Gun violence protest walkout 2018
Chicago Public School students walked out of school to protest gun violence in 2018. A new campaign is emphasizing young people as leaders in the conversation about gun violence. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Gun violence protest walkout 2018
Chicago Public School students walked out of school to protest gun violence in 2018. A new campaign is emphasizing young people as leaders in the conversation about gun violence. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

“While I was out, my little brother snuck into my room and found my ____.” “I knew he was feeling ____. I didn’t know he had gotten a ____.” “Everyone was ____ at the park, until someone pulled up with a ____.”

Those “fill-in-the-blanks” scenarios, part of the “Guns Change The Story” campaign from Project Unloaded, focus on teens.

The key message? That everyday interactions become all the more risky when a gun enters the scene.

The founder of Project Unloaded, Nina Vinik, said the organization educates young people about the risks of guns so they can make informed decisions.

It’s critical to center teens in this conversation, Vinik said.

“We found that by educating, engaging and empowering young people, we can give them the tools not only to make a decision that’s right for them, but to shift that broader narrative that’s taken hold,” she said.

The focus on teens is also driven by data. The average age a Chicagoan witnesses a shooting is just 14 years old, according to a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Edgar Vilchez, now 19, felt pushed to get involved after he saw a student get shot during his senior year of high school.

“I was a few feet from the scene, and that’s what sparked it. I was like, ‘Woah, I was literally right there,’” he said. “That triggered me and it triggered a lot of students: How can we do something in our community?”

Vilchez grew up in Belmont Cragin. Last year, he joined Project Unloaded’s Youth Council, hoping to have conversations with other teenagers about the risks that owning a gun can pose.

It’s especially important that this conversation centers Black and Latino kids, Vilchez said. Last year, 75% of shooting victims were Black and 19% were Latino, according to city data.

Changing the narrative around gun ownership is key, Vilchez said — and peer-to-peer education can make a major impact.

Project Unloaded launched a pilot program last summer, tasking 50 Chicago Public Schools students with coming up with their own slogans to inform their peers.

The winning campaign slogan? “Guns don’t give you power.”

A similar 10-week program recently launched. Olivia Brown, program manager of Project Unloaded, helps teach those teens. She said that their creativity is fundamental to creating change.

“These are teens who want to hear from people like them — who can give them the ‘real’ about the situations they experience,” she said. “We train them to be able to post, to be able to share the facts, to be able to have and initiate conversations and really place themselves in the solution.”

The fact-sharing model is based on the results of a survey of Black and Hispanic teens living in urban areas with high rates of gun violence, including Chicago. Nearly half of teens surveyed said they believed owning a gun would make them safer. But 18% of teens who were initially interested in gun ownership moved away after getting facts on the risks.

Gun violence is a complex issue. But with so many young people affected, Vilchez said that he and other teens want to step up and be a part of the solution.

“We’re frustrated and tired of hearing the same thing, and we want to create that change that our generation needs,” Vilchez said.

Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons spoke with Project Unloaded founder Nina Vinik, program manager Olivia Brown and Edgar Vilchez, a member of its Youth Council.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

Gun violence protest walkout 2018
Chicago Public School students walked out of school to protest gun violence in 2018. A new campaign is emphasizing young people as leaders in the conversation about gun violence. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Gun violence protest walkout 2018
Chicago Public School students walked out of school to protest gun violence in 2018. A new campaign is emphasizing young people as leaders in the conversation about gun violence. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

“While I was out, my little brother snuck into my room and found my ____.” “I knew he was feeling ____. I didn’t know he had gotten a ____.” “Everyone was ____ at the park, until someone pulled up with a ____.”

Those “fill-in-the-blanks” scenarios, part of the “Guns Change The Story” campaign from Project Unloaded, focus on teens.

The key message? That everyday interactions become all the more risky when a gun enters the scene.

The founder of Project Unloaded, Nina Vinik, said the organization educates young people about the risks of guns so they can make informed decisions.

It’s critical to center teens in this conversation, Vinik said.

“We found that by educating, engaging and empowering young people, we can give them the tools not only to make a decision that’s right for them, but to shift that broader narrative that’s taken hold,” she said.

The focus on teens is also driven by data. The average age a Chicagoan witnesses a shooting is just 14 years old, according to a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Edgar Vilchez, now 19, felt pushed to get involved after he saw a student get shot during his senior year of high school.

“I was a few feet from the scene, and that’s what sparked it. I was like, ‘Woah, I was literally right there,’” he said. “That triggered me and it triggered a lot of students: How can we do something in our community?”

Vilchez grew up in Belmont Cragin. Last year, he joined Project Unloaded’s Youth Council, hoping to have conversations with other teenagers about the risks that owning a gun can pose.

It’s especially important that this conversation centers Black and Latino kids, Vilchez said. Last year, 75% of shooting victims were Black and 19% were Latino, according to city data.

Changing the narrative around gun ownership is key, Vilchez said — and peer-to-peer education can make a major impact.

Project Unloaded launched a pilot program last summer, tasking 50 Chicago Public Schools students with coming up with their own slogans to inform their peers.

The winning campaign slogan? “Guns don’t give you power.”

A similar 10-week program recently launched. Olivia Brown, program manager of Project Unloaded, helps teach those teens. She said that their creativity is fundamental to creating change.

“These are teens who want to hear from people like them — who can give them the ‘real’ about the situations they experience,” she said. “We train them to be able to post, to be able to share the facts, to be able to have and initiate conversations and really place themselves in the solution.”

The fact-sharing model is based on the results of a survey of Black and Hispanic teens living in urban areas with high rates of gun violence, including Chicago. Nearly half of teens surveyed said they believed owning a gun would make them safer. But 18% of teens who were initially interested in gun ownership moved away after getting facts on the risks.

Gun violence is a complex issue. But with so many young people affected, Vilchez said that he and other teens want to step up and be a part of the solution.

“We’re frustrated and tired of hearing the same thing, and we want to create that change that our generation needs,” Vilchez said.

Reset host Sasha-Ann Simons spoke with Project Unloaded founder Nina Vinik, program manager Olivia Brown and Edgar Vilchez, a member of its Youth Council.

You can listen to the full conversation above.