By: Caroline Pejcinovic
Edited by: Tessa Brubaker
The CTA bus was heading toward Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy on Chicago’s South Side, full of people ready to start their day, heading somewhere with a purpose—including Gwendolyn Brooks student Rie’Onna Holman. Rather than continue on its way to the next stop, the bus became the target of gun violence.
People were screaming, children were crying, hitting the floor and calling loved ones. Holman could have lost her life in two seconds. The bus pulled over and stalled for a few minutes before continuing its normal route. This was Holman’s wake-up call, and since then she’s vowed that crossfire shootings like this should not happen to other students again.
“Going through that whole experience, I remember what others have been through, people who have been shot, people who have lost family members,” Holman says. “I have to remember that I’m lucky, and I feel like this is what I’m fighting for.”
After that life-altering experience, the lights have turned on for Holman. At 16, she is now co-president of the Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere program (BRAVE) where she learns how to lead social and political movements. After joining the group in 2017, Holman has dedicated herself to fighting against the harsh realities many teenagers endure.
She orchestrated her high school walkout in response to gun violence and has spoken to survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Holman says she was not willing to become a statistic and will hone her skills as a leader for change until people in her community can send their children to school safely.
“BRAVE is more of a family, and I’ve connected with all these youths and listened to what they’ve been through in their lifetimes, [and it] has really made me fed up for them,” Holman says. “To be so young, they shouldn’t have to go through what they’re going through. Losing family members left and right and fearing walking to school, getting to school and being in school.”
Before joining BRAVE, Holman kept her opinions to herself. She usually held back, reading books in class rather than speaking publicly on polarizing topics out of fear of criticism. However, now she has led a protest down the Dan Ryan Expressway and joined forces with other Chicago coalitions, such as ChicagoStrong, which have urged elected officials to help end the spread of gun violence. Holman has been training with BRAVE for only one year, but she speaks as if every conversation will be her last.
Holman understands that gun violence isn’t exclusive to Chicago, and she views it as a nationwide, everyday crisis for survivors. In June 2018, Holman met with survivors from the Parkland shooting. She picked up activist Emma Gonzalez from the airport during the Road to Change Tour where they met with other ChicagoStrong activists. Holman and Gonzalez come from different backgrounds—they don’t even live in the same time zone—yet they were brought together because of the spread of gun violence.
“We were on two different levels of gun violence,” Holman says. “I’ve never been through a bad shooting, but we go through everyday shootings, so we could connect with each other on a level that a lot of people, from, like, Naperville, we can’t connect.”
Holman realizes her age can define her. Most 16-year-olds aren’t meeting with mass shooting survivors, or being caught between gunfire. Compared to other students, Holman is a polar opposite.
BRAVE’s social media accounts are run by the students, leaving Holman and her peers to stop arguments with outsiders. Holman recounts a recent heated exchange between a National Rifle Association member on Twitter about gun laws. Instead of allowing the situation to become problematic, Holman has learned to listen to each side of an argument, and to empathize with those who cannot understand the complexities in Chicago.
“The threats that we do get, it’s hard to comprehend and move past it,” Holman says. “We have to remember why we’re doing it, what’s the purpose, how many lives could it change, how many lives could it save.”
Despite the online arguments and opposing viewpoints, the members of BRAVE don’t let external forces disrupt their work for change. With about 15 other students and two adult coordinators beside her, Holman knows she is not alone in this battle.
Lamar Johnson, BRAVE’s violence prevention coordinator, works one-on-one with students in the program every Thursday. Johnson guides the students through workshops on activism, as well as creating podcasts and developing strong public speaking skills. Whether the workshops are planned or impromptu, he helps all the students learn the proper etiquette. Johnson has worked with Holman since day one, watching her grow from a quiet teenager into a full-blown activist leading her high school’s walkout in response to gun violence, despite the pushback from her school.
“The funny thing is her brother and her mom say that before she joined BRAVE she wasn’t vocal at all. So, the silent side of her I never see, and with her family, the vocal side they never see,” Johnson says. “It’s kind of unique. BRAVE is definitely the vehicle that opened her and took her out of her shell to be vocal about herself and, of course, local issues.”
Holman plans to continue working in politics or teach in schools once she graduates high school.
Daniel Perez, the communications manager for the Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development, a gang intervention violence prevention and youth development organization, believes students have more power now than ever.
“They know they are the future. They know that can start creating change now, so when they’re older hopefully there’s dramatic change,” Perez says. “It’s great that people are stepping up and sharing their voice.”
Holman knows there will be challenges to face in the future, but she remains optimistic, with a team to work beside and heroes to look up to. Having accomplished so much in her short time with BRAVE, Holman has seen how change can happen and affect lives. This energy keeps her going.
“We have to remember that everyone didn’t agree with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and all those people who were a part of the civil rights movement. But that did not stop those people,” Holman says. “We’re going to get the justice we deserve with the wisdom of our elders and the young people’s energy. We can really stop the bomb before it explodes again.”
A future leader that students across Chicago need. Keep up the good work!