Cameron Kasky recalls the eerie realization that descended upon the kids huddled in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classroom where he and his younger brother, Holden, were hiding from a 19-year-old former student with an AR-15. “I remember seeing a lot of people not confused anymore,” says Kasky. After all the years of lockdown drills, it was happening to them.
Since that February day in Parkland, Florida, when 14 students and three faculty members were killed, Kasky and fellow classmates Emma González, David Hogg, Jaclyn Corin, and Alex Wind have dedicated themselves to preventing it from happening to anyone else. In the week after the shooting, these five teens helped form the core leadership of what quickly became the #NeverAgain movement, a grassroots effort that has inspired nationwide school walkouts and local legislative changes, and drew more than 1.2 million people, predominantly youth, to the streets of Washington, D.C., and cities across the country for the March for Our Lives rally this past spring. Crucially, the students have even spurred action in the business arena, prompting retailers and banks to support stronger restrictions around gun sales. Having spoken the language of social media since they had baby teeth, they knew far better than any brand or media company how to create an effective viral phenomenon, mobilizing on Twitter and leveraging press coverage to call for gun control. Plus, says González, “as children, we’re good at being loud and demanding attention. No one is allowed to ignore this [issue] anymore.”
The quintet—along with nearly two dozen of their classmates—has accomplished more for the cause than any other campaign that followed a mass shooting. “We made one of the largest marches in U.S. history in a matter of five weeks because we were able to coordinate, communicate, and get things done faster than anybody before us,” says Hogg. The 18-year-old former news director for the school’s TV station, Hogg has become the group’s resident policy wonk and strategist, adept at pulling the levers of public opinion on social media. González, 18, who delivered her indelible “We call BS” speech in the aftermath of the shooting and created an iconic moment onstage at the march in D.C. when she paused for a startling 4 minutes and 27 seconds of silence (making her speech the length of the gunman’s spree), serves as a public advocate. Seventeen-year-old Kasky, though jocular and media-friendly, works mostly behind the scenes, developing the messaging that his classmates and their partner network use on social media and elsewhere. Wind, age 17, coordinates campaigns with students and organizations in other states and cities. Corin, MSD’s junior class president, is both a public speaker and planner: A week after the shooting, the 17-year-old organized a trip for 100 of her classmates to the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee to appeal for gun restrictions.
Despite these efforts, Congress still hasn’t taken up any of the students’ basic policy asks, including universal background checks and banning sales of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. While in Tallahassee, the group met with state Representative Jared Moskowitz, who eventually helped push his colleagues to vote “yes” on a bill to raise the firearm age requirement to 21 years and impose a three-day waiting period on purchases. He tutored the students on bill-making policy and procedure, “so they [could] take the experience here in Tallahassee and try to replicate it in other places,” Moskowitz says.
Now, as media attention around the shooting wanes, the group is entering its most challenging—and important—phase: What happens next.
Related video: How the Parkland teens created a path forward for gun control
Since the march, Corin, Hogg, González, Kasky, and Wind have launched a flurry of initiatives to extend the movement’s momentum. They now oversee a March for Our Lives nonprofit, which employs a handful of former classmates and serves as the group’s operations hub. The organization supported “Town Hall for Our Lives,” a campaign that encourages students across the country to create events to press local lawmakers for gun reform, and debuted an online toolkit to advise high schoolers who want to start their own clubs. This summer, the five leaders are traveling around the country to speak at youth events. “At every one, we make sure there’s a voter registration booth present,” says Wind.
The movement’s strength resides in the roughly 4 million Americans who will turn 18 this year and be able to influence the midterm elections. Young people “have the potential to be the biggest voting bloc in November,” says Jen Tolentino, the director of policy and civic tech for the nonprofit Rock the Vote, which powers online registration forms and text-to-vote codes for March for Our Lives. Rock the Vote says it has registered more young people through March for Our Lives than many other partners.
Private enterprise is taking note. After March for Our Lives was announced, executives began reaching out. Lyft donated free rides to sister marches in 50 cities; Delta Air Lines offered chartered flights for MSD students and families to attend the D.C. event. Bank of America has stopped lending to some assault-style weapons manufacturers, and Citigroup prohibits retailers that use its financial services from selling guns to people under 21 or who haven’t passed a background check. And both Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods raised the age limit for gun sales from 18 to 21. “We have heard you. The nation has heard you,” Dick’s CEO Edward Stack wrote of the activists when he announced that his stores were also banning assault rifles.
The students have begun engaging both companies and consumers in new, more proactive ways. When Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Hogg in a tweet in late March, he pushed a list of her advertisers to his nearly 800,000 followers. Within days, more than 20 of her show’s sponsors—including Nestlé, IBM, and Hulu—had withdrawn. Hogg’s logic is simple: “If somebody’s doing something stupid and it’s just for the money,” he says, of the way Ingraham baited him to appease her base, “go after the money.” In April, Hogg launched another boycott, aimed at investment giants BlackRock and Vanguard to protest their holdings in gun manufacturers. This came even after BlackRock—which wields more than $6 trillion in assets—created two gun-free funds in response to the shooting.
Hogg’s latest effort was directed at the supermarket chain Publix for its contributions to the Florida gubernatorial candidate of Adam Putnam, who has called himself “a proud NRA Sellout.” Last Friday–two days after Hogg called for a series of “die-in” protests throughout the grocers’ Florida stores and just before the demonstrations were to begin–Publix announced that it was suspending all corporate political contributions. “So when are we doing a die-in at Trump Hotel?” Hogg tweeted cheekily on Sunday evening.
The March for Our Lives founders are aware that their prominence and impact stems, in large part, from their being white and well-off. They’ve responded by seeking out a wide range of allies. They speak frequently with Michael Skolnik, who runs a social impact consultancy called the Soze Agency and serves on the board of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. And they’ve reached out to both Chicago’s Peace Warriors, a group of black students who have been combating gun violence in their neighborhoods, and the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based organization that was formed after the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. “We feel a new sense of inspiration around the possibility of a cross-class, cross-race movement here in Florida,” says codirector Rachel Gilmer. “This movement is bigger than the Parkland kids who are on TV.”
By expanding the gun-safety conversation beyond its previous silos, the March for Our Lives founders are ensuring that the cause doesn’t live—or die—with them alone. It’s why they ceded the stage at the march to speakers like Naomi Wadler, the 11-year-old who called attention to the disproportionate number of black female victims of gun violence, and 17-year-old Edna Chavez, who told the crowd how she learned at a young age to duck bullets in South L.A. “It was simple privilege that got us the spotlight,” says Kasky. “We have an opportunity, a platform, and we’re dedicating ourselves to using it for everybody affected by gun violence.” In the United States, that’s a growing—and emboldened—group of voters.
Jaclyn Corin, Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Alex Wind are Nos. 1 through 5 on the 2018 Most Creative People in Business list. Check out all 100 people here.