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We Say #NeverAgain – An Interview with Parkland Students: Dara Rosen, Nikhita Nookala, & Leni Steinhardt MAG
Dara Rosen, Nikhita Nookala, and Leni Steinhardt are student journalists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived and reported on the tragedy of February 14, 2018. They also contributed to the book We Say #NeverAgain: Reporting by the Parkland Student Journalists where they explored the intersection of activism and journalism – and the challenges and strengths of reporting on a story that impacts you so deeply.
Annika U.: Did your experience during and following the shooting have any effect on your college or post-high school plans and goals?
Leni: Definitely! I feel like the shooting at my school gave me an entirely different perspective on my life. Not only has journalism helped me cope with the tragedy but has made me into an activist. I’ve always been unsure about what my future holds, but after the events of 2/14 and the people I’ve met because of it, it is clear that journalism is the path for me.
Nikhita: Following the shooting, I had a really hard time concentrating on my college admissions and gave up my waitlist positions at a couple of schools because I had lost the motivation to reapply to them. I also wanted to stay a little closer to home and to my family, and therefore, didn’t pick a school that was out-of-state. However, my goal to study science on a pre-med track didn’t change and hasn’t changed as of yet.
Dara: Before the shooting I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; I knew I wanted to go to college but I didn’t know what I would do after that. After the shooting, a lot of opportunities involving journalism opened up to me and they showed me how important and needed journalists are. Now I aspire to be one.
Has your experience with such intense trauma changed your views of world problems outside of gun violence? Are there other causes that you’ve become more sympathetic towards or issues that you think are more important given your experience with advocacy?
Nikhita: I think that my experience with trauma has made me reconsider my views toward other major humanitarian crises such as the bombings in the Middle East and other violent events. If this sudden trauma had such an effect on us, it is unimaginable to us what other people have gone through their entire lives. As for advocacy, my experience with the activism following February 14 has caused me to respect and admire other groups’ activism, such as pro-choice and immigration rights groups who also make huge efforts to mobilize and raise awareness of their cause, sometimes putting themselves in danger.
Are you optimistic about the future of our country and its response to gun violence? What do you see as the biggest obstacle to ending or significantly reducing this type of gun violence?
Nikhita: I am optimistic about the future of our country’s response to gun violence because of the way that students have mobilized to promote voting. With this push for the youth vote, we can hopefully shift the House and Senate in favor of passing bills that will promote gun safety and restrictions. In the future, when more young or youth-sympathetic candidates run for office, this voter base will become a key demographic to even older politicians. The biggest obstacle to ending gun violence is complacency. When the citizens of our country become complacent and accept gun violence as a necessary reality, we have truly lost the battle.
Dara: Am I optimistic? No. Am I hopeful? Yes. I think the biggest obstacle in minimizing gun violence is people listening to each other. I think both sides of the debate need to listen and be open-minded about change and compromise.
Leni: I am very optimistic about the future of our country and its response to gun violence. My generation is consumed by gun violence. If the leaders of our country want to change anything about it, they need to stop and listen. We are speaking up. We want change and 2020 can’t come soon enough!
If you could ask students around the country to do one thing in particular to address this problem, what would this be?
Nikhita: Vote. Be politically active. More locally, if you see something suspicious, say something about it. Advocate for school safety that isn’t security theater.
Leni: Get out there and register to vote. Speak with your local congressperson. Go straight to the problem and speak up. The power of social media should be utilized! Its also very important to do your research on the problems (like gun violence) that our county is facing and find ways to help put an end to them! I especially want students across the country to know that they are way more powerful than they know.
Dara: I would ask them to register to vote as early as they can, to become informed, and then to actually show up to the polls and vote.
Other than the community of students and teachers involved in the reporting efforts at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, what other groups of students, clubs, or community groups were helpful in the healing process and in the movement?
Nikhita: I think everyone at the school was helpful in the healing process. The entire community showed their support of Douglas and Douglas students with donations, volunteering, and other generous gifts. The students themselves supported each other in every way, even if they didn’t know who someone was.
Leni: One thing that the tragedy at my school has shown me is that the whole world is supporting me and my classmates. I feel like that’s really incredible!
What would you tell a high school student about getting involved in journalism?
Leni: Journalism is the door to activism! It’s an amazing component of life that informs the world of relevant news. Without journalism, our country would not be the place it is today!
Nikhita: High school journalism, for me, was an incredibly rewarding experience that taught me much more than how to write and design articles. It teaches you how to work on a team, how to communicate, how to talk to strangers, how to meet a deadline, and how to recover from not meeting a deadline and other failures. If you have the chance to take part, definitely do, no matter what your career plans are.
Do you view the U.S. government any differently now than you did prior to your activism? What parts worked for you and which parts disappointed you? Was there anything in particular you learned about being a more effective activist?
Nikhita: I think this experience has taught us the hard way that nothing in politics comes fast or easy. Lobbying and mobilizing can only take you so far, and it is usually up to the congressperson whether they will follow through with your idea. I think it was disappointing to hear politicians say they would do something and be here eight months later with no results. The goal with activism, then, is really to get people to care enough that they will keep reminding their elected officials that they care about a particular issue. The vote is the only thing politicians care about, ultimately.
Knowing that, in many cases, it takes a tragic incident like this to incite a movement for change in society, what other causes do you wish could have similarly sized movements without tragic events having to occur first?
Nikhita: I think that LGBT rights and equality need to be addressed in this country as well. The amount of violence against individuals who are in LGBT groups is staggering as it is and we shouldn’t need a mass tragedy of any kind to justify change on their behalf..
What have been some of your favorite poster/sign messages or speech quotes from the movement?
Dara: At the March For Our Lives in New York City, where I marched, the man next to me had a sign that read, “This is the real pro-life movement,” and that poster has stuck with me since I read it.
Nikhita: My favorite sign will always be one I saw at the March in D.C.: “Watch out NRA, the kids be woke.”
Leni: Though there were so many incredible signs and posters at the march, the one that stands out the most to me is, “Arms are for hugging, not guns.”
What most surprised you about reporting on an event of this magnitude?
Nikhita: The most surprising thing, honestly, was the audience we had and the acknowledgment we received from professional journalists. As high school students with 1-2 years of experience, we were standing next to established journalists and anchors on mainstream cable news. It was staggering to think about and still a little overwhelming to comprehend.
What type of support helped you most in coping with the event?
Nikhita: Having my family and friends around in the months following and having many friends and classmates from Douglas here at UF has been incredibly important to me and has probably kept me from feeling as bad as I could have following the shooting.
Leni: Other than journalism, I found writing in my diary as a really great coping method! Also, my parents and family were my greatest support system. They were there for me in the very beginning and still check in on me daily today!
How do you see yourself using the skills, advice, or experience you’ve gained from this process in your future? (regular life, work, activism, volunteering)
Dara: I want to one day become a journalist and I feel like from seeing all different kinds of reporters I know what kind of journalist I don’t want to be. Later on in my life I will definitely carry with me the importance of being sensitive but not pitying. What experiences have validated your work in reporting this event? Has there been anyone or anything that has, in particular, made you feel like your work is appreciated and important?
Leni: Since the shooting, there have been various moments where I’ve felt my work has mattered. From talking with Rachel Maddow to winning a Pacemaker at NSPA, the amount of support I’ve gotten from my articles and what I’ve written is massive and completely unexpected.