Like thousands of other Fulton County teens, Roswell’s Ethan Asher went back to school Monday. The difference for the 17-year-old Centennial High senior is that he is now $36,000 richer.
The money came with the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award — “tikkun olam,” which roughly translates to “repair of the world” in Hebrew, is the Jewish concept of helping others and fixing inequality. Asher started “March for Our Lives Georgia” after the February 2018 school massacre of 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida. Over the last 13 years, the California-based Helen Diller Family Foundation said it has given more than $4 million to 129 Jewish teens making global change.
Asher’s group advocates for gun control measures he thinks would reduce statewide gun violence. The group lobbies politicians for things like funding mental health professionals in schools and closing the “boyfriend loophole” through a law activists say would ensure more convicted domestic abusers can’t buy guns. The group also registers students to vote and holds virtual town halls across the state.
It’s a national movement, but Asher said he’s gotten some pushback. “Working in the South in general, you have people who are there cheering you on and you have people who aren’t there cheering you on.”
He said most of the mean words come online and not from his peers.
“Adults feel really strongly when teenagers are loud and voice opinions,” he said.
Asher said the immediate goals of his group include: getting young people advocating for gun-control measures, increasing funding for background checks and hearing from community leaders in southwest Atlanta about how to curb gun violence issues in poorer neighborhoods.
“Gun violence looks different in every community … what works in Roswell won’t work in south Atlanta,” he said.
Asher said Roswell and Parkland “are both affluent neighborhoods that don’t (often) deal with gun violence,” which is part of why the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting affected him so personally.
“I felt angry and I didn’t like feeling angry and I wanted something productive to put (my energy) into,” he said.
In between his schoolwork, Asher planned a rally a month after the Florida shooting. Tens of thousands of people attended to hear people like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Parkland survivor speak Carly Newell speak.
“I hid in a closet Feb. 14. And I’m not hiding anymore,” Newell said during the Atlanta rally. “I’m not hiding from my government, not hiding from the NRA, not hiding from guns. And most of all I am not hiding from change.”
Asher said he built a statewide network, amassing a group of 150 people helping to plan the march. That dwindled to about five people after the rally but is back up to 100 active students.
Asher said the long-term viability of the group is important, especially considering he’s set to go away to college.
A portion of his $36,000 will go back into the group (he declined to say how much) and some will go toward paying for school.
He said he’s interested in political non-profit work, especially after interning with U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who herself lost a son to gun violence, this summer.
Asher said he isn’t sure where he’s going to go to college, but he knows he wants his group to stay run by students.
“We’re still here, we’re still fighting, we still have a lot to fight for,” he said.