Talawanda student turns tragedy into action

Ella Cope is many things — a golfer, an actress, a singer and a sophomore at Talawanda High School. She’s also a seasoned activist.

As a child, Cope hopped around the continental U.S. and Canada with her parents.

“I was kinda raised with theatre people,” Cope said.

Her dad, Noah, is a musician and her mom, Robin, is an artist and a saleswoman.

 “I was raised on a Broadway road show. My dad was the double-bass player for the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ national tour. From five weeks old to eight years old, I moved every month to a different city.”

There was a month in Seattle, a month in San Diego, then a month in Tulsa and a month in Dallas and so on, for much of her early childhood.

While in elementary school, her family decided to settle down in Oxford to help out her grandfather.

Cope was no stranger to Oxford, though. She had gone to preschool here during a layoff of the tour and had stayed in touch with some friends.

As she grew up, Cope was pulled into a life of activism.

“In eighth grade, I did my Girl Scout Silver Award about raising awareness for the disappearing population of bees,” Cope said. “People remember that and will be like ‘Oh, you’re the bee girl!’ And yes, I am the bee girl. I am very proud to be the bee girl.”

Today, the 16-year-old is co-president of Talawanda’s diversity club and in the midst of organizing a student walkout on March 14 in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14.

“I’m kind of the ‘putter-together,’ if you will,” Cope said. “I put together a team of about 25 organizers, and I tried to get a very diverse range, so people I’m not necessarily in the same friend group with and people from all different grades, all different sports and activities.”

Beginning at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, students will gather outside for 17 minutes, to represent the 17 students who lost their lives last month, in accordance with the national walkout by Women’s March Youth EMPOWER.

During the walkout, Cope and a few other students will be reading the names of the victims and their ages.

“I’m trying, within my speech, to give a personal connection to the people affected by this…It’s much easier to connect with someone if it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re a soccer player? I’m a soccer player.’”

In addition to talking about the victims, the main goal is to emphasize the innocence of the victims.

“These kids did nothing. They did nothing at all, and they were killed for it.”

Cope added that there’s nothing that says it can’t happen at her own school.

“People like to think there is. They’re like, ‘That will never happen here.’ But you can’t say that. You can never say that.”

The national walkout, Cope said, is extremely focused around wanting an assault rifle ban.  

“I have chosen, strategically and deliberately, to not make that what [the Talawanda] march is about. I want to highlight the tragedy of the situation. I want to highlight the urgency of the situation, and I want to build a personal connection with these students.”

Thankfully, Cope said, the administration has been supportive of the walkout.

“When you’re going about organizing a walkout, the first people you talk to are not the administration.” she said. “That’s not to be unfair to the administration, it’s just… ya know… If you say you’re gonna walk out, you’re not gonna be like, ‘Let’s go talk to the principal!’

Instead, she had the guidance of Kyria Petro, the diversity club’s advisor. And, of course, her parents.

“I’m fortunate to have very supportive parents. I know that not a lot of people who share my views and activities have supportive parents.”

Her dad drove her and her friends to the first Women’s March in Cincinnati on January 21, 2017.

“Since then, I’ve felt a lot more urgency,” Cope said. “When you live in a place where you don’t always get to see that people are standing with you and are trying to do the same things that you’re trying to do, you feel like you can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it all, so why should you try?”

After going to the walkout and seeing people from across the world participate in the movement, Cope felt more open to new possibilities.

“There’s so much going in this direction, so much momentum here,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can contribute to this.’ It’s not like my achievement is going to be lost. Being part of a movement inspired me to push harder.”

When Cope first started talking to her parents about doing the walkout, her mom immediately encouraged her to pursue it, she said. Her parents’ support and her own enthusiasm for activism has challenged the entire family to take more action.

“I’ve pushed them to be more involved, but then they’ve pushed me back.”

Cope has no idea about what the future her future after high school holds, though not many sophomores do. However, she is certain about one thing: activism.

“Whatever I go into, I will always be an activist,” Cope said. “Once you start, you almost can’t stop.”

Once you see injustice, she said, it’s hard to turn away.

“If we’re talking about women’s rights, for example, people say, ‘Women have their rights.’ And yes, women have quite a lot of rights, but there are a lot of people, like immigrants, that don’t have all their rights. There’s always somebody less advantaged, and there’s always somebody worth fighting for.”

Cope said teenagers like her have the opportunity to actually make a difference in the world.

“Because teenagers are kind of predisposed to risk — we like to take risks — it’s kind of beneficial,” she said. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’re just starting in the world.”

In two years, Cope and her peers will be able to vote.

“I will vote in the next presidential election. I will. You can’t pass off teenagers as having no power because sooner or later, they’re going to, and you’re going to have to answer to that.”

Teenagers now, Cope said, unlike older generations, are growing up with a fear that they will witness the next tragic shooting.

“These feelings aren’t going to go away. If you’re a kid in the American education system right now, you’re growing up with this omnipotent fear where everyday you think, ‘Is today going to be the day?’” Cope said.

Cope thinks things are going to change, sooner rather than later, because people can’t live with that fear for their entire school careers.

“The walkout is extremely important. It’s giving a platform for young voices. People are listening, primarily due to Stoneman Douglas students. Their ability to turn tragedy into action amazes me. I want to emulate that. I think everybody does. I think the world is listening, and we’re saying what needs to be said.”