Youth Activist Ramon Contreras Champions Minorities to Participate in Politics
Ramon Contreras is a 19-year-old political activist and filmmaker who is changing the nature of civic engagement by championing and encouraging minorities to participate in politics. Contreras is a powerful gun control enthusiast and founded YouthOverGuns, a platform advocating for change in underserved communities of color. He led a protest of thousands across the Brooklyn Bridge and is the National Strategist for the nation-wide organization, March for Our Lives.
1. Tell me about your mission; how did you get started in gun violence prevention activism?
When I was in high school, a classmate and longtime friend of mine lost his life due to gun violence just a few blocks away from his home in Harlem. Hearing the news was painful; I was confused and deeply hurt. His passing marked a surreal moment in my life – gun violence became personal. His death came right around the time of the Parkland school shooting, where I witnessed heightened advocacy by primarily white students. This made me feel like there needed to be a voice for colored communities, so I started speaking out.
2. What are you doing actively to help your community and what has been the overarching reaction to your work?
I organized a march across the Brooklyn Bridge last summer, where over ten thousand people marched as I carried a casket to symbolize the deaths in black and brown communities. The March for Our Lives team reached out to me afterwards and invited me to participate in the Road to Change tour, where I traveled to over 20 states and 65 cities across the United States registering young people to vote and speaking at rallies about fighting gun violence. With more awareness came more recognition for my work, and I’ve been able to circulate my message beyond my community.
3. If you could make everyone understand one thing about gun violence, what would it be?
Gun violence extends beyond the pull of a trigger. Violence is embedded into a system of oppression created to keep underserved communities in a constant cycle of violence. It comes from lack of funding and through the school to prison pipeline that criminalizes young people of color.
4. What are your hopes for America in regards to gun control?
I believe America will move towards a gun sense country where the lives of Americans are chosen over power and greed. This will happen as organizations continue to encourage youth voters to become engaged. With this past midterm cycle, 31% of young people came out to vote, which is historically the highest America has seen for midterm elections. By continuing this type of engagement from young people, by having them become civically engaged, we can start to see a country where people are voting because they care and because they feel like they need to. As soon as this happens, we will start seeing principled leaders being elected and more policies being implemented that actually benefit Americans.
5. What do you say to people who support the 2nd amendment, and want to keep their guns? What sort of gun control policies do you think are most important?
I say that I also support the 2nd amendment and that you have nothing to worry about if you’re a responsible gun owner.
I don’t like to use the language “gun control.” I like to use “gun violence prevention” because, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m doing – preventing gun violence. If an adult is a responsible gun owner, I have no intention to control what they do with their gun; they should have a right to bear arms. But, when we reach a point where that gun owner is putting other lives at risk by being irresponsible, then the conversation must change. Putting safety before the ownership of a gun, putting value over life than over a gun, is what’s most important. The term “gun control” is problematic because the government trying to control what’s yours often causes a lot of pushback.
6. How do you get young voters more aware about these types of issues, and how do you get them involved when they’re not directly affected by gun violence? To put it more simply, why should these issues matter to privileged kids?
Gun violence should matter because it can happen to anyone. Look at Parkland, look at Columbine: gun violence is an issue that affects all Americans. When we are in a country where a gun is valued more than human life, then we must question our purpose as free Americans.
7. How do you inspire voter engagement from underserved communities? How do you get them to vote and learn about issues when they often feel politically neglected?
You connect voting to real issues that underserved communities experience. Unfortunately, a lot of politicians’ platforms don’t connect with our issues, which is why I believe we need more people of color in positions of power in government. When I traveled the country and connected white privileged Parkland kids with students from underserved communities affected by gun violence, I saw an immediate possibility for affected communities to work with served communities and unite for this one goal. We understand gun violence proportionally affects more black and brown kids, but we also understand that it’s an American issue and the only way to solve it is together.
About the Author: Amelie Zilber is a high school junior using journalism to change the world through her website, newsletter, and consulting services. She writes and publishes a weekly political newsletter summarizing the week’s top headlines in a quick & entertaining fashion, and writes opinion pieces for her website, TwoMinuteTimes.com. Amelie founded KnowYourWorld, a project aimed to engage youth voters around the country, in coordination with California Congressman Eric Swalwell. Striving to create more global awareness, Amelie wants to ensure her generation, the future leaders of America, are knowledgeable and empowered to step up to the plate.
This essay was featured in the Nov. 11th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.