Young Island activists continue march for their lives

Keith Chatinover and Owen Engler are all-in on engaging young voters.

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Owen Engler, MVRHS junior class president, left, and Makenzie Condon, junior class vice president, organized a student walkout and are continuing their activism. — Gabrielle Mannino

Island residents Keith Chatinover, Owen Engler, and Mackenzie Condon live in a different world today. It’s a world in which they are adults and activists, and it’s different from the world in which most of us spend our lives.

Chatinover this month graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Engler and Condon will be seniors at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) in September.

The three galvanized the Island and its youth community after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that claimed 17 lives.

After Parkland, these three students organized “walk-out” protests at their schools, then went to Washington, D.C., in March on a two-bus caravan organized by Chatinover, where they joined more than 800,000 others, mostly young people, protesting guns laws and gun violence in this country.

Now they are back here, doing the unglamorous heavy lifting of voter registration and passing the word, the stuff required for societal change. Two weeks ago The Times sat with Chatinover and Engler to record their activist lives today and how the work has changed them. (Condon was on an airplane that day, flying to the U.S. National High School Track finals, in which she finished 16th in the nation in her event.)

Chatinover is a veteran activist who volunteers with state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, and was recently named Activist of the Year by the Massachusetts High School Democrats organization. He will matriculate at Middlebury College in September with a political science and environmental science double major. Engler will be a high senior focusing on projects like the Prom Night safe ride initiative he created this year, to widespread approval.

If you’re thinking, “That’s terrific for these kids,” you need to look in their eyes. The eyes of change seekers are somehow older, wiser, more focused. Age is not a factor. Genes may be a factor. Exposure to the power to effect change that comes from association with like-minded people is certainly in play.

If you have been around long enough, you’ve seen it in the eyes of young ’60s activists. It’s how you tell the real deal from the thrill-seekers — by their eyes. I saw it in the ’60s, and in the eyes of Black Lives Matters founders a couple of years ago, and now in these young adults.

Now, the thing about creating change is that it has always been a long, uphill battle. That may be different today. This generation has social media platforms that do not require them to compete for coverage in mainstream media outlets, where the life expectancy of a story is shorter than a firefly’s.

And they know their audience: age 18 to millennials. They know there are more than 75 million 18- to 34-year-olds, and another 25 million in the pipeline, and that only about 50 percent of them voted in recent elections. If an additional 10 percent register and vote, that’s more than 10 million votes, mostly in favor of their issues.

We asked Chatinover and Engler about their work and activist strategy, and the changes their work has brought to their own lives:

How did the March for our Lives impact you?

Engler: In different ways for me; I was politically involved before, but I’m feeling empowered and educating myself on the subject. My interest in the political dynamic has skyrocketed. Seeing all those people at the march was important to me. Now we have speakers coming in to school on topics ranging from gun violence to abortion, women’s rights. We are paving the way for change. [The movement] keeps kids engaged. It’s been up to Washington, D.C. [to effect change], but now we can make a difference. I’m not a magical person, not a guy with a title, just a guy in the real world.

Chatinover: The biggest change for me is a focus on getting kids registered to vote. The march helped me understand that. Getting them involved as young people is far easier than motivating them later in life, when attitudes and perceptions are more fixed. Since the march I honestly believe that if we organize everyone, we will win. The conventional wisdom told us to concentrate on older people, whiter people. That’s not true. The need is to keep that line of young people moving. I’ve always been a political activist, but what I’m doing now presents young people as the centerpiece. As a whole, they are progressive and idealistic. They understand the political system is bought and paid for.

How important are social media platforms? What about mainstream media in your efforts?

Engler: Social media plays a big role. The majority of people in the march were kids, and they get their news and information from social media, so it makes sense to use social media. That’s the platform to spread the word.

Senior Keith Chatinover rings a bell every minute to signal people with signs to step forward in the line. Each person with a sign represents one of 17 people killed in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

Chatinover: That’s right. Mass media attention has waned since the march. The perception may be this movement is dying out. But what we are doing now isn’t sexy enough for TV. Social media is easier. It’s cost-efficient. You can create millions of hits at no cost, and you can monitor the hits.

Engler: That’s where our heavy lifting goes on. Kids who get interested can follow the social media platforms and see that this movement hasn’t been dampened. You can almost argue that [mass] media is a business, and they have to compete for viewers and ads, so stories in the news cycle change rapidly. But I think the perception [of the importance of mass media] is dying out some. There is a lot of distrust of mass media organizations.

Are you interacting with other groups, like #MeToo?

Engler: Yes. Gun violence is a priority, but we need to bring the underlying causes to light. In the country now, we only deal with the top line of the moment. It’s illogical to try to fix school shootings by bringing more guns into schools. The underlying problems include misogyny, racism, immigration, drugs. Mental health is a key underlying problem. How do we fix the problem? And who pays for it, the states or federal government? Difficult conversations to have, but young people are willing to have them.

Chatinover: When you think about it, it isn’t an accident that gun violence got this movement going. Isn’t gun violence the perfect microcosm of our societal problems?

 

Are you comfortable being the adults in the room?

Chatinover: Yeah. I look at it as being one of the leaders in the room, not being afraid of adults, having a seat at the table.

Engler: Interesting question. I don’t look at age or gender when I enter a room. I pretty much say the same thing, maybe a little more colloquial with young people. But look at where we are today. Neither side has been able to do anything, and I don’t think that results from lack of ideals in either party, but from inaction by the politicians in the parties. No one knows the big answers, but I feel that I know as much as anybody else in the room.

Chatinover: We have as good a chance to be right — or wrong — as anybody else.