I always describe gun violence as a shadow: It’s there, no matter where you are.
When I was in first grade, a man waved to my friends and me through the school fence, telling us that we were beautiful. It didn’t seem strange at the time, but a couple minutes later, we all went into lockdown—people running and fleeing. I had no idea what was going on until I heard from my parents that the man had been armed and trying to get into the school.
I couldn’t fathom the thought that that man wanted to take the lives of four beautiful little girls.
Gun violence is pretty common in Gardena, my neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. We hear a pop and ask ourselves whether it’s fireworks or gunshots. After the Sandy Hook School tragedy, which happened the same year as the attempted intrusion at school, my mom told me, “if that ever happened, you have to hide, and you have to play dead.” I’ve stared out of the windows in countless classrooms, trying to make escape routes in my head. I now have the Citizen app: Every day, multiple times a day, I get an alert that someone has been shot: 0.2 miles away, 0.5 miles away.
Gun violence is also prevalent in the neighborhood near my last high school, Hollywood High School. By the time I was a sophomore, I wanted to get involved in the gun violence prevention movement. I attended the Students Demand Action Summer Leadership Academy in 2021—the only student from my school. When I came back for my junior year, I started a Students Demand Action chapter.
A few months into the school year, we had a major lockdown. Our chapter’s Instagram feed, where we usually post updates, went from 28 followers to almost 400—students and teachers and parents and families. And last May, after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, we organized an all-school walkout. When the protest began, I just cried and cried; I suppose I didn’t really know where to put all that emotion. Then I got up to speak.
I’m a singer and an actress. I love performing and don’t mind putting myself out there. But it felt different, using my voice for advocacy. I remember the thoughts that went through my mind as I spoke: more than a thousand people are listening to me right now. They’re chanting along with me. The people in the back are reciting their own chants. They couldn’t even hear me, but they knew what the message was. They cared and wanted to raise awareness.
Earlier this year, my brother was robbed at gunpoint. A month before that, when I’d been walking home from a research project, I’d witnessed someone get shot. Then, in September, we had a swatting incident – a false report to law enforcement about an ongoing, life-threatening crime – at our school. I felt myself about to have a panic attack. Then, mid December, a minute away from my home, I was held at gunpoint.
Like a shadow. It just keeps happening and happening. It never goes away. Even a minute from home.
Honestly, the ongoing threats we face as youth are heartbreaking. People come to me and share their stories, which is important, and it also reminds me that we’re not paying enough attention to the issue of gun violence on a consistent basis. Especially because school shootings make up a small percentage of this country’s gun violence crisis.
I’m now a member of Students Demand Action’s National Advisory Board. I’ve learned through the gun violence prevention movement that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help, and I do. I’ve become really passionate about art and advocacy—especially writing plays and screenplays.
And even though I’m now at another school, Hollywood High’s Students Demand Action chapter is holding up well. I know it’s something that parents and families appreciate. And I’m so incredibly proud of all we’ve been able to accomplish.
Lately, I’ve been doing more gun violence prevention advocacy in Spanish. This has been really big for me and my parents, who are proud that I’m giving a voice to our community. Now our community members can understand why this is an issue and what we can do about it. “So we could have done this?” they’ve asked me. “Can we call our Senators? How do we secure our firearms?”
The more we can educate people, the stronger the movement will become. We should never underestimate the power of education.
by Ashley Castillo, as told to Sarah J. Robbins