Lauryn Renford, a Sophomore at The George Washington University, has been working to address gun violence in DC and beyond ever since her boyfriend, Zaire Kelly, was tragically killed in 2017.
With the help of her supportive and powerful teacher, Karen Lee, Lauryn organized for a mural to be created in DC honoring 5 young people, including Zaire, who had been victims of gun violence in our city.
She has continued her activism and, Ms. Lee has continued to back and support Lauryn every step of the way. Lauryn co-founded the student-led organization, Pathways to Power, and Ms. Lee continues to be the advisory and adult ally to the student-led group. Ms. Lee helped connect Lauryn to opportunities to craft and share her own Ted Talk, and through her connection with Mikva Challenge DC, to an internship, and now paid position, with DC Attorney General Karl Racine.
Earlier this spring, Lauryn was invited to attend President Biden’s announcement of his new gun violence prevention policies at the White House. Lauryn’s first call after getting the invitation was to Ms. Lee, to secure her a ticket to the White House with Lauryn.
Mikva DC Executive Director Robyn Lingo sat down with Lauryn and Karen to hear more about their experience at the White House, and how their relationship has sustained their mutual activism over the years.
Robyn: How about we start with the most recent? And then we could go backwards, so tell me about, Lauryn, how you got the invitation to the White House and what happened next.
Lauryn: So, I was in here in my dorm, and I see a call from Karl Racine (Attorney General of DC) and I’m like, “Oh my God, what did I do? Why is he calling me in the middle of the day?” but I answer of course. And he said he has an opportunity for me, a possible opportunity, And like I said at that point, I didn’t think it was going to happen, but that night, 9 o’clock, she called me and told me all the details, and it happened. And we got Ms. Lee in at midnight. I was going to lie and say she was a high school student because they wouldn’t have to do a background check on her, but yeah, that’s it. [chuckle]
Robyn: And why did you want Ms. Lee to be there with you?
Lauryn: The way it was explained to me that Biden was making this groundbreaking announcement on violence interventions, and I got on, there was a prep call the night before. And there were so many people on the call who Ms. Lee and I have run in the same circles with so I thought it was important that both of us be there.
Robyn: What was it like to know that Lauryn was getting invited to the White House for her work?
Karen: Yeah, so Lauryn called and was like, “What are you doing tomorrow? Are you free?” and I was like “I mean I’m teaching, but sure what do you need?” Having no idea that what the follow-up was. Lauryn told me, “I’ve been invited to the White House!” and so it’s hard to not catch Lauryn ‘s excitement for things because it’s so sincere and so authentic. And so, she was like, “Do you want to go?” and I was like, “Yes.” And so, I fired off a text to my co-teacher for AP Government being like, “”Hey, there’s a chance I won’t make it to class because I think I might go meet the President.” and Ms. Donnelly was like “Excuse me?” and then I said, “Lauryn has been invited to the White House, she’s trying to get me on the list.” And Becca said, “Oh, I’ll count on you being gone then.”
And so that is just the sense of Lauryn is unstoppable. And I think that to be in a position where, our relationship has evolved into a friendship, much more than a teacher-student relationship, and so to see that in that moment that I was somebody important to be with her, solidifies sort of the evolving nature of our friendship.
Robyn: And I guess building off of that, what has it been like to have this partnership for so many years now as a young person and a student, and then a young person and just a friend, an adult ally, trying to tackle a big entrenched problem?
Lauryn: I’ve never thought of us as a partnership, but I guess we are. I think Ms. Lee, you are one of the voices that make me feel unstoppable. I don’t think I would have half of the confidence and the willingness to keep asking and keep fighting if it wasn’t for your presence in my life.
Karen: I think back, I mean I know we’re sort of working backwards, but I met Lauryn before she was my student and we met under really hard times. And I remember so clearly she came into the courtroom and she said, “People have been telling me I need to talk to you.”
I knew Lauryn and her relationship with Zaire and knew of the petition at the time, but I hadn’t actually talked to her about what that vision is, and I think the fact that Lauryn was willing to come in a place of grief and be so vulnerable set the stage for all of the ways we’re both vulnerable with each other now.
Robyn: Thinking about some of those early days of the petition to all the work that went into getting the money for that mural, for getting the mural done, for the unveiling, the work you’ve done Lauryn at the AG’s office and with Pathways and March for Our Lives. I’ll have you both answer this for the other one, Lauryn, what are you most proud of Ms. Lee for in this journey, and Ms. Lee, what are you most proud of Lauryn about?
Lauryn: That’s a great question. I don’t know, there’s so many things I could say, but number one, how consistent you are in always uplifting the voice of young black people all the way. I think about… This may be weird, but I often think about how hard it would be for me to be a teacher like you. I just feel like I don’t have that gift the same way that you do, and that humility to be able to put my own stories aside, because like the same way that we have stories about grief, you do too. To put that aside for the sake of other people to speak and say their piece, I think is a gift that so many people do not have, so I’m proud of your consistency in that.
