Changing the World Over Winter Break and Beyond

Danny Stock
 
The new year was barely underway when members of the GDS Student Action Committee gave testimony during the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety public hearing on a potential ban of flavored e-cigarettes in the city. Sophomores Aidan Kohn-Murphy and Maddie Feldman delivered prepared remarks and responded to follow-up questions during an exchange with Council Chairman Charles Allen.

The GDS Student Action Committee, founded by Anoushka Chander ’21, is a student-run committee that seeks to engage students in mindful activism on local, national, and global issues, supported by the GDS Office of Community Engagement and Experiential Learning. The issue of vaping in DC was raised during a meeting of the Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commission (the ANC in GDS neighborhood) and recommended to the GDS committee by Head of School Russell Shaw. Maddie and Aidan worked with other members of the Student Action Committee* before Winter Break to apply for, prepare, and submit public testimony; Anoushka (and the Community Engagement office) joined them over the phone for a prep call on New Year’s Day.

At the start of his prepared remarks, Aidan said, “Over the past few months, we've been focused on taking our health into our own hands. Along with Wilson High School, we are creating a Tenleytown-wide campaign to close Smoke Island, a vape shop that has opened mere feet away from our campus. The Tobacco Industry has a long history of targeting youth and the vaping crisis is no exception...This is why we are here today: to urge the council to pass The Prohibition of Electronic Smoking Sales Without a Prescription Act of 2019.”

During her prepared remarks, Maddie said, “The campaign Aidan and I are helping to lead [with the Student Action Committee] is for students, by students. The presence of these vape shops so close to so many schools is clearly motivated by a desire to sell to under-age users. [The owners of] stores like these know exactly what they are doing. It’s not a coincidence that they are located within feet of several DC schools. Woodrow Wilson High School, Alice Deal MS, Murch Elementary School, Janney Elementary School, Hearst Elementary School, Sheridan School, Blessed Sacrament School, Sidwell Friends School, and Georgetown Day School all lie within one mile of Smoke Island. Two stores sell tobacco and vaping products within just 300 feet of our own High School and future Lower/Middle School.”

In closing, Aidan entreated Chairman Allen to continue and even extend his efforts regarding regulations on e-cigarette sales and the youth vaping public health crisis.
 
“Our generation is addicted,” he said.
 

Director of CEEL Jeremy Haft noted that even after hours of morning testimony from students and experts, “Chairman Allen, in just this instance, took time out to compliment Maddie and Aidan's leadership on this issue and compared them to student activists in the 50s and 60s.”

Chairman Allen said, “I’m grateful for your leadership and your ability to bring others with you in your hard work. If you ever feel frustrated, just look back to the 1950s and 1960s. I guarantee you, there were students just like you, probably around the same age...who all around them[selves] saw advertisements about how cool smoking cigarettes [is], and they had the guts to start talking about it and organizing around it; and we’ve benefited from their actions and their leadership. That’s what you are doing now. You are following in their footsteps.”

The anti-vaping effort is the inaugural project of the Committee and is a direct response to the recent opening of a vape shop and Wawa located directly between the GDS High School and Wilson High School campuses.

In her prepared remarks, Maddie noted recent sales statistics to highlight the efforts of tobacco vendors to attract young users. “In 2018...fewer than 5% of all Tenleytown adults smoked or used other tobacco...Who are these stores serving if the only nearby legal buyers are so few and far between?”

In the Q&A exchange, Chairman Allen asked the students if they had any recommendations that might “help turn the tide in our education” around vaping. Aidan addressed the cooperation of GDS and Wilson High School and noted, “In our workshop with Wilson High School, the Truth Initiative came to talk to us about activism and to educate us on the topic. During just a 15-minute informational session, we learned so much. They are a very strong partner of our student action committee, and I think they are a great resource.”

In addition to testifying at this DC Council hearing, Student Action Committee members are currently writing op-eds, canvassing business owners near Smoke Island to organize resistance, continuing to partner with students at Wilson High School around education, and developing their lobbying action plans for upcoming regulation. Even as they take on the youth vaping health crisis, students are looking to future projects, especially supporting voter registration efforts with a focus on the upcoming Virginia primaries. For now, members of the committee are fully committed to making immediate and long-term change to protect their peers and themselves in the GDS neighborhood and the city at large.

“We are sick of being targeted and taken advantage of,” Maddie said. “We are sick of our health being compromised for the tobacco industry’s profits. We must fight to eradicate the marketing of these products in areas with such high concentrations of students.”

*Current members of the Student Action Committee include:
Anoushka Chander ’21
Jonah Docter-Loeb ’20
Maddie Feldman ’22
Alma Haft ’21
Aidan Kohn-Murphy ’22
Mila Noshirvani ’23
Elliot Oppenheim ’21
Anya Pimenta ’21
Malvika Reddy ’23
Liana Smolover-Bord ’21

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.
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