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Escaping the cycle of gun violence can seem impossible, said Lea Thompson, still wearing a cast on her hand after being shot at a party a few weeks ago.
“It’s scary,” said Thompson, a junior at Wyandotte High School. “I’ve witnessed people get shot too, so, it’s like you don’t know the outcome, like what’s going to happen next.
“Some days, all you can do is have hope.”
Like Thompson, many student participants at Tuesday’s MECA Challenge said gun violence has become the norm in Kansas City. Nearly half indicated they had either witnessed firsthand or had been directly affected by such crimes.
“Gun violence is arguably the biggest national conversation — especially the school gun violence we keep seeing. It affects them most directly,” said Adam Arredondo, executive director of the Kansas City Startup Foundation, which organizes MECA Challenge to spur entrepreneurial thinking in students. “I think adults far too often don’t give kids credit that they can help solve these big problems, and I think empowering them and asking them their opinion is where the best solutions are going to come from.”
In the wake of the most recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students at Tuesday’s MECA event were challenged to come up with solutions to the gun violence epidemic.
“It’s an issue that touches all of our schools across the country that I think students oftentimes feel helpless to do anything about, and I think our goal is always empowering students to understand that they can have an impact on the world,” McCarthy said. “I think oftentimes students feel like so much is done to them and they don’t realize their own power.”
Several students working with Prep-KC might already be well protected at their schools via metal detectors and other safety measures, but they still experience gun violence off campus, Binion added.
“We’re trying to leave the challenge open enough where students can bring in lived experience towards creating solutions,” Binion said Tuesday morning.
In addition to the real-life impact felt by Thompson, another student said she also saw people shot at an underground party last month. Others acknowledged they lost family members to gun violence.
Before students broke into groups Tuesday to brainstorm solutions, they heard Wesley Hamilton’s story about being paralyzed after getting shot at age 24 by a total stranger. The Kansas City native, who founded the Disabled But Not Really Foundation, advocated for gun violence awareness, as well as personal responsibility.
“I let the streets define who I was,” Hamilton said, adding that he now has a positive attitude and is creating opportunities for himself to grow, live a healthier, fuller life and to help others do the same. “I believe in making a change in this city because I know exactly what that mindset is; I lived with it for 24 years. Now I’m an entrepreneur; now I’ve created these crazy opportunities all because my mindset changed.”
Groups of students used design thinking — along with structural guidance from mentors in the startup community — to develop possible tactics. They next presented their ideas to a panel of judges, which selected a group with the winning ideas.
From building more community programs to requiring psychiatric evaluations and safe rooms for each classroom, students called for action. Many students opposed arming teachers in classrooms, an idea popularized by President Trump after the Parkland shooting.
Following the youths’ MECA presentations, mentors like Ryan S. Harvey, a speaker and consultant with Abundant Thinkers, encouraged the students to go out and apply the lessons they learned to their daily lives.
“The big thing from today for me was how comfortable you guys are with violence, how used to it or how desensitized you are from violence,” Harvey said, adding that he wants them to understand there are nonviolent options. “We need you guys to be a change agent for your school. These things are always beautiful to do, but they won’t mean anything if you don’t take these things outside into your own environment.”
Some students left with hope that their ideas could impact concrete policies.
“I can tell that you guys really do hope to make a change in the world,” said one student, who thanked the MECA Challenge organizers for putting gun violence prevention at the top of the students’ minds. “This is our generation; this is our time. It’s all up to us on how we’re going to shape the future … for future generations.”