East High School senior, Estella Ruhrer-Johnson, began this school year with excitement and purpose. Excitement that her senior year would be somewhat normal and excitement that the two student organizations she leads could resume in-person activities. A true believer in advocacy, engagement, and change in leadership, Estella is one of the founding members of Sioux City’s March for Our Lives unit and has been the leader of East High’s Gender Sexuality Alliance since sophomore year.
Her interest in advocacy and involvement has been lifelong. Her mother is politically active and demonstrated that involvement can produce change. “She gave me the opportunity to learn and engage,” Estella explained. “She is one of my biggest influencers to do something.”
Estella traces her involvement in March for Our Lives back to her eighth-grade year at East Middle. It was the year of the Parkland School shooting in Florida. “There was a national student walk-out advertised and the middle school principal wanted to schedule a fire drill during that time so we couldn’t participate in the walk-out,” Estella recollected. “My friend Dominick and I tweeted Dr. Gausman to say we needed an opportunity to display solidarity with students across the country. Dr. Gausman changed the fire drill. We created posters, promoted the walk-out, and a sea of students participated.”
A year later, as a high school freshman, Estella set about bringing an official subsection of the national March for Our Lives organization to Sioux City. “I had to submit paperwork, interview with the national organization to be sure I understood the purpose, and then we were organized,” Estella said. “Since then, I’ve been attending events, hosting after school meetings and one-on-one conversations. This is a city-wide group. Students from all the high schools can participate.” Estella also serves on the state executive council as director of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) committee.
“Our mission is to reduce gun violence and gun related injuries at a local, state, and national level, while also giving out information on how to stay safe,” she said. “Regardless of political affiliations, as a community we want gun violence to stop. It is a human thing, not a political thing.”
The Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) has been in Sioux City schools for a number of years, and Estella has been in leadership since 2018. “There is an intersection between these two organizations,” she explained. “LGBTQ hate crimes often involve gun violence. The Pulse nightclub shooting is an example.” On a more personal level, LGBT students are at higher risk for bullying and mental health diagnosis, which can result in suicide or suicide attempts. “Sixty-one percent of suicides are carried out with firearms,” Estella noted. “Firearms are easily accessible, so they tend to be the weapon of choice.”
Estella’s goal to impact Siouxland is to spread awareness to students. “Students often want to get involved in issues but don’t know how. They may know one part of a story but not the rest. Studying and researching is the way we make change. My goal is to give strictly unbiased information and let people come to their own conclusions.”
Interaction with people on a human level, often one-on-one, is where that impact can be most felt. Estella relayed the story of a fellow high schooler who attended this year’s first bi-weekly meeting of March for Our Lives. “After the meeting we were talking one-on-one,” Estella shared, “and she told me the story of how last September her uncle got drunk and took his own life with a gun. She wanted to come to learn how to stop gun violence. Here is someone in my community, near my age, dealing with this horrible situation. I’m glad we can be here for her, to give her a way to channel the hurt into something productive.”
COVID impacted both organizations because they were only able to meet when school was in session fully in person. “For GSA it is especially important to have a safe place and not having it put people at risk. March for Our Lives is a lor more active in social media, legislative advocacy and other efforts so that work continued,” Estella said.
It is important to note that both organizations are student organizations, not school organizations. They are run entirely by students for students. “March For Our Lives is a non-profit, non-partisan organization. We do not support a political party or ideology; we want to stop gun violence and any candidate or official who supports that is something we would support,” shared Estella. She also proudly explained that “GSA is an award-winning club. We’ve won two awards recently. We were GSA of the year for the state of Iowa in 2019, and recent recipients of the Joel Hurtando Community Support award from Sioux City Pride.”
This seventeen-year-old high school senior, who enjoys local coffee and alternative music, reiterates the best thing any of us can do on an issue is to seek further education. “Watch unbiased news, talk about issues with peers, read,” she encouraged, “We have to go the extra mile beyond just hearing or reading and believing something. Search out supporting or contradicting information to be sure you have the whole picture.” Siouxland Magazine readers can learn more about each organization by checking out their social media sources.
March For Our Lives – mfolsiouxcity on Facebook and Instagram
Gender Sexuality Alliance – easthighgsa on Facebook and Instagram
By Dr. Cyndi Hanson