Karen: Thanks, that’s really sweet. What am I most proud of Lauryn for? That’s a ridiculous question, Robyn come on now…
Karen: I think when I think about our process together, well I think maybe resilient and that word gets tossed around a lot, but Lauryn is resilient in ways that people don’t know, and I think that Lauryn gets described, or did when she was a TMA, as a high flyer. Sort of one of those naturally, educationally gifted folks who can write a really good essay and always is writing a professional email and people are like, “Lauryn is great”, without even sort of knowing what that means, or how great she really is.
And I think what people don’t understand is that there are times when Lauryn’s not good, but you would never know if you aren’t let into her world. And so, I know that she would have days where life is falling apart around her, and she was really challenged by things in her life and not just the death of Zaire, but very real things. And she would be turning in all of her homework and still writing those really great essays.
And so, I think when I think about the word resilient, I think about how not only was she able to compartmentalize the things in her life, but also the way she sought out counseling to deal with it, the way she was talking to me about those moments and those hard parts.
And that is actually resilient, recognizing that what was happening around her and to her was not normal and that she needed to grow from those times and turn that pain truly into power.
Lauryn you are resilient because you have recovered from loss and you did that in the public space, but you are also just a resilient woman who recognizes the tools needed to continue to push forward when all kinds of things are in your way.
Robyn: So, what do you think that you have learned about how to make change happen and how to move the powers that be to make the world that you think should be there. What have you learned along the way?
Lauryn: So, when the mural was still in planning stages, I was still a high school student, still grieving, still doing a million other things. And I remember thinking a lot about the myth that change somehow can’t be instant, and that you can’t work like person by person, mind by mind to change people’s minds. I think, literally the first day… I wasn’t even at school that day, but the first day after everyone returned back from school, after Zaire’s death, after Paris’s death, everybody knew that it was wrong and something wrong had happened. I mean, mostly that rhetoric comes from policymakers that you have to wait for change, and that it takes years, and administration changes. Which it does, but there’s also microscopic changes that are just as important, and that I saw all throughout high school, and even now, while I’m in college, I see them. And I think that that trickle effect is going to pay off in the long run.
Robyn: What kind of changes do you see?
Lauryn: I see that epiphany that people have, because I had that epiphany as soon as I lost Zaire, that my loss wasn’t isolated. I immediately thought about other people’s kids, and the fact that people in this city have been mourning people forever. I mean, Zaire’s mother lost her boyfriend when she was the same age as me from the same thing. So, I think that that acknowledgement that the things we’ve normalized are in fact not normal, I do see that a lot.
Robyn: And Karen, what about watching a young person fight for what she knows needs to happen in her city, what do you feel like you’ve learned or any takeaways?
Karen: We’ve talked about this, there are so many city leaders that in the presence of young people will just praise them up and down, and how great they are, and how powerful their ideas are, and how they’re going to change our city. And then they go back to their job and it’s like they’ve forgotten all about the words that just came out of their mouth and the conversation.
And so, in some ways, like my sort of standing in this intersection increases my cynicism and my frustration in elected officials and relying on them to make change
But I do think that the way I have watched young people pass the vision. Like, I think about LaShawn, and her Project Soapbox speech in our first year of Soapbox and Mikva in DC, and hergetting up and just sobbing her way through her speech about gun violence, and the way that it impacted her.
Robyn: Yeah. And then get on a plane for the first time in her life to give that speech in Seattle to 500 other people.
Karen: Yeah, in this whole other part the country where it was not imaginable for her. The work of change is… Sure, it’s long, but it’s also not. LaShawn changed. I have watched Lauryn change. I’ve changed. So, I think that there’s the tension of like, yes, since Pathways was formed, there’s been more gun violence in the city than we’ve seen in decades, and that is hard. It is hard to look at those statistics and see how vulnerable and how open kids are about their traumas, both in sort of generational traumas as well as in lived experiences. It’s hard to hear gunshots, it is anxiety-producing.
But then I think that like Lauryn ‘s got an internship with the Attorney General. And she did that on her own. That’s not something I get to claim, but that comes from being in a space where we say, “Actually, you’re changing. You can do that. You can totally do that.”
Robyn: Given all of the work that you guys have done here locally and also taking your activism on the road nationally, what was it like to be at the White House? What did you think of Biden’s proposals? What were your reactions to what the Biden administration is going to do?
Lauryn: People literally have been asking me this ever since. Being in the White House alone, I don’t know, I just made things feel so much attainable, I guess, because the president and the vice president were right in front of me.
I frequently tell people that I am still coming off my high from being in there. It truly felt like an honor. I never had as much respect for that level of government because I just feel like there’s never any reach back to the people who are doing the work on the ground. So, it was eye-opening and it changed my mind about a lot of people.
