Yoonie Yang was in Spanish class at her South Florida high school when she heard the students at the table next to hers whispering about a live shooter at another school.
At the time, Yang didn’t realize the incident was taking place about an hour away at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She also didn’t know the scale of the horrific tragedy.
After the bell signaled the end of the class and Yang filtered into the hallway with her fellow students, a friend of hers turned a corner and, upon seeing her, ran to her arms and began to cry.
“He had friends at Marjory Stoneman, and they weren’t answering his texts,” Yang recalls.
As Yang learned the horrific details of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting – that a gunman had opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others – a numbness settled over her.
Later, as she talked with another friend on the bus, her numbness turned to fear.
“That night, I couldn’t sleep as I thought about what had happened and how it would impact my community and country,” says Yang, now a senior at Signal Mountain High School.
As Yang navigated the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, she engaged in conversations with her friends, classmates and teachers about the incident and its ramifications. When the dialogue shifted to the lack of legislation intended to mitigate gun violence, she decided to take action.
“I’ve always had a desire to create sociopolitical change, but seeing how the shooting impacted the greater South Florida region, as well as the unification of young people around the country, pushed me toward mobilizing my community and working to make legislative change.”
Eager to make an impact, Yang helped to organize a school walkout to protest what she and her friends perceived as inaction on the part of their state legislators. After contacting the police to ensure the safety of the event and notifying the media, they led about 85% of their school’s students out of their classrooms and to the local townhall.
Yang says the walkout was a strong first step toward creating awareness of the need for common-sense gun laws. It also was her last step in Florida, as her family moved to Signal Mountain at the end of that school year.
Despite her passion for effecting change, Yang arrived in Tennessee with no intention of engaging in further activism. But as she talked with her peers at Signal Mountain High School and says she saw a gulf between her personal experience with the Parkland shooting and the way her new friends spoke about gun violence.
“My generation has grown up in a country that has normalized gun violence, whether it’s mass shootings, school shootings or homicides,” Yang says. “The phenomenon of school shootings is a very prevalent narrative for our country.”
After Yang reached out to Chattanooga Students Leading Change and expressed her interest in gun violence prevention, another organization known as Moms Demand Action asked her if she would be willing to help launch the first Students Demand Action chapter in Tennessee.
Students Demand Action is a national movement of high school and college-aged volunteers who work within their schools and communities to educate their peers and demand common-sense solutions to gun violence.
The organization is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention organization with nearly 6 million supporters and more than 375,000 donors, the group states.
Yang accepted the challenge from Moms Demand Action and worked with Chattanooga Students Leading Change to create the first Students Demand Action chapter in Tennessee.
Yang says the primary thrust is not to dismantle the Second Amendment, which courts have ruled gives American citizens the right to own guns, but to advocate for laws related to the purchase and possession of firearms Yang says most Americans would support.
“We’re not against the Second Amendment or owning a gun; people from both political parties are a part of our organization, as are gun owners,” Yang explains. “Rather, we want to make sure that if we are going to allow people to purchase and own firearms that we are doing everything we can to emphasize safety and security.”
To achieve this undertaking, Students Demand Action advocates for universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders, the latter of which would temporarily prohibit an individual from purchasing or possessing a firearm if a court has deemed they are dangerous to themselves or others.
As part of this effort, the organization’s volunteers make an annual trip to Nashville, where they talk with legislators such as Bo Watson, Patsy Hazlewood, Yusuf Hakeem and Chuck Fleischman about gun-related legislation.
Yang says she hopes they listen.
“Research shows that in states in which laws like these have been passed, there have been reductions in deaths and unintentional shootings,” she claims. “And when the numbers make sense, our legislators and government officials should take note. If it prioritizes the safety of our communities, then it’s worth serious consideration.”
Yang says she is concerned about large national organizations intervening in the relationships between constituents and legislators, and says she believes the only way to tackle the intrusion is to mobilize enough “people and voices” in support of common-sense gun laws.
“That would be the best way to let our representatives know that if they don’t listen to what we have to say, then they will have a lot of frustrated and angry constituents who will not vote them back into office.
“Our concerns about safety should be their priority as public servants, and if it’s not, then we need to hold them accountable.”
Yang’s involvement with Students Demand Action currently extends beyond the local level to her participation on the organization’s national advisory board, which is made up of 16 student leaders and gun violence survivors from across the country.
Laura Becker, a volunteer leader with Moms Demand Action in Tennessee and pastor of Northminster Presbyterian, says Yang is ideal for the national role.
“Yoonie is a natural leader, a confident speaker and a determined advocate for gun safety in this country,” Becker says. “Her future is bright as she continues to find her voice and works for the things that matter to her.”
In addition to her activism, Yang remains an active senior at Signal Mountain High, where she’s part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program and a National Merit Semi-finalist. She also participates in student council, mock trial and Youth in Government, and served as editor-in-chief of her school’s yearbook
In-between these activities, Yang managed to post the highest possible ACT composite score of 36. Only one-tenth of 1% of all test takers earn the top score on the test, ACT reports.
As Yang looks to the future, she aspires to major in foreign affairs and international relations in college. Whether she takes that path or another one, she says she will continue to push for legislation to ease the gun violence crisis in the U.S.
“I want my children and loved ones to grow up in a country in which their government is doing everything in its power to ensure their safety in their homes, at their schools and in any public space,” she says. “I want them to know the people they are told support them, represent them and advocate for them have their best interests in mind.
“I want them to live in a world where everything we could have done as constituents and government officials to stop violence was put in place.”