2018 Literary Gala: Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes, and Zion Kelly, 2018 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award
Soon after the shooting that took the lives of 17 of his peers and injured numerous others, Cameron Kasky and a group of his friends convened to launch March for Our Lives. He has since captured the nation’s attention leading rallies, appearing in interviews, authoring an op-ed for CNN, and questioning the NRA support of political figures. A week following the Parkland massacre, Samantha Fuentes, who was shot in both legs and whose face was wounded by shrapnel, sat for interviews despite visible injuries that presented unabashed evidence of the effects of gun violence. During the historic March for Our Lives, Fuentes boldly inspired a crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her slain friend Nicholas Dworet.
Zion Kelly, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., is a gun violence survivor whose twin brother, Zaire, was killed on his walk home—by the same man who attempted to rob Zion at gunpoint earlier that night. In a coordinated effort with student leaders from Parkland, Kelly has amplified the discussion of gun violence with respect to class, race, and socioeconomics. He has made multiple media appearances, and has lobbied to effect change to Washington, D.C., law, announcing his family’s proposal of the Zaire Kelly Public Safety Zone Amendment Act of 2018 (expanding both safety zones and the legal definition of “students”) and using social media to urge specific local Council members to vote in a bill that would to lower the Washington, D.C., voting age to 16—giving youth a stronger voice in political discourse.
PEN America awarded Kasky, Fuentes, and Kelly with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the 2018 PEN America Literary Gala. Below are the students’ full remarks, including an introduction by Suzanne Nossel.
Thank you, all. I’d like to start out by saying that I should not be standing here. I should not have had to call my friends after the shooting; Samantha should not have had to pull shrapnel out of her body; and Zion’s brother should not have been taken from us. We should not be here tonight. We should not be accepting this award. And we should not stand in front of you.
But alas, we’re here, and it is an honor to accept this award from Toni and James Goodale, the Freedom of Expression Courage Award on behalf of many, many others, only a few of whom are standing here this evening.
Courage implies that a certain course of action is being taken voluntarily. I have been told it takes courage to speak up, particularly as what used to be thought of as the “powerless” youth. Maybe to a certain extent that’s true, and I guess that’s the reason that PEN has decided to honor the March students with this award.
However, the Parkland, Florida, March For Our Lives students whom I am here to represent are reacting to exactly one horrific, tragic incident, which happened in our otherwise safe and cozy suburban environment. There is a very good chance that if this type of violence visited itself on our so-called “safe” community on a daily basis, I’d frankly stay inside.
I’d like to mention that recently there was a tragedy in Santa Fe, Texas, and that we send our love in regards to the families and are ready to be there for them as they may need us. But until then, [we] are allowing them to mourn as they need to. [We] are encouraging the media to cover the tragedy but to allow them the space that they need to heal.
We originally said “never again” knowing damn well that there would be more school shootings before we got the politicians to do anything about it. Brave Houston Police Chief [Acevedo] called out the complacent NRA-funded politicians by name. THAT’S courage.
Further, there are communities all across our country in which deadly shootings occur not just once in a while and not only daily but literally throughout the day, every day. Yet kids in those communities voluntarily walk out the door to do the things the rest of us take for granted, like going to school, to the park, or just being with friends. They and their parents have little guarantee that they’ll ever see one another alive again, every single day.
Those examples, ladies and gentlemen, are real courage, and I accept this award not only on behalf of myself and my friends, but especially on behalf of the kids and adults who are standing up to the NRA whose actions and voices inspire me every single day.
Please support our movement however you can, and expect many announcements in the near future as to what’s next for us. We will grow weary, we’ll have good days and bad, but it is in standing alongside those who battle this violence every single day that will give us the drive and COURAGE and energy to finish this battle, and we will succeed.
And before I step away, I’d like to let you all know that I feel honored to be standing alongside these two incredibly courageous people. If I had their courage, I’d certainly be … I’d be … I don’t know what to say. Being alongside Sam and Zion is one of the greatest honors anyone can receive. Thank you.
Good evening, it is a beautiful day in New York City for the PEN America Literary Gala. I am so honored that I could be a part of it. I have been alive for 18 years now, and being a student in public school, I’ve learned a whole lot of interesting things. But none of these lessons could have prepared me for a moment like this.
Education is the very foundation to all success, and I am an avid believer that anything can be accomplished with just two things: motivation and education. Unfortunately, we live in a world where most people lack both of these essential elements.
Nowadays people are chasing dreams that fill their wallets instead of their hearts. Nowadays people are so focused on being better than each other, instead of bettering each other. Nowadays people are killing each other, the numbers are staggering every day, but instead of proposing a solution, we propose profit. It seems that doing the “right” thing is nothing but a light suggestion.
I suppose I won this award because I’m doing the “right” thing. I’m prioritizing people’s lives over guns. It’s a simple and straightforward cause, but in a world that has grown so chaotic and convoluted—
I think sometimes I forget I got shot. And I think that things are easy sometimes, and then I put on the back burner and pretend like everything’s gonna be fine, and then you throw up on stage for the second fucking time in a row.
Mama ain’t raise no bitch.
I suppose I won this award because I’m doing the “right” thing. I’m prioritizing people’s lives over guns. It’s a simple and straightforward cause, but in a world that has grown so chaotic and convoluted I appear to be the bad guy. So this is for the good guys!
Thank you so much for believing in me, but not just me. Thank you for believing that together we can correct the moral and fundamental problems in this country. Thank you for all those students who walked out of school, those who were arrested for lobbying for change. Thank you for those who march alongside with me. Thank you for our lawmakers who are finally opening their eyes and wanting to address the problems the citizens are actually concerned with. And thank you PEN for giving me this award, even though everywhere I go I’m like a walking splash zone. Welcome to Sea World, I guess! More than anything I want to thank my mom. Being a mother is no easy task. And being the best mom is almost unachievable, but my mom takes the cake. My mother is my inspiration in being a fierce Latina woman that doesn’t take no for an answer. Without all these elements, I would not be standing where I am right now. Without all these elements, I would not being standing at all.
Last but certainly not least, and unfortunately so, Santa Fe high school, you are in my heart. I know what it feels like to lose the ones you love right in front of your eyes: the rage, the sadness, the anguish, and the fear. My arms are open for you, to embrace you, but also to fight for you. Stay beautiful and good night.
It takes courage to speak out and share your story to the world after experiencing so much trauma. It took courage for the Stoneman Douglas students to share their platform and uplift many voices in this movement. It takes courage to become a leader. Courage is something that all of us on stage have displayed.
One thing that is very important to me is just telling my truth. I don’t feel safe traveling to and from school in my city, Washington, D.C., because of illegal guns. It is important to tell this part of the story, also. If we want change to happen, we have to be willing be courageous. I understand this, and I turn my agony into action. I knew I had to take a stance because, just like thousands of students, like me, we all live in fear.
My brother was shot and killed on September 20, 2017. He was walking home from the mentoring program that we are involved in. This loss to this day devastates me. I think back and acknowledge that my brother was a great person and a student leader with big dreams. He did not deserve to die this way. No one does.
So to honor my brother, I fight for change in his remembrance. We all fight for change by expressing ourselves freely and using the power of our voices. Speak up, be brave, and be courageous.
Thank you for hearing us.