'The next generation is us': Chicago teen hopes to change community, gun policy through voting

Arieyanna Williams, 17, was touched by gun violence when her father was killed.

April 21, 2018, 6:48 AM

Arieyanna Williams remembers being 9 years old and staring at the two bloody handprints on a wall near the front door of her aunt’s home in Chicago.

She pressed one of her small palms against the blood-stained concrete wall as a final goodbye to her father.

The night before, Williams was watching classic television shows with her mother while her four younger sisters were sound asleep. She was drifting to sleep when her mother received that frantic phone call from her aunt that forever changed all of their lives.

Her aunt told them the bad news: Williams’ father had been shot and killed.

“We cried all night long,” Williams said.

After being shot, Williams’ father tried to seek help from his sister and walked a block to her home where he collapsed at her front door, leaving the bloody handprints behind.

He later died in an ambulance from his wounds.

“It felt very unreal,” Williams told ABC News after she placed her hand on her father’s handprints.

PHOTO: High School senior Arieyanna Williams stands in front a Michigan State flag as the college she's committed to in a hall at her elementary school in Chicago, Illinois.
High School senior Arieyanna Williams stands in front a Michigan State flag as the college she's committed to in a hall at her elementary school in Chicago, Illinois.
Courtesy Arieyanna Williams

Now 17 years old, Williams remembers her father, not as a man gunned down in a gang-related conflict, but as a man who loved her deeply.

“He would always tell me he loved me,” Williams said. “He spent time with me and he’d always make sure I had everything I needed.”

And his death and those of her two uncles and others in her community have inspired her to advocate for peaceful solutions to conflict and for what she sees as the need for gun policy reform.

She turns 18 in a few months and is eager to vote for the first time in Illinois’ general election in November.

“The only time you have a voice is when you get to vote,” Williams said.

Life after death

For a while, she thought she had lost her voice, lost herself.

“After my father’s death, I became angry,” Williams told ABC News. “I got into fights -- I felt alone.”

Williams also wrote poetry as a way to give voice to her pain.

“I often wrote about my father ... how he didn’t get to see me grow up to what I wanted to be,” Williams said. “I’d also write about my future.”

Writing was also an activity she could do indoors -- it was often far too dangerous to play outside in her inner-city Chicago neighborhood where sometimes innocent bystanders were shot and killed in random acts of crime-related violence.

So she would stay safe within the walls of her home and play video games with her four sisters, sing karaoke and listen to her favorite boy band, One Direction.

As a freshman at North Lawndale High School, Williams wouldn’t say much to anyone.

“I would separate myself from everyone,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to be there.”

It wasn’t until sophomore year that Williams’ life began to get better. She met the man she claims helped turn her life around, Gerald Smith.

In his leadership development class, Smith took notice of the introverted, articulate teen who he praises as an "outstanding writer."

“I recognized she had the ability to be a leader,” Smith told ABC News. “I’ve been blessed with a gift to recognize leadership. I recognize it even when students don’t see it themselves.”

“He introduced the Peace Warriors to me,” Williams told ABC News of the group of minority students from Chicago who for a decade have been addressing issues of gun violence. “I thought this isn’t going to change anything for me, but Mr. Smith was persistent. He told me it could help me not forget about situations but help resolve my anger.”

Smith eventually broke down all the walls Williams tried to subtly build and she joined the Peace Warriors.

Life as a Peace Warrior

“After joining, I wanted to make friends,” Williams said. “We all bonded over our hurt and it made us family...that’s the thing about Peace Warriors, we’re a family.”

The Peace Warriors are a student based organization that seeks peaceful resolutions to conflicts using Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violence philosophies. They work to serve as examples to peers in the hopes of decreasing violence in their community.

There are currently a total of 120 Peace Warriors at North Lawndale College Prep High School.

After joining the organization, Williams says she’s seen a change in herself. She devotes her time teaching principles of peaceful conflict resolution in her school and surrounding schools in the Chicago area.

And through that work, she has found her voice.

“I’ve seen a difference in myself,” Williams said. “I feel like I was born to be a leader, but I didn’t see it until joining the Peace Warriors.”

Williams sees herself as a role model to the younger generation, including her four younger sisters -- one, a freshman at the same school is set to become a future Peace Warrior, according to Smith.

Smith also has seen a tremendous change in his once quiet student.

“She’s quiet, but when she talks everyone listens," Smith said. "If you walk into a room you may not even notice her, but she is the heart of the Peace Warriors.”

She and her fellow Peace Warriors found common ground with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who faced tragedy in February after a gunman went on a shooting rampage, killing 17 people.

Williams said she walked into that March 3 meeting with the Parkland students, observed her surroundings and introduced herself. She didn’t want to insert herself into conversation immediately but listened.

“At first the conversation was tense,” Williams said. “They shared their stories and I sat there thinking we’re from two different worlds. We see this kind of stuff every day.”

One Parkland student admitted she recognized her "white privilege" and wanted to use her platform to give the Peace Warriors representing Chicago and all inner cities across America a voice on a national platform.

Williams along with her Peace Warrior companions attended the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, D.C. later that month. Williams did not take the stage but felt as though she was solidly represented by her friends.

“I felt like they were speaking for me because we share the same story,” Williams said. “It’s like we could cry because we finally got to say what we wanted to say - we were finally heard.”

In response to the Parkland High School shooting, Illinois House members pushed measures for gun reform including setting the minimum age to possess a semiautomatic assault weapon at 21,a ban on bump stocks and setting a 72-hour waiting period for the sale of any assault weapon.

Amid her journey calling for peace against gun violence in her community and meeting with the students of the Parkland High School shooting, Smith took heed to Williams’ interest in policies.

“I see her as a social activist and having a career in politics,” Smith told ABC News. “I see her ability to affect policy.”

PHOTO: "Chicago Peace Warrior Arieyanna Williams, 17, poses with Parkland High School Shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez at the pool during their meet up discussing gun reform on March 3, 2018.
"Chicago Peace Warrior Arieyanna Williams, 17, poses with Parkland High School Shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez at the pool during their meet up discussing gun reform on March 3, 2018.
Courtesy Chicago Peace Warrior D'Angelo McDade

‘18 for 18’

Williams will turn 18 on June 4 and she plans to use her platform to encourage other 18-year-olds in her community to get to the polls to vote.

“What do they support? Stricter gun laws? Do they believe in nonviolent neighborhoods? Are they going to provide more jobs for the community to help decrease gang activity? Can they use the titles they hold to better our communities?” Williams said. “I want whoever I vote for to have the ability to listen and not be so influenced by money.”

Williams has ideas stashed away on how lawmakers can improve their communities like more after-school programs, increased social media involvement, and more peace rallies and marches.

She also has a strong message for whoever will be voted in office.

“If you don’t see and hear us, you won’t be running in the next election,” Williams said. “The next generation is us.”

In the meantime, Williams is focusing on walking across the stage to get her hands on her high school diploma. She has Michigan State set on her mind as the college of her choice. There, she will study education in preparation to become a teacher.

She hopes to one day teach at North Lawndale.

“It’s all about going back where I came from and not forgetting where I came from.”

Although graduation is not too far away, Williams' work as a Peace Warrior will continue.

“Arieyanna is going to go places I can’t even fathom,” Smith told ABC News. “She left a legacy here.”

For Williams' the mission is unfinished and she is determined to see it through.

“Students say Chicago will never see change, but I believe we will,” Williams said. “It takes one step at a time.”

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