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The 'Tennessee Three' inspires young activism

Protesters calling for gun reform laws and showing support for the three Democratic representatives. Rep. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were ultimately expelled, but Rep. Gloria Johnson was saved by one vote. The two legislators were restored to the their seats. The three lawmakers were at the White House on Monday.
Seth Herald
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Protesters calling for gun reform laws and showing support for the three Democratic representatives. Rep. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson were ultimately expelled, but Rep. Gloria Johnson was saved by one vote. The two legislators were restored to the their seats. The three lawmakers were at the White House on Monday.

Republicans expelling two Black Democratic lawmakers from the Tennessee House gave an unexpected boost to an already-intense level of youth activism.

"As young people, I feel like society tries its hardest not to listen to us," said Ezri Tyler, a 19-year-old freshman at Vanderbilt University and staffer at the gun reform organization March for Our Lives.

Reps. Justin Jones, 27, and Justin J. Pearson, 28, were thrust into the national spotlight this month when, following a student-led protest for gun reform, their Republican colleagues took the extraordinary step of expelling the two lawmakers.

A third representative, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, was spared by a single vote.

The two lawmakers were reinstated to office following public outcry, and the Tennessee Three, as they've come to be known, were even invited to the White House on Monday to meet with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

"They really can't ignore us any longer," Tyler, the Vanderbilt student, said of older, establishment voters.

"I think the biggest way to see that is that we are deciding elections right now and we are deciding policies. And even in Tennessee, specifically in the last three weeks, we saw that we decided who we want our representatives to be and we wouldn't stand for a fascist move by the legislatures to expel them."

Tyler and fellow Vanderbilt student, Brynn Jones, helped organize school walkouts after the shooting at The Covenant School — where six people, including three children, were killed and rallies in support of Reps. Jones and Pearson.

The actions were organized on their college campuses through social media and word of mouth. The two Vanderbilt students said actions such as these are proof of youth civic engagement and their refusal to be ignored by legislators.

"There is a new type of representative that is coming from these younger groups and that is an activist representative," said Brynn Jones. "And the way that Justin Jones and Justin Pearson can best represent their constituents is from their background as organizers."

"And the fact that they were elected as youth organizers to be representatives is definitely not a coincidence," she said. "It is definitely integral to both why they did what they did, and also why the legislature decided to expel those two because they're scared."

Understanding historical precedence

Young people taking charge in activism is nothing new.

Many leaders in the civil rights movement were college students and young adults. Protests against the Vietnam War made their home on college campuses. And classroom walkouts against government policies have been frequent in the 21st century.

Both Tyler and Brynn Jones acknowledged the impact these past youth-led movements have had on the way they view their own activism.

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost is a fellow student of this school of thought.

"I got involved in advocacy when I was 15 years old because of the Sandy Hook shooting," he said.

"There's something that really shakes the consciousness of a people when the young people of that country step up against or for some sort of solution or problem. And I think that, in and of itself, really pushes older folks to think twice about the decisions they're making and the future we live in."

At 26 years old, Frost is the youngest member of Congress and the first House member born into Generation Z. He said he looks to history to help inform his advocacy.

"We have a generation that is unafraid to tap into and walk in the steps of people like John Lewis, and Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, and Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and people who were unafraid to use both the inside-outside game organizing direct action to not just make a point, but shift legislation and fight for a better world for everybody in this country," he said.

"And I think Gen-Z and young millennials are very much in line with that and pull from that as inspiration, but also in ways of figuring out how we can advance the agenda that we believe in, not the entire generation, but broadly speaking, on equity and justice for all people."

What America is seeing now is an extension of that history of youth-led action, said Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist and University of Maryland professor.

"Young people have become increasingly civically engaged," she said. "And that really started during the period of the Trump administration when the (anti-Trump) resistance was kind of growing."

"Young people got increasingly involved in the United States around issues related to a variety of progressive issues. So we saw young people mobilized around gun violence, for obvious reasons. We saw these youth who were involved in the youth climate movement. And then after COVID and the COVID lockdowns, we saw young people mobilizing against systemic racism."

These are movements that participants intentionally seek to make intersectional and diverse, Fisher said. Young millennials and Generation Z are more aware of issues like race, gender and class and in the activist space, try to make room for more marginalized voices to be heard.

That's where Edwith Theogene focuses her work. She is senior director for the Racial Equity and Justice Team at the Center for American Progress.

In her work, Theogene said she's seen young people taking an active role in political change, both at the ballot box and in on-the-ground activism.

"They're the ones who have something to say. Not only that, they have brilliance to come to bear as well," she said.

"But I also say that with the caveat that we should be listening to each other all around," she added. "Because older people also have a wisdom that they should bring to bear as well."

The Tennessee Three asked Biden on Monday to declare the nation's gun violence epidemic a public health emergency.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.