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Dennis Paul Headshot

Time to Listen to America's Youth on Gun Violence

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From Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook to Hadiya Pendleton, the common thread is the senseless loss of young Americans. It's time for America to listen to the voices of our youth on gun violence that is threatening their future.

It was interesting to watch Vice President Biden's Google+ hangout on gun violence, and I was struck by the opportunity these national conversations present for us to include the perspective of America's youth in the discussion.

The Virginia Tech massacre was the deadliest shooting incident inflicted by a single shooter in U.S. history, and it occurred on a college campus and claimed students as its primary victims. More than 70 percent of those killed at Sandy Hook were children. The recent tragic death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton due to gun violence in Chicago is another example of heartbreaking youth violence.

So, why are we not hearing more directly from the children who are most affected by these crimes?

In my experience, high school and college students are finding ways to shift the discussion to the favor of our country's youth, with the belief that their voice is as valuable in today's critical social issues as those of adults.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to see these strategies in action at George Washington University on April 16, 2012, the fifth anniversary of Virginia Tech's horrific school shooting. That evening, REACT to FILM hosted nationwide college screenings followed by a Livestream Q&A with VA Tech survivor, Colin Goddard, moderated by NBC News correspondent Luke Russert in response to the film Living for 32.

While no longer the murder capital of the country, D.C. still has a level of violence that is too high for our kids. And it's also the scene of pitched battles between political parties and special interest groups over the issue of guns and violence in our society. It would be even more interesting to see additional discussions by teens who live in neighborhoods here and around the U.S. that are ravaged by such violence and are struggling to find solutions.

Innovative programs don't tell kids how to think -- they ask them what they think, and give them a forum to express their views.

This month, REACT to FILM's student-led College Action Network chapters organized 30 national screenings of The Interrupters at colleges across the country, culminating in their own Google+ Hangout with youth leaders from around the country.

By using The Interrupters to create a youth dialogue in response to the recent bout of gun violence, collegiate youth were inspired by Steve James's film to take action by becoming involved with organizations in their communities to help reduce youth violence.

No issue is more integral to us all than the future of America's children, and the opportunities that our society gives them to succeed. The senseless violence affecting children in America today is abhorrent. I am troubled deeply to see how many young children are directly impacted by gun violence on a daily basis. The cost to society is much greater than any official price tag could imply.

Nonprofit programs can and are sponsoring youth-led dialogues on critical social issues with our country's youth, exposing them to the issue via the film, engaging them in a discussion with their peers and educators, and then inspiring them to react constructively to the issue.

No better film has been made on the subject of violence in urban America, and the opportunities that we have collectively -- as parents, brothers, sisters, friends, politicians, educators and citizens -- to interrupt this chain for our children's sake, than Steve James's The Interrupters.

The film is a master class in character development, such that a year after the first screening the film, I vividly remember not only the important work of the violence interrupters, but also their faces, names and even the tonality of their voices. These are true heroes in our midst. This is the best that our media entertainment world has to offer -- the power to educate and inspire positive action on a social issue.

While the airwaves and Internet are filled with politicians arguing the traditional gun debate of assault weapons bans versus the NRA, I just wonder how we can all work together to better engage our youth in this dialogue. So much of what is being discussed is violence that is impacting them, and we must listen more carefully to our young people on the subject.

Through educational and nonprofit programs around the country, more young people are getting involved in civic affairs by developing their own voice on issues such as gun violence that affect them directly, and then are empowered to communicate their views to their elected officials and other decision makers.

It is critical for us all to wake up and listen to the youth voice on this and other issues, so that we will not continue to create failed legislation that never truly addresses those most at risk. Working together, we can end the violence.