Editor’s note: Kansas City entrepreneur Alex Altomare served as a mentor for Tuesday’s MECA Challenge, which prompted students in Kansas City’s urban core to develop solutions for school shootings. The following is Altomare’s reflection on the experience. MECA Challenge and Startland News are both programs of the Kansas City Startup Foundation.
Volunteering, especially with education and children, has been some of the most meaningful work I’ve done.
On Tuesday, I volunteered for a MECA Challenge in which I led a team of urban core high school students through an exercise to come up with a unique solution to school shootings.
We began talking about the problem and my group started off touching on topics you would expect: better security, tighter gun regulations, community events and mental health initiatives. I thought they were doing a great job of assessing the problem from all angles.
Then Miguel, a relatively quiet member of the group who sat just to my right, chimed in.
“Mr. Alex, you keep talking about ‘the problem’ and saying that word ‘problem’ like it’s this strange thing,” he said in a rhythmic Hispanic accent. “But just so you know, I hear gunshots pretty much every day and what you say is a problem is really just normal for me.”
14-year-old Aleksis from across the table added her thoughts.
“Yeah — I’d rather hear a few gunshots,” she said. “Because when there’s a while without it, that means tension and shit are building up and there’s going to be a big showdown.”
Unanimous agreement from all followed. “Yeah,” “So true,” “Mmhmm,” and “Word.”
I’m caught off guard. I asked everyone if they considered gunshots a part of normal life. The short answer: yes.
Here’s the longer answer:
- Four out of seven have had their home targeted in a drive-by shooting.
- Three out of seven have had a cousin, aunt or uncle killed by guns.
- Two out of seven have had a member of their nuclear family shot.
- All seven of the students have watched someone shoot another person.
One high schooler in another group showed up in a cast because she had recently been shot at a party.
Also, all of them live within five miles of me — just not in a luxury high-rise condo with a marble-clad three-story lobby, rooftop pool and 24-hour doorman.
And here they were, mildly offended by me. Who am I to tell them their life isn’t normal, and to present their normal as a problem to be solved?
They have never experienced another reality. I learned that, in their world, those who have died from gun violence were mostly viewed as making bad decisions that led to it, and a few were accidentally caught in the crossfire. But for the most part, if you keep to yourself and focus on school you were fine. Gun violence — for them — is a source of encouragement and motivation to focus and work hard. They had hyper-normalized it.
I live in a different bubble. But, suddenly, I’m inspired to wonder how I have hyper-normalized parts of my life.
Is it that same off-base flavor of “normal” to consent to sharing all of my data and personal information with companies like Google and Apple, believing their technology makes my life better? Or to think posting these thoughts on a social media site is a meaningful way to share perspective with you, my friends, while the site’s algorithms are crafted to show information that is pleasing to its users and hence doesn’t challenge previously held beliefs?
To expect these young students to comprehend and understand gun violence in their lives is to expect ourselves to be bold enough to question our own normal lives. I don’t have any conclusions.
To borrow a phrase I learned from the Generation Z students that inspired me Tuesday: I can’t even.
Alex Altomare is a local entrepreneur and managing partner of The Collective Funds. Altomare is also the founder of The Selfie Boutique, an immersive photo gallery in the crossroads that curates interactive art exhibits designed to bring people together and create happiness.