First Daughter Ashley Biden joined with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston (BGCGH) and Texas Southern University (TSU) in addressing gun violence at two events on the TSU campus on Feb. 26: the “Champions for Change” breakfast and Be the Change You Want 2 See, a teen-led, anti-gun violence town hall supported by Amazon Rise. She gave the breakfast keynote address and served as moderator for the town hall panel discussion, closing out a day of workshops with Boys & Girls Clubs members and other teens committed to social change regarding gun violence affecting our youth and racial injustice.
BGGCH board member and Fort Bend County Commissioner Grady Prestage emceed “Champions for Change,” featuring Ms. Biden, a consultant to Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and attended by Boys & Girls Clubs staff, board members and elected officials. TSU’s new president, Dr. Lesia L. Crumpton, welcomed guests and talked about TSU’s mission of transforming lives through education. Denise Zavala, a senior at Heights High School, gave a moving speech about personal empowerment and finding her voice to speak out about injustice and gun violence.
Photo credit: Andres Garcia
In his remarks, BGCGH President and CEO Kevin Hattery noted that “public/private collaboration is key in tackling many issues, including juvenile justice and pandemic learning loss, which has affected many students who are Club members. We stand strong to enable our youth to achieve bright futures and appreciate Ashley Biden’s advocacy and the support of several key partners toward that end.”
In Ms. Biden’s address, she spoke about being on the front lines as a social worker and in the juvenile justice system, advocating for children and teens regarding mental health, criminal justice reform and safety. “Boys & Girls Clubs are my heroes and my ‘she-roes’,” she said. “You provide a safe haven for youth to reach their full potential, to uplift them and to change the trajectory of their lives through your programs. I am honored to help your members and other students learn more about civic engagement and to understand that their voices and their votes matter.”
Elected officials had an opportunity to speak, especially about HB (House Bill) 1927, which allows Texas residents aged 21 and older to carry a handgun openly (in a holster) or concealed in non-prohibited places without first having to obtain a “License to Carry.” This is also known as “permitless carry.” The law excludes persons convicted within the past five years of misdemeanor bodily assault causing injury, deadly conduct, terroristic threat or disorderly conduct with a firearm.
Officials opposed the bill and advocated for “common sense” gun laws that protect our citizens, especially young people. On hand were Congressman Al Green, Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, Houston City Councilmember Robert Gallegos and Texas state representatives Ann Johnson and Jon Rosenthal.
After the breakfast, teens began arriving for the day’s events, kicking off with a pep rally in the auditorium of the Roderick R. Paige Education Center with TSU’s legendary drum line. Several teens spoke before joining “breakout groups” for workshops on gun violence, social and racial justice and empowerment in school and in their communities. One of the female students acknowledged that she was shy about public speaking but was compelled to be involved. She invited her peers and adults to participate in a chant, “No more silence! End gun violence!”
Following the workshops, teens and adults returned to the auditorium for the panel discussion, moderated by Ms. Biden. In her introductory remarks, Ms. Biden noted that more than 41,000 Americans die of gun violence every year and asked the audience for a moment of silence lasting 41 seconds in acknowledgement of lives lost.
Ms. Biden then went on to talk about her vocation as a social worker and advocate for social and criminal justice reform, as well as common sense gun laws. “I lost, personally, 15 students who were near and dear to me to gun violence, so this has plagued my life and my community as well as yours,” she said.
The panelists, introduced by Ms. Biden, included Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D); Millard House II, HISD Superintendent; Henry Gonzales, Executive Director of Harris County Juvenile Probation and Yasar Bashir, Assistant Chief of Police for the Houston Police Department. The panelists took individuals questions from teens in the audience, ranging from safety in schools to the meaning of the Second Amendment to the “Shotspotter” program initiated by the Houston Police Department to help officers respond quickly to gunfire.
Panelists applauded the students’ involvement and encouraged them to speak out at school about issues of safety and to vote as soon as they are eligible. Ms. Biden noted that many people only vote in presidential elections, but that the real power “is in your state and local elections. Do your research about who is for and against the issues that matter to you, even at the school board level.”
As the panel discussion wrapped up, Rep. Jackson Lee, who is on the Homeland Security Committee, presented Ms. Biden with a Congressional Commendation for her work to educate and enlighten citizens about gun violence and to bring about common sense gun laws focused on safety and accountability. Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston teens also received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition from Jackson Lee for initiating the anti-gun violence Town Hall.
At the conclusion of the event, a beautiful mural painted by Club member Itzel C. of the Houston Texans Teen Club was unveiled to the audience, which reflected youth of diverse racial backgrounds moved to be a voice about gun violence in our community. All guests were then invited to enjoy lunch and continue the discussions. More than 200 teens and adults were part of the town hall, while approximately 50 people attended the breakfast.
To learn more about Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston, please visit www.bgcgh.org.