Common Sense recently honored Nza-Ari Khepra with the 2016 Social Change Catalyst Award for her work as a founder of the youth-led violence awareness organization Project Orange Tree and the Wear Orange campaign.
Following the murder of their friend Hadiya Pendleton, Khepra and a group of Chicago high school students started Project Orange Tree as a way to address the growing problem of gun violence in this country. In 2015, they partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety and launched the national Wear Orange campaign, encouraging people around the world to wear orange on June 2 each year to honor those who have lost their lives to gun violence and to raise awareness about this critical issue.
After the Common Sense Media Awards ceremony, we had the opportunity to speak with Khepra about Wear Orange and about the ways social media can be a catalyst for positive social change. We've put together a few excerpts from our conversation here.
Erin Wilkey Oh: How did social media play a role in Project Orange Tree?
Nza-Ari Khepra: Project Orange Tree really became known through social media. It’s how we got the word out about what we were doing. And it was surprising the type of reactions we got. There were people around the nation saying, "We support this." Even internationally. We had a school in South Africa that wore orange and people in the Middle East saying, "We're wearing orange today because we understand this is a true problem." Social media was a flame behind everything we wanted to do.
[With social media] we were able to document our first Structural Violence Awareness Day. We asked everyone to wear orange but we were also fasting from sunup to sundown from April 1 to April 4, 2013, and we were able to document that all. We sent pictures of us breaking fast at sundown and sent pictures of our entire high school dressed in orange. That showed the human element of it all.
The same is true for the #WearOrange campaign because it’s social media-based and internet-based. We have a website where people can sign up to pledge to wear orange on June 2. Then on Twitter people can share how they are supporting the campaign. On Twitter last year 250 million tweets were about Wear Orange on June 2. We were trending nationally. Even President Obama tweeted about the Wear Orange campaign!
EWO: How do you see your friends, peers, and the other young people you interact with using technology and social media? Are they using it for positive social change, as you have?
NK: Definitely. I've been surprised at how social media in general, but Twitter and Tumblr specifically, have become a space for social awareness and social justice. For example, so much of the Black Lives Matter movement was based in social media.
A lot of discussion on social media is aimed towards political change and social change. And yes, sometimes it's in silly ways. Sometimes it's a joke. But at the end of the day, it's eye-opening. A lot of people are using social media as a platform for activism.
I think a lot of my friends and my peers have been exposed to world issues because of social media. They're able to express their opinions on it and be heard by other people. They can engage in conversations with others who may have different opinions than they do.
There are so many things I didn't understand about the world. You can see it in a headline, but to talk to the people who are actually experiencing the situation is totally different. It makes people care a lot more about it to see that it's real. To see that it's not just another headline. That's what social media does.
EWO: What would you say to teachers interested in incorporating social media into their instruction? Is there a place for social media in learning?
NK: Definitely. Passion in general, social media gives that a platform. I understand there are negative influences when it comes to social media and technology, but there are negative influences that are going to be everywhere. And the only way that you can conquer that is by highlighting the positive. By allowing [students] to engage with [social media] and see the positive route.
If you avoid it, they're going to keep seeing it as the forbidden fruit. And you don't want technology and social media to be that for kids. Give them the ability to engage with it all in a positive way. I know there are so many children with a lot of dreams and passions that they want to pursue. And if you block out one of the routes to pursue that dream, then that's only detrimental. Show them another way, a different, better path.
Learn more and get involved today.: wearorange.org.
Relevant classroom resources
Check out our high school Digital Bytes modules on activism.