Right now, Aalayah Eastmond is in the middle of finals week at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. The 19-year-old is a second-year student in the Criminal Justice program, looking forward to a future at Howard Law and a career as a defense attorney.
But, two years ago, on Feb. 14, Eastmond was in her morning class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. By the end of the day, she was at the center of a gun-related tragedy that ended with 17 people killed and 17 others wounded by a former student.
She survived, she mourned, she graduated, and she became an activist.
As a survivor, Eastmond has made it her mission to advocate for gun violence prevention. She cofounded Team ENOUGH, a youth-led gun violence prevention organization that’s parented by the established gun-reform advocacy group Brady United. But her greater goal is to advocate for Black lives, and, in the process, create a more intersectional youth movement that protects Black communities while also restructuring how Americans understand gun violence, poverty, and police brutality.
Eastmond was born in Brooklyn, New York. At 4 years old, she moved with her mother to West Virginia, and by the time she was 8 she was enrolled in school in Florida. She stayed in South Florida’s Broward County until she left for college in Washington, D.C., 10 years later.
“We saw a national conversation arise after the shooting at my high school, around preventing gun violence on a national level,” Eastmond said. “But, to me, I felt like that conversation was very one-sided.”
So, only a month after the shooting, alongside nine of her Marjory Stoneman Douglas peers, Eastmond made her first public speaking appearance at March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., beginning her journey as a public voice on gun reform. “I don’t know how I publicly spoke for the first time in front of nearly a million people,” Eastmond reflected. “That was definitely something I’ll never forget.”
In 2019, Eastmond spoke in front of the Senate and House Judiciary Committee meetings in support of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would mandate background checks for every firearm sale nationwide. And she’s now an administrator and member of Team ENOUGH’s executive council, a cofounder of Concerned Citizens D.C., and a newly hired employee at Brady United, where she works with the organization to include youth voices and promote conversations about overpolicing and police violence.
“We founded Team ENOUGH because we wanted to create a youth-led initiative for gun violence prevention, but one that was more intersectional than other organizations,” Eastmond said. “We wanted to make sure that we were being inclusive of all youth voices.”
It’s important to Eastmond that Team ENOUGH doesn’t just focus on the threat of mass shootings, which she says is a fault of many gun reform activists. “We’re making sure that we’re including those that have been impacted by suicide at the hands of a gun, mass shootings, and domestic violence. All of these different intersections of gun violence that people sometimes forget about,” she said.
Eastmond saw that mass shootings, like the one she experienced, made the news over everyday acts of gun violence. That bothered her. “I decided to speak out as a young Black woman for the inner city communities that deal with gun violence every single day,” Eastmond said. Her own uncle died due to gun violence 16 years ago, so she feels like she’s experienced “both sides” of gun violence.
“I wanted to make sure folks realize that police violence is also gun violence,” Eastmond explained. “As we solve [gun violence], it’s very important that we connect these two issues together because they are one.”
As she moves forward in her activism, Eastmond wants to focus on connecting gun violence solutions with the broader goal of eradicating racist systems — from police brutality to criminal justice reform to the reallocation of resources into Black communities. “I’m really focused on making sure that we’re holding people in positions of power accountable… to make sure they are placing money into these systems or programs that will better Black youth and Black communities that are disproportionately being impacted by literally every issue that we talk about, whether it’s gun violence, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s climate change.”
Earlier this year, Eastmond was a featured speaker at the 2020 March on Washington for racial equity. In that speech, she made it clear that racial justice and gun violence are intrinsically linked:
Studies show that persistent gun violence in poor communities of color directly results in centuries of entrenched disadvantages, economic deprivation, and racist policymaking. In many ways, gun violence is the last domino to fall at the end of a long line of racism, trauma, and indifference.
As she reflected on her path to activism, Eastmond said it’s not big events, public speaking engagements, and media appearances that make her work worthwhile. “If I’m being honest, my activism doesn’t come from me publicly speaking — that’s normally for the audience — but my activism really comes from me connecting with those that can relate to my traumas.”
She says the best part of her two years in advocacy is getting to participate in on-the-ground network building across the country, which aligns with her intersectional, bottom-up view of both movements for racial justice and gun reform. She’s focused on “really connecting with inner city youth and trying my best to uplift their voices as much as possible… making sure that I’m sharing my platform that I’ve gained from my tragedy to uplift the traumas that they are experiencing, because, I’m being quite frank, America doesn’t care about what’s happening to Black people.”
Here’s what else she wants you to know.
1. What’s one piece of advice you’d give young people looking to get involved in activism?
“I feel like a lot of young people think that getting involved in activism means you have to talk on a fancy, big stage; you have to be in front of thousands of people; or you have to have a large following — or you have to have a lot of great tweets or great pictures — but, no, your activism doesn’t have to look like that. I think activism is whatever you want it to be, if you are creating change the way you want to see it…”
Eastmond says she wants young people to start in their communities, having conversations with people close to them, like family members, peers, and teachers. And remember, “activism comes in many different forms.”
2. Why are young people’s voices integral in the movement for racial justice and gun violence prevention?
“We are the ones that are disproportionately impacted by the issues we talk about. A lot of people don’t know, but gun violence is the leading cause of death for black youth. It’s not driving, it’s not drugs, it’s literally gun violence. So why would we not want to hear from young people? Why would we not want to hear from those that are directly and disproportionately impacted by these issues?”
3. What are some tools or resources that budding young activists can use to inform and propel their activism?
“I think social media is the tool to use. In the era of COVID and of being home, the internet and social media is definitely the route we’ve seen everybody going to spark change and start their activism journey.”
Eastmond recommends young people research local community groups and grassroots organization first, and follow their official accounts or leaders on social media, “because those are the people on the ground. Those are the people that have been protesting all summer. Those are the people that are generating bail money to bail people out for being wrongfully arrested.”
She also recommends watching Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, as an introduction to race and criminal justice in the United States, and listening to Brady United’s podcast, Red, Blue, and Brady, to learn about the country’s long history with guns and gun violence.
4. What would you tell someone who feels disillusioned with politics or the current state of the world? Why is it still important to get involved?
“It’s kind of mean, but I don’t like when people wait until they’re impacted by an issue to care about it. And I’m guilty of it — I didn’t talk about gun violence the way I talk about it now until I survived the shooting at my high school… But, I think we see more change when we have people that aren’t directly impacted by issues stepping into the conversation, uplifting those impacted and having true allyship in those relationships.”
Of all people, Eastmond knows how hard it gets. “I understand, right now, politics is not pretty. It’s not fun, and it’s pretty nasty right now with our government. But it’s important that our voices are involved with all of these decisions. We’re tired of having old white men make the decisions for us, because we’re the ones that will be impacted.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.