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The Parkland school shooting survivors are coming to New Zealand – here's why

Mourners gather in Parkland, Florida, on the day after the shootings. Photo/Getty Images

The Student Volunteer Army is teaming up with US student leaders who emerged in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.

In what seems like a moment, lives can change forever. The February 2011 Christchurch earthquake lasted barely 10 seconds, but it left 185 dead, hundreds injured and widespread damage that the city is still dealing with. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 14 students and three staff members died in a seven-minute shooting spree on Valentine’s Day.

Students in both places started grassroots movements in response to the crisis they endured and survived, and next month, 28 survivors of the Parkland shooting will come to New Zealand to talk with their Kiwi counterparts about how to sustain student-led movements.

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It’s been more than seven years since Sam Johnson, then 21, called on his fellow students at the University of Canterbury to bring shovels and help dig out the liquefaction silt engulfing thousands of Christchurch homes after the first big quake in September 2010. The response was overwhelming; the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) was born.

Now a ready-response community-action group based at the university, the UC SVA has 3000 members and is the largest club on campus.

The SVA and the visiting Parkland group will team up at the July seminar in Christchurch to share their experiences, and their knowledge about how to sustain organisations after the news cameras have moved on and the public attention has waned. More than two dozen of the Parkland survivors will spend five days here, most of that time in Christchurch, but also visiting Government House in Wellington to meet the Governor-General.

Delaney Tarr speaks to protesters during the March For Our Lives in Washington DC on March 24. Photo/Getty Images

Delaney Tarr, who will be among the visitors, addressed one of the many March for Our Lives rallies that were organised in the aftermath of the shooting, and was already anticipating that anger could subside and energies dissipate.

“This is a movement reliant on the persistence and passion of its people. We cannot move on. If we move on, the NRA [National Rifle Association] and those against us will win,” she told the crowd in Washington DC on March 24, a day on which more than 800 rallies took place in cities and towns around the world, including in New Zealand.

As Canterbury’s SVA founders have left university and moved into the workforce, they’ve taken steps to ensure their legacy endures. Current SVA president Josh Blackmore was only 14 when Sam Johnson and his army were knee-deep in liquefaction debris. Now a fourth-year engineering student, he says the SVA has evolved into a sustainable volunteer movement.

“We have regular volunteer programmes, one event every weekend of the academic year, catering to the 3000 volunteers we have on campus. We have our day-to-day lives, too, but when there is a disaster, we can respond as we did with the Port Hills fires, the November 2016 Kaikoura quakes, and the floods in Roxburgh over summer.”

Josh Blackmore of the Canterbury SVA. Photo/SVA

Blackmore and some of his fellow SVA members will host the American student leaders, and take them to visit a high school before the day-long summit.

He believes the Christchurch model can help the Parkland contingent.

“We want to make the summit not all about school shootings and not all about earthquakes; it needs to be about students engaging with their communities, making change and keeping their cause sustainable.”

Three months on from the tragic event that propelled her onto the international stage, Tarr says she is doing pretty well. “While the stress of activism is relentless, the excitement of graduation is ever present. Things are looking up.”

What can she gain from the trip to New Zealand? “The importance of youth empowerment is international. Young people are worldwide and their passion is just as widespread. Going to New Zealand will, hopefully, show me more of that international passion, and how other people empower their own communities. It’ll be a chance to gain new perspectives and new outreach.”

March For Our Lives in Washington DC on March 24. Photo/Getty Images

Fresh perspectives

In nurturing the new SVA leadership, Blackmore and his predecessors have looked for fresh perspectives, while maintaining the original intent and ethos of the movement. SVA is supported by Billy Osteen, an American who is in charge of community engagement at the University of Canterbury. His role was created in 2015 in a bid to connect the university to the SVA. Osteen designed the one-semester course, Christchurch 101, which combines study of citizenship and volunteering with practical assignments and community engagement.

He took his cue from the community involvement of Tulane University in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. His group has worked with more than 50 organisations or individuals on various projects from helping with trail maintenance to painting schools. “It’s mainly grunty labour stuff. We got some pretty good publicity for this and started to attract American university students who wanted to come to an area where they could roll up their sleeves and get something done as had happened in New Orleans. That had a knock-on effect – we have now also hosted high school groups from America and the Parkland survivors’ visit is a step up.”

Billy Osteen: “They  don’t want to be forever linked to the tragedy.” Photo/University of Canterbury

Osteen says the narrative of the Americans marries into that of the SVA. “In a sense, they are both born of tragedy, but neither group wants to stay forever linked to the initial tragedy. The kids in Florida want to change laws, but probably the level they can operate effectively on is changing some results in the November midterm elections. It is similar to the SVA in terms of message and evolution: let’s get out and clean up. Now it is being taken to the next level for the Americans: let’s not just clean up, let’s get active in our communities and remain influential.”

Osteen believes the success of the SVA shows the need to start thinking, once grief and rage subside a little, about leadership and succession.

“Once you have sprinted to the November midterm elections, what next? Are you done once you have achieved what you want in November, or do you want to keep up the activism? That is stuff the students in Florida probably haven’t had the time to think about yet, because in working with SVA leadership, it wasn’t for six months or so that there was reflection and decisions made for the future.”

Nancy Gilbert, far left, and Tim Groser, third from right, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Person to person

During their visit to Christchurch, the Parkland students will be billeted with families in Osteen’s neighbourhood, Sumner, to give them a taste of Kiwi life.

New Zealand’s Ambassador to the US, Tim Groser, has thrown his support and some funding behind the planned visit to Christchurch. He visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas last month with Nancy Gilbert, who lived in Wellington for the two years her husband Mark was US Ambassador to New Zealand. On their return to America after the election of President Donald Trump, Nancy Gilbert was appointed this country’s honorary consul to Florida. It was her idea to contact the Parkland students to see how New Zealand could help.

“The tangible goal is to get the two groups of student leaders from Christchurch and Parkland, who created order out of chaos in very different tragic circumstances, to create a working document for students everywhere, on how to effectively organise with or without adult supervision. Life-long connections will be hatched, and a deep love of New Zealand, the first country in the world to reach out to Parkland,” Gilbert said.

Groser agrees that the Parkland shooting has struck a chord, with an unusual level of shock and outrage throughout the world.

“There have been other terrible shootings but [the Parkland massacre] saw these young people come out of these appalling experiences and provide leadership on an authentic basis. Their voices cut right through the feral dialogue in the US.

“New Zealand reaching out to these students is a terrific thing, just as a human response. New Zealanders will get that. We are expressing solidarity with them and putting them with young New Zealanders to see what happens. There is no agenda; it’s just goodwill between people.”

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.