by Kate Shirley
If you keep up with the national news, you’ve heard Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ name this week. A high school bearing her name in a suburb north of Miami was the scene of one of the deadliest school shootings seen in the United States, the most recent of a trend that has become disturbingly common in the last decade. We’re students at the school that, on August 1, 1966, was the scene of arguably the first modern school shooting. Marjory Stoneman Douglas died in 1999, the year before the Columbine shooting, which ignited the first national dialogue around school shootings and has framed our perspective on every shooting since then.
The Parkland, Florida shooting has brought the name of Stoneman Douglas to every household in our country, though most people might not know why the school honors her name to begin with. In the past few days, I found myself seeking out her story in search of comfort. Environmentalists would be interested to know that she was a champion of the Everglades who was instrumental in its protection. Before her, South Florida’s swamps were thought of by most as an eyesore only useful to be drained and developed on. Her work as an environmental activist was singularly influential in proving the worth of Florida’s wetlands to the public and led to the Everglades’ preservation.
Marjory started her advocacy at the age of 79 and continued for almost thirty years, slowing down only in the few months before her death at 108. Before that, she was a suffragette and a civil rights activist, an American Red Cross member who cared for war refugees in Paris, a founding member of the South’s first ACLU chapter, and a writer whose influential essay is credited for inspiring the ban on convict leasing in Florida, a form of slavery that persisted in the American South for half a century after emancipation. In her long life, Marjory never lost her passion for defending the defenseless, and her life is characterized by values that are emblematic of the environmental community: justice, care, and selflessness.
If you asked me why I consider stewardship of the Earth to be so important, one of the reasons I’d give is that I want my children and my grandchildren to be born into a world as healthy as or healthier than ours today. I want future generations to have access to all the natural capital I’ve been blessed to experience so that they’ll too get to drink wine and hike trails and gaze at the stars. We environmentalists do what we do because we believe in a future — and children represent our future as a species and as a society. But more and more each year, our children and young people are threatened by senseless gun violence. How do we expect them to flourish if they feel unsafe at school? They can’t feel free to learn and to dream if they’re distracted by the fear they’ll be gunned down in their classrooms.
The fifteen students who left us too early last Wednesday all had the potential to be champions like their school’s namesake. Any of those fifteen students could have grown up to be, like Ms. Stoneman Douglas, a hero for those in need. Some of them, by their efforts during the tragedy to protect their friends and peers, showed courage and selflessness that’s hard to comprehend. Hundreds more students will forever carry with them the trauma they lived through. Yet in the wake of tragedy, the survivors have shown a tenacity and fearlessness by taking control of their own narrative in the media and used their national platform to demand their government take steps to protect its people from gun violence.
What I want the environmental community to remember is that the values we hold dear are not uniquely ours — they are at the heart of many issues of our time. We all know too well how fast our world is changing and how sometimes it feels like it’s spinning out of our control. Every day we are confronted with grim news and every day I feel scared. But what’s more important is that I trust that when I leave this world, I will leave it in trustworthy hands, and furthermore I trust that for people who carry their passion with them in all things that they do, there is no unconquerable obstacle. I ask you all to hold onto your sense of justice, your care for our future, and your selflessness in this climate of uncertainty and discord because we are stewards of the future. I look to Ms. Stoneman Douglas as an inspiration right now; she never lost her faith that what she did mattered, and that a better future can be real for those of us willing to work for it. We can’t give up or slow down in our effort to make a better world, because the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deserve it, and we have a lot of work to do.