Like many of the survivors of the shooting, Marjory was an activist with a strong voice for social change. She was born in 1890 and lived to be 108. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1912 with a degree in English, and spoke up for both women’s suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment at the Florida legislature in Tallahassee. As a columnist for the newspaper that would become the Miami Herald and as a concerned citizen, Marjory pushed for change in areas we would now call social justice—she advocated against convict leasing, for better sanitation within Black neighborhoods of Miami, and in favor of smart urban planning.
She also wrote books and short stories about women, the struggle for justice, and the natural beauty of Florida’s rich environment.
Her masterpiece was The Everglades: River of Grass, a book published in 1947 that both celebrated the unique ecosystem of South Florida and cautioned against the development, reclamation, and pollution that would disrupt its fragile equilibrium. With this lyrical defense of what was generally considered a swamp, and her founding of the nonprofit Friends of the Everglades in 1969, Marjory was instrumental in swaying public opinion in favor of restoring and nurturing the distinctive ecology surrounding Miami.
For her advocacy, on November 30, 1993, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
What you probably don’t know is that on that same day, she also asked to attend President Clinton’s signing of the Brady Bill, which put in place strict background checks for most purchases of firearms. It’s a strange twist of history that her little-known attendance at that bill signing has now become so meaningful.
And as the student leaders of the March For Our Lives movement follow in Marjory’s footsteps—organizing and demanding change from our legislators—they are wielding their power and are seen and heard throughout the world.
Nikolas Cruz wanted to feel powerful, and be seen and heard too. But he chose to make that happen with an assault rifle. Did he have other options? Of course he did. So what drove him to make this choice?
At the 2015 Catalyst Awards Conference, we screened “The Mask You Live In,” a powerful film produced by The Representation Project that I had the honor of introducing. It explores the social and emotional pressures boys face as they grow up, showing how our society’s glorification of sports, video games, violence, and porn teaches our boys that their success will be measured by their dominance—on the playing field, in the bedroom, and at school, home, and work. Boys are taught that if they’re not winners, they’re losers. That boys don’t cry, and that real men take whatever they want.
These stereotypes about boys and men squeeze socially acceptable male behaviors into a very tight box, and invalidate any other experiences or feelings. Ultimately, they are the seeds that in some boys will grow into harmful actions such as sexual harassment, assault, and even plotting deadly massacres. And whether men strike with guns, their bodies, or words—all too often it’s women and girls who suffer.
We are responsible as individuals, and as a society, to create more paths for boys to express their whole beings. We pay a lot of attention to the harmful stereotypes that affect girls and women, and we should do the same for boys and men.
Boys need our help and our love. They need us to teach and model a full spectrum of emotions, show our own vulnerabilities, and always lead with kindness. Boys don’t need to be strong physically, but they do need to be strong emotionally. We can give them the tools to learn how if we change the words we use and messages we send as parents, role models, and decision-makers at work and in our communities. We can stop telling them to “man up,” “be a man,” “grow some hair on your chest,” “be a guy’s guy,” and start to listen to what they have to say.
And we need to push our society to move away from creating hierarchies based on dominance, whether in our governments, our workplaces, or our homes. People are naturally different from one another, but we are all equally human, valuable, and promising. Marjory Stoneman Douglas knew this and worked her whole life to find ways for us to live in harmony—with one another and with our environment.
With her as a model, and the memory of the 17 victims in our hearts, can we commit together to raising boys (and girls!) who are happy in their own skin, who can explore their varied interests without judgment, and who value one another as fellow humans? Can we raise children who feel powerful, heard, and seen even when they aren’t holding a gun? For their sake, and ours, I hope so.