When friends of Hadiya Pendleton sought to fight the violence that claimed the life of the 15-year-old King College Prep honor student on Jan. 29, 2013, they never dreamed the group they formed, Project Orange Tree, would spawn a national anti-gun violence campaign.
But on June 2 — which would have been Hadiya’s 18th birthday — the first national “Wear Orange” campaign will see members of Congress, mayors across the country and some 50 anti-gun violence groups join celebrities such as Russell Simmons, Julianne Moore, Sarah Silverman and Alyssa Milano in wearing orange or turning websites orange to promote gun violence awareness.
“They were 100 percent the inspiration for this. I was absolutely captivated, fascinated and inspired by what these young people in Chicago started with Project Orange Tree,” said Jason Rzepka, cultural engagement director of Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based nonprofit founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
HADIYA’S PARENTS SPEAK OUT
The youth of Project Orange Tree came to the attention of Everytown last fall. The group was formed by Hadiya’s closest friends, arising out of a town hall meeting in March 2013. Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco attended and subsequently supported the youth, propelling their initial effort — a social media campaign to get people to wear orange on April 1.
With Fiasco’s backing, Project Orange Tree took off, holding several town halls, candlelight vigils, food drives, poetry slams and fundraisers supporting anti-gun violence efforts the past two years. Everytown, which has a mission to advance solutions to gun violence nationally, reached out to the Chicago youth in January. It proposed the Wear Orange campaign, then easily solicited buy-in nationwide.
Project Orange Tree past president Nza-Ari Khepra, who graduated from King College Prep last year and now attends Columbia College, said the group is excited about inspiring a national campaign.
“We initially came together to share our feelings about losing someone that was really close to us, and that first event ended up being something totally beyond our imagination,” said Khepra, 18.
“The question then was ‘What’s the next step?’ We brainstormed. Someone said we should use orange because that’s the color hunters wear to alert other hunters they’re not the targets. And someone else came up with the idea of a tree, which equals growth and protection and life,” she said. “We asked people to wear orange to show they don’t want to be the next victim and also support those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.”
Hadiya was with friends at a park near King College Prep when she was killed by an alleged gang member’s bullet. Just a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home and a week after she performed at his inauguration, her death drew renewed, nationwide calls for gun control. Michelle Obama attended her funeral and will give King’s commencement address on June 9, when Hadiya would have graduated.
Groups such as Amnesty International USA, MomsRising and Sandy Hook Promise; mayors from Chicago to Miami and Chapel Hill; and members of Congress representing states from Illinois to New York and California will be wearing or promoting orange on Tuesday. Media entities such as HBO and Essence Magazine are involved, with MTV and Motown Records planning to turn their logos orange.
“In these times, more than ever, it is crucial for all of our voices to collectively come together. We encourage fans and artists alike to join us on June 2nd by #WearingOrange and honoring the life of Hadiya Pendleton, and all those lives senselessly lost to gun violence,” Motown President Ethiopia Habtemariam said.
A full list of participants can be found at www.wearorange.org, along with a video on Hadiya and Project Orange Tree, which will host Chicago’s Wear Orange event, “Party for Peace,” at Harold Washington Park, 53rd & Hyde Park Blvd., from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Everytown hopes to make June 2 an annual National Gun Violence Awareness Day to highlight the fact that 88 Americans lose their lives to gun violence every day and garner support for many groups on the front lines of the issue.