In terms of what Biden said, there was six announcements, I can’t name all six even if I had to, but I do remember $5 billion going to things like violence, interruption, like, giving people resources so they don’t feel like they have to resort to crime. I support all those things. I’m excited that they’ve finally been backed up with money, but since leaving, I thought a lot about who’s going to be in charge of allocating that money to the right place. So, that’s me post-high. I’m trying to figure out if it’ll be positive in the long run, but…
Robyn: I was just thinking that divide between like the federal government and the local is also so heightened here in our own city where like at TMA you can’t be more than five miles from the White House…
Karen: We can see the White House out of our library window.
Robyn: Yeah, but like they do feel worlds apart until you crash through in one instant.
Karen: I think that walking through those doors felt symbolically like we were opening them for Lauryn, and I know that that sounds very dramatic because they’ve always been open. But I think like when we walked from the Eisenhower office building to the West Wing, we did it with Elizabeth, who’s the woman who invited Lauryn, and there was something… Like, she even just said, “Well, this is my walk to work every day.” And I think even in that, I was like, “Oh, right. Your office is in the West Wing. Great! Yep, yep, yep.”
And there’s something obtainable when you can see somebody doing it, so in Lauryn’s case you get to see this incredible black woman who looks like her, who talks like her, who thinks like her, holding this power position. And as powerful as I think that the office of the president is, and the Office of the Vice President is, it is only this powerful as the people they put around them. So, for me, meeting her and meeting and getting to hear a little bit about her and the work she’s doing, makes me respect the power that Biden has placed around him and that Harris placed around her.
Robyn: I mean… We’re all very confident. It’s not Lauryn’s last time at the White House in whatever capacity. O. How about just one last question. What do you want people to know about how they can find their own sense of power and agency to do what they want to do for their community?
Lauryn: Yeah, I’m young myself, obviously, but younger people usually ask me this and my answer is always… Let me backtrack. I went through like a self-exploration phase when I lost Zaire, and I hate that it had to be initiated by his death, but still thankful nonetheless. That I won’t say though, that his death, like put all the tools and the skills in me that I had, but that tragedy woke something up in me.
And I always tell people that you don’t need a tragedy to do that, and that the stories and the experiences of your peers, whether it’s city-wide, national, those can fill your own self exploration to figure out, first of all, what you’re most interested in and then figure out what skills you have.
Because the only the people in the front of the movement are not the only people, and I think that we get the stereotypical image of advocacy, and it looks like protests and rallies. When in reality, there’s so much more that people can do, and I always urge people young to figure out their strong suit, so that they can figure that out for themselves, so I’ll say that.
Karen: I think… So, Lauryn has been present in my life for some big career moments, and I think as well as some personal moments. Like, she was able to give me the Mikva Inspiring Teacher Award, and then also contributed to my application for teacher of the year. I remember distinctly, and I will remember all of my days that when she was giving me the Mikva award, she said the phrase “I know no ceilings in Ms. Lee’s classroom,” and that it made me tear up a little bit.
That is the highest compliment that a teacher can get, and I think on the opposite side, I know no ceilings as a teacher because of Lauryn, that like we both looked at problems and was like “We don’t know how to do that.”
So just started asking questions and figuring it out, and then we got this mural that instantly had a healing component to it outside of anything that we could have planned, and so we just… I always joke that we just got to follow our “yeses” until we get to a “no” and then figure out how to get around the “no”.
And I think Lauryn routinely teaches me that, and holds me accountable to that belief.
I also think too, thinking about how to tell other teachers or talk about sort of this relationship is that Lauryn’s successes are Lauryn’s. I love hanging out with young people, and I see Lauryn routinely reaching back to pull others up. And so, thinking about how, like… You entangle yourself in the lives of the people around you, so that you lift each other up is how I wish the world operated a bit more, and so that together we truly… In Lauryn’s words, don’t know any ceilings.
Robyn: That’s beautiful. What more is there to say? Do you two have anything else you want to add?
Karen: I think both Lauryn and I fully love and stand in the Mikva community when we are the weakest, and so I think there’s also an element… Like the weekend after Zaire died, I was scheduled to go to Chicago for the Teacher Advisory Council, and I thought about not going. And it was the biggest gift to be there and to be in a group of educators who had been through similar struggles and picked me up and put together the pieces and said, “This is how you go back in that classroom.”
And so, it’s the power of the Mikva community, And I think the boldness that can come from the opportunities that Mikva and the spaces that you Robyn, like I don’t want to cloud that in Mikva, but the spaces that you create, are like unparalleled in the influence that our young people have.
Lauryn: I just want you to know that me and Ms. Lee are here in anything and any time you need us, whatever that is that… We’ll make it work.
Robyn: Thank you both so much. I hope you have a great rest of your night. And I appreciate you. Thank you for being awesome.
Karen: We appreciate you too. Thank you for thinking of us.