Life with Gracie: Atlanta teen’s anti-gun billboard campaign going up in Chicago

At 19, Mary-Pat Hector possesses enough passion and compassion to cover a multitude of wrongs.

If you keep up with the news, you might have heard of her. She was just 13 when she was named national youth director of the National Action Network, which promotes civil rights; 15 when she launched a campaign called Think Twice to raise awareness about gun violence; and last year she ran an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Stonecrest City Council, becoming one of the youngest candidates for an elected office in the state.

RELATED: Teen approved to run for council seat in new DeKalb city

But long before the Spelman College junior became a household name, I wrote about her in the summer of 2008, when she’d just written and produced an hourlong play about child molestation.

It was such a hit, folks said then there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Hector brought down the house once more, telling stories about Paul Sampleton Jr., the Gwinnett County teenager killed over his fancy basketball shoes, about Lloyd Morgan, the 4-year-old boy killed by a stray bullet in a Bronx playground, and others.

RELATED: Youth in Action to hold conference aimed at teens and violence

Hector had been invited to Los Angeles by the Allstate Foundation to speak about the inspiration behind Think Twice, and capped the taping of the third annual U.S. National Special of WE Day, which aired last week on CBS.

Her campaign against gun violence was one of more than a dozen efforts by youths from across the country highlighted during the hourlong star-studded show. WE Day is all about promoting youth activists like Hector and the social issues they care about.

“When young people are given the tools and support to speak out and act on issues they are passionate about, there is no limit to the impact they can have on the world, and ultimately one another,” WE co-founder Craig Kielburger said. “In the last academic year, students from around the world who are involved in WE’s programs donated more than 2.1 million pounds of food to their local food banks, volunteered over 7.6 million hours of service and raised over $17 million in support of local and global causes. Social change is possible — when united, people young and old can push the needle on the issues that weigh heaviest on our communities.”

RELATED: See what Spelman student Mary-Pat Hector has to say about the TV show "Dear White People"

Laura Freveletti, senior corporate responsibility manager at Allstate Insurance, said the Allstate Foundation first became aware of Hector through Peace First and then WE Day.

“Her work and story resonated with us — in the youth violence prevention space,” she said.

Hector’s work dates back nearly a decade when a friend confided she had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend and after researching child molestation, she wrote “Easy Street Ain’t So Easy.”

Mary-Pat being Mary-Pat, she couldn’t let it end there. She donated the proceeds — $450 — from the play to Covenant House, a nonprofit service organization for homeless teens.

RELATED: Sunday Conversation … with Mary-Pat Hector

And when she grew tired of hearing about youths being killed, she started Think Twice to encourage the rest of us to think twice before picking up a gun and pulling the trigger.

“When you think of gun violence, you think of black boys in Chicago or Bankhead,” Hector said. “But to become uncomfortable with that, to be moved to action, you have to see yourself. I wanted to create billboards so that people could see themselves, to see it happening to them.”

Hector had grown up in a family of activists who were constantly on the lookout for ways to help, to improve their communities. You don’t have to be great, her mother would tell her. You can change the world no matter how old you are.

But she couldn’t get the financial backing she needed to pull off her billboard campaign.

Months passed, then one day, Hector picked up the phone and called one Al Sharpton. Yes, that Al Sharpton.

“You say you are a community leader. What are you going to do about the violence in Stone Mountain, Ga.?” she asked him.

One day after her 12th birthday, Hector met Sharpton at the National Action Network office here in Atlanta. About two years later, she was named national youth director of NAN.

She remained as busy as ever, but she soon lost sight of her mission to end violence. That is, until she talked to a friend and something in her voice renewed her vision.

People still liked the idea, but they wouldn’t put their money behind it. Hector started to question the idea. She printed off posters instead, recruited a group of friends and hit the street passing them out.

The response was more than she’d hoped for. Soon thereafter, Hector found out about a $50,000 fellowship sponsored by Peace First. All she had to do was submit a video explaining her mission. She did and won.

It was enough to plaster metro Atlanta with 50 anti-gun violence billboards.

“I was so proud,” Hector remembered, her eyes flickering. “People began hearing about the billboards, and I began getting invitations to speak about Think Twice.”

Peace First had given her the validation she needed.

But imagine her surprise when she arrived in Chicago last month to see her image on a billboard and learned that the Allstate Foundation would be helping her bring her first billboard to Chicago.

“I was taken aback,” she said. “It’s still in the beginning stages, but we’re really excited. Really, really excited.”

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