubble," Khepra told MTV News during a phone interview earlier this week. "Even though our parents told us to be safe we didn't understand [what they meant] at all. But once we saw how it affected Hadiya, who was an honor student, and not the type of person you think of as a victim of gun violence, we realized that this problem is not something that only affects someone who lives on the streets. Gun violence is terrorizing our community, and communities everywhere."
Gun violence kills 88 people a day in the U.S., and about one-fifth of American teenagers have seen someone get shot. With numbers like this, Khepra's experience is becoming more and more common. That's why Khepra and her friends from Chicago who formed the group Project Orange Tree have teamed up with celebrities like Perez Hilton and Julianne Moore, 60 U.S. mayors, and a consortium of nonprofits and organizations (including MTV), to come together today (June 2) to raise awareness about gun violence and the need for change.
When Sarah Clements, 19, kissed her mom, Abbey, goodbye on the morning of December 14, 2012, she never would have imagined that gun violence was about to enter their lives.
But Abbey was a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and on that morning,a shooter opened fire at the school, killing 20 children and 6 adults. Thankfully, Abbey was not physically hurt in the shooting, but the impact of the experience inspired Sarah to get involved in the gun violence awareness movement.
"The way I moved forward after December 2012 was to transform pain into positive action -- which is a phrase used by many survivors -- by advocating for gun violence reform," Clements told MTV News.
In the last three years, Clements has worked tirelessly to spread awareness about gun violence and reform, challenging the ideas that gun violence only happens to one kind of person, in one kind of place, and is an issue too big for young people to solve. As part of Generation Progress, she works with other young activists who are interested in growing the anti-gun violence movement.
"The first way we help young activists is by showing them that we need people working on all facets of gun violence prevention," said Clements. "We need to work on every piece of the puzzle - mental health, gun safety, gun law advocacy etc., if we’re going to solve this issue. All young people need to do is find one avenue of change, and begin working on something that is closest to their hearts."
For Jenna Yuille, 26, gun violence became not just an issue of advocacy, but something that defined her entire life. On December 11, 2012 her mother Cindy was killed by masked gunman at Clackamas Town Center, a popular mall on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. As part of her grieving process, a friend suggested Yuille attend a town hall meeting about the shooting. That evening, Yuille stood up and thanked everyone in attendance, and as she looked around at their captivated faces, she realized she could use her story, and her voice, to create lasting change.
"It was an incredible moment for me," Yuille told MTV News. "In that moment, I realized the impact I could have. It was silent, you could hear a pin drop, and afterwards all these people came up to me and asked how they could help. It happened pretty quickly."
Following the town hall meeting, Yuille began working with various gun violence prevention groups, lobbying and testifying before congress, and spreading awareness about what is too often a divisive issue. In the spring of 2015, she was part of a group of activists who worked to pass the Oregon Firearm Safety Act, which expands background checks for almost all gun sales in the state of Oregon.
While Khepra, Clements, and Yuille are all very different young women, they all agree that it is very possible for young people to make a difference when it comes to gun violence and gun safety legislation, and that thinking of the issue as "too big to fix" only lets the violence continue.
"This is the best healing process anyone could be a part of," explained Khepra. "Even if we couldn’t fight against the person who killed Hadiya, we could fight against the causes of violence in Chicago, and that definitely helped us cope with her death."
Khepra recommends that young people get involved by simply spreading the message. "Wear orange, take a photo, and hashtag it," she said. "Make sure people are aware."
Clements shared a similar sentiment. "By wearing orange and spreading the message, you have the opportunity to be part of something that's bigger than you. We're on the right side of history, and we're working together to be part of the solution."
"This issue is about common sense," said Yuille. "[Gun violence prevention] is the type of the issue where you never think it's going to happen to you, you say it's never going to happen my family or my friends, but it can happen. It happened to us. Don't wait for it to happen to you."