How Teens Are Using Social Media to Try to Change the Cultural Narrative Around Guns

Nowadays, people can spend hours scrolling through social media.

An organization called Project Unloaded is helping teens educate their peers on the risks of owning a gun by empowering youth to become social media influencers for change.

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Laia McClain, 15, is one of many students who participates in an After School Matters program in downtown Chicago.

“I feel like it’s easier to get a gun than it is to do a lot of things,” McClain said. “Like, it’s easier to get a gun than it is to rent in Chicago.”

Project Unloaded program manager Olivia Brown is helping teens create a new cultural narrative about guns.

“We are working with teens at After School Matters to train them to be marketing professionals and use social media to empower other teens,” Brown said.

She continued: “Many of our students have come to us really heartbroken, grieving and wanting more. I think it is really important to give them some tools to start those conversations with people they love and care about and want to see them succeed.”

High school freshman Alexis Jackson said that’s why she wanted to join the program.

“I envision myself with Project Unloaded making promotions and helping people in trying to convince them that having a gun on them is not OK and there are other ways to make yourself feel safe without carrying a gun on you,” Jackson said.

Nina Vinik, founder and executive director of Project Unloaded, said many people believe that having a gun will make them safer.

“It is a myth,” Vinik said. “Homes with guns have higher rates of suicide and homicide. They are at greater risk of dying from gun violence if they have a gun at home. Communities with more guns have more gun violence, not less.”

The organization hopes to reach young people digitally by building social media campaigns to spark action among communities impacted by gun violence. One of the recent campaigns is called “Guns Change the Story.”

“The idea behind ‘Guns Change the Story’ is to help teens understand how everyday moments in their lives can really change in an instant when a gun enters the picture,” Vinik said.

Edgar Vilchez, 19, went through the program.

“Growing up in Belmont Cragin,” Vilchez said, “I was always turning on certain news and hearing the headline ‘youth got shot,’ or from personal experience seeing a … shooting outside my school, and I knew it shouldn’t be something that should be normalized.”

Now in his first year of college, Vilchez said his passion for gun violence prevention has grown thanks to Project Unloaded. He is part of the organization’s youth council.

Brown said she started organizing when she was 14. Using her lived experiences, she educates students and guides them to be the change they want to see in their communities.

“As they learn of the facts, you see this shift from ‘I don’t think I can do anything’ or ‘I don’t know if my voice matters’ to ‘Wait, it actually does, and if I’m courageous enough to use my voice, good things can happen,’” Brown said. “That’s been really fun to see.”

Through campaigns on Instagram and Snapchat, Project Unloaded has reached nearly 150,000 teens in the Chicago neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence.

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago.

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