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Sunday Conversation: Annika Gallaway, student activist The Woodlands High School

April 14, 2019

Annika Gallaway is a senior ready to graduate from The Woodlands High School, doing what many normal high school students do: visiting colleges and planning out her future over the next several years. Gallaway, though, is not the typical high school student, something that is revealed in her social justice activism and leadership of the Montgomery County chapter of the group Students Demand Action.

Gallaway recently attended a large conference on LGBT rights and activism in Iowa, where she spoke on behalf of Students Demand Action about the importance of stopping mass shootings and gun violence across the nation. The 18-year-old Highlander, who helped organize the local March for Our Lives in The Woodlands and has been involved in other advocacy, sat down with The Villager for our Sunday Conversation.

QUESTION: What is happening in your life right now and how did you become involved in the activism you do now?

Gallaway: “I am just working on college stuff, I have not decided where I am going to go. But that is what I’m mainly what I’ve been doing, visiting a lot of colleges. I think like, especially with activism, I really kind of started out in Girl Scouts. I’ve been a Girl Scout since the fifth grade. As a Girl Scout, one of our biggest focuses is on community service. I’ve always been interested in being active in the community, and I kind of grew into activism. (My mom) Has been very supportive and I do believe I get a lot of my activism from her. She does support me a lot.”

QUESTION: How did you become involved in Students Demand Action?

Gallaway: “Students Demand Action, I’ve been involved for little over a year. That chapter kind of grew out of what the group I had for my Gold Award for Girl Scouts. For my Gold Award, I did a…it was called a teen advocacy project. I had this group of students and teens, and each month we would have different guest speakers discuss social issues. The last one we did was right after the Parkland shooting. We had Moms Demand Action come in, and we kind of decided, we should start a Students Demand Action chapter. Both Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action are part of a group called Everytown.”

QUESTION: You’re growing up in the era of mass shootings in school settings and other places, how has that environment affected you as a student and a young person?

Gallaway: “I think it is sad to say, but I think a lot of people in this generation have become desensitized to all the violence that has happened. I think it is obvious to say, we’re all scared to go to school now. I think everyone in my generation feels that way, although not everyone says or does something. I think this needs to change (stopping mass shootings.)”

QUESTION: There have been some false alarms at The Woodlands High School in recent months, highlighted by a student who was thought to be carrying a gun outside the campus, but it turned out the person had only a wooden stick. How did that incident make you feel?

Gallaway: “That day, I remember I was in AP U.S. History and they came over the intercom saying it was a lock-down. They’re usually not allowed to say whether or not it is a drill, but that time, he said it was not a drill. We all got into position and locked the door and sat by the walls. We had been seeing on the internet (that) people were posting stuff, a lot of rumors were going around in live time. I texted my mom and even after the lockdown ended, I think it lasted around 30 to 45 minutes, I think it was even just the next day that we actually figured out what really happened - it was just a kid with a stick that looked like a gun. It made me think with all the talk of legislation for arming teachers. If there was an armed teacher and they saw something like that (a person with what appeared to be a gun), they could have shot and killed an innocent child.”

QUESTION: When you and six other students walked out of TWHS in spring of 2018 in protest, you mentioned at the time that a few students criticized your activism. What has been the reception to your anti-gun violence stance from other students?

Gallaway: “On campus, our group is not affiliated with the school - I don’t think they’d allow it to be since it is probably too political. When we did the walk out, the walk-out started as a school-sanctioned event, but only a few of us walked out. There were quite a few - several hundred - attending that event (inside the school) and they all seemed very receptive (to stopping gun violence). There are always a few people who are adamant in their beliefs. Overall, it is pretty well accepted. The majority of people understand that this is an issue (mass shootings at schools) that needs to be (solved). We (Students Demand Action) don’t meet at the school, we normally meet in public libraries. Usually the people who approach us are very supportive. People who don’t support what we do, tend to hate us from afar and don’t get involved. I am thankful for that.”

QUESTION: What can politicians, school districts and lawmakers do to create a safer nation and prevent these kinds of mass shootings that are occurring in schools and other venues? Do you have any specific recommendations for changes?

Gallaway: “I know what Everytown is working on is very common sense gun legislation, like red flag laws that say you can take guns out of the hands of someone who is actively violent or dangerous. I think that could stop at least some of the mass shootings that are happening. I also think making it harder to purchase guns (would be good)…more extensive background checks and closing the gun show loophole. As for schools, I think most students realize that arming teachers is not a good idea. I think it is parents and adults who think differently on the issue, but I think most of the student feel the same way, we can take action to stop this.”

QUESTION: The current generation of teens and young adults has taken activism to new levels, especially on social media and in public places. How do you juggle normal teen activities such as friends and sports, with the intense nature of these serious issues you’re advocating about?

Gallaway: “I just kind of don’t think about it a lot when I am at school, but that doesn’t mean that I am not conscious about what could happen. A couple of weeks ago, we had a shooting threat. That day, everyone…a lot of people were very sensitive to that (threat). I knew there was a big police presence, on that day it was the safest it could be (because of the police). I think we’re a lot more perceptive to (our surroundings)…if someone pops a balloon, we all freeze.”

QUESTION: You recently attended a large LGBT youth conference in Iowa, the Iowa Safe Schools Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth, where you spoke. How did that come about?

Gallaway: “This year, I am the president of the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at (The Woodlands High School). When I first applied for my place on the national advisory board for Students Demand Action, part of what I wanted to to do was focus on the intersectionality of gun violence and different communities. They contacted me, Students Demand Action, and said would you like to speak at this conference in Iowa? We had, I don’t know how many people, but it was a big room, a big conference. There were a couple of thousand people there. I held a workshop on what Students demand Action is and basically how to start a (chapter). I think we did get a couple of student groups (started) in the Des Moines area.”

Question: The LGBT community itself can be controversial for some people in society, what is the environment like for LGBT-identifying people in the high school realm? How are you and other LGBT youth treated by others at The Woodlands High School?

Gallaway: “I think, again, there is always going to be people who don’t agree with it. I feel like in Texas, it is a fairly large (number of people opposed to LGBT). But, in general, nobody really bothers us and whenever they do, it is very indirectly. For example, we have to put up our (GSA) posters under a security camera so that if they get taken down, (administrators) see who took it down. I think it is a lot better than it used to be, but with the increase in visibility of our community, I guess there is…people..they don’t really bother us. There is a level of tolerance in people who don’t agree, but in people who do, people accept us.”

Question: Some studies and news reports claim older people, the generation aged 45 and older, don’t respect the views of younger people and the desire of youth to effect significant change in these areas — gun violence and LGBT issues? Is there a divide between the generations?

Gallaway: “I definitely think so (see the differences) We…our younger generation is experiencing different things that the older generation didn’t have to experience. They had nuclear bomb drills, we have mass shooting drills, it is kind similar but very different. I’d like to bridge that divide, or at least in some way try to bridge the divide. Because, I feel like even though we as a younger generation have so much of a voice, it is the older generation still making laws and in (political) office.”

Question: What advice would you give to other young people if they are interested in activism and helping create a conversation?

Gallaway: “There are a lot of groups and organizations right now that you can join, especially through social media. I think being a part of a community like that is a good first step to activism. Not even having a leadership opportunity, you don’t have to be a leader to be an activist. I’d say, don’t be afraid to be active in these things even if your friends make fun of it. I found a lot of my friends who are not activists were really supportive.”

jeff.forward@chron.com