NEW YORK—Today, PEN America announces that the 2018 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, honoring dauntless exercises of free expression, will be conferred to leaders in youth activism against gun violence. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students Cameron Kasky and Samantha Fuentes, and Washington, D.C. high school student Zion Kelly, the twin sibling of a victim of gun violence, will accept the Award at the2018 PEN Literary GalaMay 22 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Kasky, Fuentes, and Kelly are among an inclusive group of young people who have, in mere months, catalyzed change on an issue long mired in gridlock. Through their unscripted eloquence, savvy activation of social and news media, mobilization of protests across the nation, and face-to-face debates with elected officials, these trailblazing activists have translated acute personal and collective grief into a national call to action.

Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, says, “We are awed by these students’ bracing and courageous exercise of their free expression rights in the face of crushing personal tragedy. They have used their voices fearlessly to demand substantive change, elevating and unifying the many communities that have been devastated by gun violence. They have galvanized millions in a rising generation to speak out for the first time, withstanding a barrage of attempts to denigrate their authenticity and authority. It is our great honor to recognize them as the recipients of this year’s PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.” 

Soon after the shooting that took the lives of seventeen of his peers and injured numerous others, Cameron Kasky and a group of his friends convened to launch March for Our Lives. He has since captured the nation’s attention leading rallies, appearing in interviews, authoring an op-ed for CNN and questioning the NRA support of political figures. A week following the Parkland massacre, Samantha Fuentes, who was shot in both legs and whose face was wounded by shrapnel, sat for interviews despite visible injuries that presented unabashed evidence of the effects of gun violence.  During the historic March for Our Lives, Fuentes boldly inspired a crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her slain friend Nicholas Dworet.

As part of their campaign, Kasky, Fuentes, and Kelly have forthrightly confronted the outsized impact of gun violence in black, Latino and poor communities; and the hurdles confronting communities of color in having their stories heard and amassing the political power to drive change. Zion Kelly, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., is a gun violence survivor whose twin brother, Zaire, was killed on his walk home—by the same man who attempted to rob Zion at gunpoint earlier that night. In a coordinated effort with student leaders from Parkland, Kelly has amplified the discussion of gun violence with respect to class, race, and socioeconomics. He has made multiple media appearances, and has lobbied to effect change to Washington, D.C., law, announcing his family’s proposal of the Zaire Kelly Public Safety Zone Amendment Act of 2018 (expanding both safety zones and the legal definition of “students”), and using social media to urge specific local Council members to vote in a bill that would to lower the Washington, D.C., voting age to 16—giving youth a stronger voice in political discourse. 

The PEN Literary Gala, the proceeds from which support PEN America’s dynamic cultural programming and its critical advocacy work on behalf of free expression, draws renowned authors and other cultural figures in a celebration of free speech and of writers’ capacity to bridge geographic, cultural, and political divides. Other honorees this year include legendary suspense writer, free expression advocate, and philanthropist Stephen King with the annual PEN America Literary Service Award; imprisoned Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—whose reporting contributed to the ongoing exposure of militarized ethnic violence against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar—with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award; and Carolyn ReidyPresident and Chief Executive Officer of Simon & Schuster, Inc. as this year’s Publisher Honoree.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT:
Blake Zidell, Blake Zidell & Associates: 718.643.9052, blake@blakezidell.com

Rachael Shearer, Blake Zidell & Associates: 718.643.9052, rachael@blakezidell.com

Michele Landa-Riggio, PEN America: mriggio@pen.org

Anoosh Gasparian, PEN America: agasparian@pen.org