This summer represented a new frontier for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research when disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic required a change of plans from the largely successful, first-ever Summer Youth Institute held in-person the previous summer. The Center transformed the program to host a virtual institute instead over the course of four days in July 2020.
At the 2020 Summer Youth Institute, more than 60 students from across the country convened to expand upon their knowledge and experiences with gun violence prevention in a variety of areas:
- educating and inspiring the next generation of leaders
- learning how to combat everyday gun violence
- developing peer response opportunities for suicide prevention
- understanding opposing viewpoints as a way to craft effective arguments.
The central purpose of the institute was to educate and equip passionate youth to effectively advocate for gun violence prevention using evidence-based research. Cal Wellness provided a grant to fund 10 scholarships designated for students specifically from California to lay the foundation for building a diverse pipeline of gun violence prevention leaders.
The institute complements the Center’s free online course, “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Evidence for Change,” featured a variety of guest speakers, including researchers, community leaders, advocates, and youth from the 2019 Summer Youth Institute. Presentations were organized around various learning objectives that among them included:
- a public health approach to gun violence
- how different racial and geographic subgroups experience risk differently
- the relationship between gun violence and criminal reform
- how to effectively frame messaging around the topic, including for social media and other channels.
Building a community in a virtual world
Students who attended reveled in the opportunity to learn more about gun violence prevention, empowered to move the needle on public discourse.
“I think it's an incredible course and it opened my eyes to so many different things that I didn't know,” said Antonella Borjas, a student from Los Angeles. “Two topics that we covered that are very important to me are community gun violence in communities of color and domestic violence--I really liked learning about those specifically.”
Rebecca G. Williams, Director of Academic Innovation and Outreach for the Center for Gun Policy and Research, who leads the Summer Youth Institute program, explained that the program aims to create a space where youth can connect with one another and form a new, authentic community.
Confronted with various programmatic challenges in light of the pandemic, Williams encouraged her team to approach this year’s program as an opportunity to think creatively and leverage digital learning tools available to them to successfully modify their program for the virtual environment.
Williams highlighted that emphasis on self-care and fostering community were intentionally incorporated into program design and drove their curriculum planning discussions. She commented on the need to create a sustainable model for youth advocacy for those working in gun violence prevention.
She further commented that developing this type of program requires being mindful of the increasingly progressive rates of youth suicide seen in the U.S. over the past ten years and has invited them to engage youth in healthy discussion about it. “We know that when an individual is exposed to gun violence, there are adverse effects to mental and physical health…and our students are at the age with the most potential to develop resilience and establish healthy coping mechanisms, so we created opportunities for that.”
Lea Nepomuceno, a student from San Diego, CA, belongs to the organization Youth for Juvenile Justice Reform. As the social media manager, Nepomuceno found it helpful to learn more about how social media is particularly influential for Generation Z.
“The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research Summer Youth Institute really gives you the opportunity to enhance your activism,” Nepomuceno said. “For anyone considering being in the institute next year, you’ll get an amazing group of individuals to work with — amazing and very influential people that will help you really enhance your activism, and your advocacy in local communities.”
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