Azhalia Leal remembers the night she knew the March for Our Lives Dallas gun-safety rally was going to make an impact. It was late at night, about a month before the downtown march, and Leal, a 20-year-old junior at El Centro College, was at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Mesquite with several student organizers. They were laughing, texting, eating a Triple Chocolate Pizookie. Then one of the younger people at the table, Sophie Conde, a junior at Centennial High in Frisco, started talking shop. The kids there were part of the MFOL Dallas executive committee, responsible for organizing the local March 24 rally, one of hundreds of satellite marches across the country in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Conde was discussing all the work still to be done: messaging, permits, finding volunteers, media outreach, fieldwork. Leal is not easily impressed. She’s whip-smart and has volunteered for other marches. She’s a legislative aide for Texas state Rep. Victoria Neave. She was a fellow in the Campaign Activities and Management Program, in which students and young professionals learn skills necessary to support candidates seeking Dallas ISD office. But Leal was blown away by Conde.
“I thought, This girl is going to make me work,” Leal said a few days after the march. “She was so goal-oriented. She made sure we had a structure. To tell the truth, all the students are like her in one way or another. I had no doubt this march was going to be a success and that I’d be a fool not to participate.”
The march was a success, relatively speaking. While nowhere near the size of the national march in Washington, D.C., which drew somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 (pick your source), the Dallas march filled a good portion of the plaza in front of City Hall. MFOL Dallas hoped for a crowd somewhere between the recent March for Science and the Women’s March. The organizers—and dozens of people I talked to who attended both—say it equaled the number of those two combined. (Crowd sizes are always contentious; it’s safe to say there were at least 4,000 at the march, with credible estimates climbing to 6,000 or more.)
But the real victory came not with the size of the crowd or the amount of news coverage or the simple fact that the PA system worked. It was that this march, true to its hype, was led by students. More important, these students—most of whom are smarter, better organized, and more charismatic than 90 percent of local politicians I know—are now likely to become civic leaders far sooner than they otherwise might have.
How do I know these kids weren’t pawns of left-wing politicians, as many commenters suggested? (Example: former Dallas Morning News editorial board member Rod Dreher wrote of one of the national organizers, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, “What a disgusting little creep David Hogg is—but not as disgusting as the grown-ups who are using him for their own cause.”) I know the kids were in charge because I had behind-the-scenes access to them during the five weeks they planned the march. During that time, I saw firsthand why these kids will have to be reckoned with in North Texas for some time, beyond the planned May 5 rally against the NRA’s national convention in downtown Dallas, beyond the November midterms.
“Some of these kids are going to be running for and winning elected office within four years. I have no doubt,” says Matt Tranchin, an MFOL Dallas adviser. “They’re incredibly strategic. They’re creating ways to develop momentum coming out of this moment. It shows how well they understand using social networks as a political tool, how they use social media to build a long-term, grass-roots infrastructure.” (Full disclosure: Tranchin is also executive director of Coalition for a New Dallas, the super PAC started by D Magazine publisher Wick Allison. I didn’t have to work very hard to get said access.)
The students had less than five weeks to plan the MFOL Dallas march. From the first meeting I attended, held in the D Magazine offices, they showed that they clearly understood this was “not a moment, it’s the movement,” to use their favorite line from Hamilton. At their first gathering, Tranchin told the volunteers who’d answered his Facebook call, “This is the last meeting I will run. My only role is to help you succeed.” An executive team of about eight students emerged. Afterward, Tranchin made suggestions to the committee mainly when he worried they were going down dead-end paths. An example: when students suggested they should recruit big-name politicians or local celebrities to speak (the Austin march featured Matthew McConaughey), he told them not to underestimate the power of a student-only slate of speakers.
By the second meeting, roles and responsibilities had been established. Operations and logistics, communications, social media, field, finance, partnerships, research, and policy assignments were made, deadlines given. When one student’s content plan deadline was moved back a few days, she let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God,” she said. “I have a midterm tomorrow.”
Later that evening, southern Dallas pastor Omar Jahwar of Kingdom Worship and Restoration Church in the Cedars brought in about 30 guests to fill a large conference room. With him came more than a dozen teenagers (and many of their parents) from his community activist group, Urban Specialists, to offer support for the march. Although several of the MFOL executive committee members are minorities, they didn’t appear to have as much economic hardship as most of the kids with Urban Specialists, and they welcomed input from their peers. The conversation was polite but intense. It went on for over an hour. An MFOL executive committee member noted how glad they were to have this talk, because the organizing students all realize it took a shooting at a largely white, affluent school to focus national attention on gun safety. “And we want to use our privilege and our voices to focus on poorer communities where guns are too much a part of everyday life,” the organizer said. Many of the Urban Specialists parents, most of whom were videotaping the meeting on their phones, nodded.
Over subsequent weeks, the strategy was set. Should they publicly align with Democrats? No, they decided. The march would be a call for sensible gun laws, and sensibleness isn’t partisan. For a time, the students debated whether they should make demands that went beyond the national organizers’. Should they call for a ban on automatic weapons? They concluded it would be best to simply echo the national group’s call for universal background checks, as well as a ban on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines (though the national group did later add a call for a ban on automatic weapons).
Of course, there were sympathetic calls from people aligned with the Women’s March and national gun safety organizations. The funding for logistics and equipment came from national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety. And Tranchin spent many evenings answering questions in text strings posed by student organizers. But this was about as student-led, and impressive, an event as one could imagine, citywide.
There were struggles along the way, sometimes emotional ones. One of the most vocal, recognizable student leaders was Waed Alhayek, 19, a senior at UTA. Alhayek is Muslim and wears a hijab, so she was a natural target. After a news site interviewed her, a commenter wrote, “Who let a terrorist run this organization?”
“I’m used to it,” Alhayek says. Two days after the march, her voice is still weak from chanting and speaking. “I’m an immigrant, I’m Muslim, I’m Arab, I’m a woman. I’ve had my hijab ripped off my head. I’ve had people throw bottles at me. I’ve been hit by a car. A man once picked me up and put me in a trash can. But my mom, she taught me how to have a thick skin. Now we’re all learning to have it. We really believe in this, so it doesn’t matter what people say. We deal with it, and we move forward.”
Alhayek says she did have to help other students get used to hatred directed at them, both online and in person. Especially since the march was the launching pad for the group’s next effort: a May 5 rally to call for the same gun safety initiatives to coincide with the NRA’s convention. (A rally instead of a march, because they don’t want to encourage confrontations with NRA supporters at the Convention Center, down the street from City Hall.) She knows there will be more written about how they’re all just pawns in a larger game.
“That’s fine,” Alhayek says. “I just want to see these policies in action. If we can’t get them with the current politicians, we’ll work to kick them out and get ones who can get it done.”
My advice to every elected official in North Texas and beyond: take these kids seriously. They mean it.