I am a child of the 1970s, an era of dramatic change and activism. Which is not to say that everyone who came of age in that decade was an activist, or even aware of what was going on in the world around them. Even those who were aware did not grasp the concept that they could have an impact on the world. They saw themselves as victims of the status quo, powerless and voiceless.

So it was a very small group of students in a small Southwest Pennsylvania school district who recognized that you do what you can, and when you can, you do more. We didn’t have social media or the internet, so we really had no idea that we were not alone. There were similar small groups of students across the country, making changes one by one in their own schools, creating a tide of activists and advocates who fought for social justice.

The change we created was good, but it had an unexpected impact on the generations that followed. For the most part, they had never heard the word “No.” As in, “No, you can’t play sports because you’re a girl.” And “No, you can’t date someone whose skin color is different than yours.” “No, you aren’t gay, you’re just confused.” It seemed as if the big dragons had been badly wounded, if not slayed, so the youth of America could sit back and focus on normal high school dramas.

It went on that way, for decades, until, finally, students took an issue personally enough that they were compelled to stand up, speak out. It has taken more than a decade of students being gunned down in elementary school classrooms, high school hallways and on college campuses, but the students of today have found their voices. Not all of them, of course, perhaps not even most of them, but enough that there is no doubt in my mind that they will change our world.

These are the people who must lead the way. They are the only ones capable of having the blind optimism that will not let their voices be silenced, no matter the roadblocks that detour adults who have become more pragmatic in their activism.

I do not just applaud every student who took the opportunity to have their voices heard by walking out of their schools this week to protest the lack of effective gun control, I thank them for their courage and compassion. I thank them for making an old hippie feel like there is hope for a better world.