(From left) Sterling Zinsmeyer, founding member of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), and Larry Hufford, St. Mary's University professor of Political Science and International Relations speak in a panel to CAST Tech High School.
Advanced Learning Academy students (from left) Anna Riggs and Paulina Rodriguez moderated a panel at Fox Tech High School featuring Sterling Zinsmeyer, State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), and Larry Hufford. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As students across San Antonio returned to the classroom Friday flush with the excitement of protest walkouts, students Paulina Rodriguez and Anna Riggs moderated a panel that outlined how to convert that energy into action for their fellow students at San Antonio’s Advanced Learning Academy, a magnet school located at Fox Tech High School.

Rodriguez and Riggs are two of the many student leaders who organized events on Friday in reaction to the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Instead of organizing a walkout, the two, along with junior Samantha Garza, organized a slate of activities to initiate a discussion on gun violence.

The day began with a 17-minute moment of silence, included art projects and letter writing, and ended with panels of speakers to answer students’ questions about how to take their activism further.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio); Sterling Zinsmeyer, a founding member of the National AIDS Housing Coalition; and St. Mary’s professor Larry Hufford addressed  eighth- through twelfth-graders who gathered Friday afternoon.

Students skipped class and chose to attend the event without repercussions from their teachers, Riggs said. She said that they decided to hold an event like this instead of a walkout, because the ALA students already had the support of their administration.

ALA Principal Kathy Bieser even helped organize students in the amphitheater where the panel was held.

“It felt counterproductive to leave campus when our school is supportive,” Riggs said.

Each of the speakers recounted the way they initially developed their own voice in politics and activism. For Zinsmeyer, it was in high school when he experienced bullying. For Hufford, it was in college with the encouragement of his professors. And for Bernal, it was when he saw the economic disparity that existed within his own family. Half worked as farm workers and the other half lived a more privileged life.

Bernal told students that their concerns about gun violence were not new, but that the movement they are contributing to does feel different, because of young people’s involvement.

When asked about the most effective way to change people’s minds and alter policy, Bernal said, “it really takes all types,” going on to cite the need for involvement in activism, politics, and social media.

“Do something, and don’t just do it once,” he told the audience of more than 100 students.

Hufford said that the walkouts and related activism reminds him of the 1970s, but he said that kind of social movement stopped in the 1990s and 2000s.

He reassured the students that what they are doing is “serious” and encouraged them to not let up without fixing the root cause of the issues they are protesting.

Speakers didn’t shy away from political issues. Bernal talked about the partisan divide he sees in the Texas Legislature. He described his role in the minority party and said he has to keep “playing defense” until the numbers change.

Zinsmeyer said a change in political leadership would be necessary to make real change.

“We need a new president,” he said to the loudest round of applause of the afternoon.

Students asked questions throughout the panel discussion about mental health resources, how to come to a compromise with someone squarely opposed to gun control, and how to reduce hate crimes.

After the presentation, the event’s organizers said they were happy they could involve most of the school’s grades in some kind of educational event. Fourth- and fifth-graders participated in an art project to learn about social activism.

Some folded paper flowers and others colored in the letters of the word “hope.” Next to the art projects, students set out desks with names of students who had been victims of school shootings.

Garza organized the art project and installation. She said she thought it would appeal to the younger students, because they like to learn about social issues with their hands.

She said they, along with middle schoolers who also participated in an earlier panel, wrote letters to elected officials.

“I read through them, and it was surprising,” Rodriguez said. “It was so intelligent and insightful.”

Rodriguez said she was happy that the day that started off with a moment of silence ended with some time for reflection. She hopes this carries on the momentum that the National School Walkout and related events brought to San Antonio.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.