Sometimes, tragedy connects people. It brings pain and sadness, but it can also bring us together and connect us to people around the world. We empathize with those who are suffering, and we want to help.
When 17 people were killed in Parkland, Florida in February of 2018, teens around the country turned that desire to help into action. In Iowa, Olivia Kennedy, Kevin Drahos and Quintin Gay formed March For Our Lives (MFOL) Iowa to pursue an end to gun violence in schools. Still in high school themselves, they envisioned a future where their peers around the country felt safe every day.
MFOL Iowa approaches gun violence by encouraging young people to get involved in the political process. “We’re completely nonpartisan,” explains Olivia Kennedy. “From the beginning, what we didn’t want to do was to tell people who they should vote for or what legislation they should support.” As a senior at Cedar Rapids Washington, Olivia laments that young voter turnout has declined in recent years.
Forming in early 2018 gave the organization an obvious first challenge: getting young people to vote in the midterm elections. The midterms struggle to attract voters, especially young ones, who typically show up at a rate of less than 30% in Iowa. The group decided an event was the best way to get their peers interested in voting.
“We really wanted to have an event to engage the community,” explains Kevin Drahos. As their Get Out the Vote event came together, opportunities emerged for various speakers to share their thoughts and experiences on gun violence and voting. To bring everything together, MFOL Iowa applied for a grant from the President’s Fund.
With funding, the organization made plans to host survivors of the shootings in Parkland, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada. Local high school bands provided entertainment, and Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd spoke of the importance of engaging in the local political process. “We also petitioned Linn County to have a satellite voting location there,” Quintin Gay points out. “That really kept the emphasis on voting and voter registration.”
While Hurricane Michael kept the Parkland student from attending, the event still reached plenty of local teens. Dozens registered to vote, and over 100 people cast ballots that day. Statewide, MFOL Iowa’s work in partnership with NextGen Iowa saw dramatic results, as some precincts reported young voter turnout three times higher than in 2014.