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Parkland Survivor Tells How She Became an Activist

October 26, 2018

By Jackie Ogburn

“I went to more funerals in one week than most adults do in their lives,” said Sari Kaufman, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018.

During a panel discussion about student voting rights Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Kaufman described how the tragedy transformed her into an engaged citizen -- even though she is still not old enough to vote.

The panel organized by the Hart Leadership Program also included Symonne Singleton, a 2017 Duke alum who discovered that her first vote did not count, and Anita Earls, founder of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a candidate for the N.C. Supreme Court.

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  • Sari Kaufmand and Symonne Singleton listen to Anita Earls speak

    About the Panelists

    Sari Kaufman (left) is a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an activist and a survivor of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Kaufman’s response to the tragic shooting of her peers on Valentine’s Day has been to work to register thousands of student voters and mobilize to get them to the polls.

    Symonne Singleton (center) discovered her first vote did not count after her provisional ballot was thrown out even though she was told her vote would be recorded.

    Anita Earls (speaking) is founder of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and candidate for the N.C. Supreme Court. Earls is responsible for litigating successful challenges to North Carolina voter laws and redistricting plans.

A member of the school debate team, Kaufman had debated about gun laws just a few months earlier. To deal with the traumatic event, she wrote “an emotional but informational letter to legislative representatives.” The letter went viral on social media, but got little response from legislators.

She became a lead organizer of the March for Our Lives, which also included a voter registration drive.

“One thousand people were registered in four hours,” she said.

To keep the momentum going, she became involved in Empower the People, created by Stoneman Douglas students to increase engagement, activism and voting. The group talks to high school seniors across Florida about voting.

It is not easy to “turn apathy into action,” she said. One strategy is “to make voting cool, so it becomes the social norm.”

Duke alumna shares experience of learning her first vote didn’t count

Symonne Singleton described her first time voting as “a coming of age experience that I didn’t expect.” In 2014, she was a Duke student and excited to vote in her first election. It was when the NC voter ID laws were in effect. She had registered on campus, and went to the polling place on Election Day. 

Symonne holding the mic“I waited for an hour, but I wasn’t worried, I had my ID. The poll voter said I wasn’t registered,” she said. She was offered a provisional ballot, filled it out, and “got my ‘I Voted’ sticker.”

“I basked in the glory of my first vote,” she said.

A few weeks later, she found out that her vote didn’t count, because the law requiring voter ID also made provisional ballots illegal.

“I was one of 8,000 people who voted provisionally,” she said, and of those, 40 percent were black.

The experience made her realize, “I would have to fight for basic rights. If we don’t fight, it will grow and take over,” she said.

Singleton is now a software engineer at Code for America, working on the team that develops tools to allow people with convictions to navigate the legal process of clearing their records. In California, laws legalizing marijuana use also allow more than 750,000 people with convictions for using to have their recorded cleared. This gives them better access to employment, education and housing.

“Voters did that. Voters and civic engagement made that happen,” she said. 

Anita Earls offers insight on voting rights in NC

Anita Earls talked about how the NC legislature brought the voter ID bill to the floor the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, the same bill that caused Singleton’s vote to be thrown out. The law also ended same-day registration, disallowed student IDs for identification, and ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Anita Earls speaking with the mic“Of all the groups -- women, African-Americans -- students are the ones that most recently got the right to vote,” she said, in the early 1970s.

Earls was part of the lawsuit brought against the legislation, which the 4th Circuit Court ruled targeted African-Americans for disenfranchisement with “almost surgical precision.” The state was in the processing of appealing the decision, until the voters elected a Democratic governor and attorney general. They dropped the appeal, and the law is no longer effect.

She pointed out the importance of early voting as a defense against some types of voter suppression tactics, because if there is a problem, early voting gives citizens time to correct and still vote.

“We can’t foresee all the ways voting rights might be threatened. We have to be vigilant,” she said.

During the discussion of how to encourage students to vote, Singleton said, “You have to meet people where they are. Maybe they’re frustrated, or have voted and things haven’t gone their way.”

Several students from the group Pitt County Youth for Justice and Change, from Greenville, N.C.  attended the event. They were inspired to start the organization by the activism of the students from Stoneman Douglas.  Ava and Ana Rodriguez-Cue are sisters and members, but not yet old enough to vote.

“Our most successful event was a cook-out where local candidates came and we registered people to vote,” said Ana Rodriguez-Cue.

“I learned lots of new angles,” said Ava about the panel.


On Sanford's Policy 360 podcast, Sari Kaufman talked about the lessons she has learned as a young leader.