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First-year Victoria Pannell is taking matters into her own hands through advocacy work against gun violence, human trafficking

First-year Victoria Pannell is taking matters into her own hands through advocacy work against gun violence, human trafficking

Some students come to Duke eager to get involved in the activist culture that colleges are known for having. Victoria Pannell is a bit ahead of the game—her entire life has already revolved around activism.  

The first-year from Harlem, New York, has made a name for herself across the country through her work with the Women’s March and her organizing for gun reform. Earlier this month, a video of her talking about national school walkouts against gun violence that was posted on Twitter by media company NowThis went viral and further propelled Pannell into the center of the movement. 

“No one deserves to die, no one deserves to be shot,” she said. “We have an administration that is complacent, so someone has to step up and take matters into their own hands.”   

The spotlight is nothing unusual for Pannell, who gained recognition for her work throughout middle school and high school. She explained that she began giving back to the community when she was four years old and started helping her mom run their food pantry, through which they feed about 500 families every year. 

As she got older, she connected with Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network organization, which aims to increase voter education, help people in poverty and support small businesses. She was appointed northeast regional director of the youth movement, leading the efforts to advocate for gun reform and other issues impacting schools and communities. 

“It was basically self-advocating for youth issues and making sure that politicians don’t forget young people exist,” she said. 

Pannell has also been involved with Street Corner Resources, an organization that works to create a more peaceful community by providing young adults access to employment, education and training. 

In 2015, she founded her own group called Tools for Change, an entirely youth-run effort. The organization helps provide young people with whatever they need—including applying to college, obtaining state IDs or even just finding food and clothing. They also facilitate access to mental health therapy and teach kids life skills—such as opening a savings account and learning financial literacy and table manners.

Pannell has received numerous accolades for her work. In March 2016, she was awarded the Phenomenal Woman Award by the New York Branch of the NAACP and then was appointed to NYC Community Board 10 by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer a month later. She also received the distinction of Chairperson of Community Board 10 Youth Task Force in September 2016.

Another one of Pannell’s passions is fighting against sex trafficking, which she first learned about at age 12 when she portrayed a girl who had been sexually trafficked for a public service announcement by She said the experience especially impacted her when she met the real-life girl whose story she was telling.   

“I knew I wanted to dedicate at least a portion of my life to stop human trafficking,” she said. “People think it’s in another country when it’s in our own backyard.”

Along with the ad, Pannell also delivered a TED Talk on the topic to high school students in San Diego. 

“Human trafficking is an issue that people forget about, and people fail to realize it’s so rampant,” she said. “It could be happening right next door.”

When Pannell arrived at Duke this fall, she didn’t miss a step, continuing her work advocating against gun violence and police brutality. 

She is currently a youth ambassador for the Women’s March organization, which encouraged students and teachers to walk out of schools March 14 to demand Congress take action on gun control. 

“We’re letting Congress know they can’t be complacent, they can’t just offer condolences, they have to put work behind it,” she said. 

Pannell helped organize the walkouts across the country and assisted in developing an online toolkit that protestors could use to stage their own walkout. 

This issue is personal for her, as she has had friends who have gotten shot and killed, and also had friends who pulled the trigger.

“I think it’s important to let people know that gun violence is a public health issue,” she said. “It’s not something we can set aside and forget about.”

But how does she balance all of this while also being a full-time student? 

For one, much of her work as a Women’s March ambassador can be done remotely. She has weekly phone calls with the organizers and other youth representatives from across the country, during which they discuss what’s happening in the news and their latest efforts. Her job is to inform the older organizers about the issues impacting young people. 

Still, coming to Duke has been a transition for Pannell, since it's so different from New York City. She especially misses how so many places in the city were open past 10 p.m., unlike in Durham. 

She explained that she thinks growing up in New York City made her more accepting of people. 

“When you walk in New York, you see people of every race and color, so you really learn to accept people and not take people at face value,” she said. “I was raised to not see color.”

Senior Brennan Steele said he met Pannell because they are both part of the Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship Program. He noted that he has been extremely impressed with the work Pannell did before college, on both a local and national scale. 

I feel like a proud dad seeing her grow and push forward in her activism,” he said. 

Pannell’s success is a result of how driven she is, added her friend Michael Ivory, a senior.  

“She’s very attentive to the things that matter to people,” he said. “She just has the power to turn her feelings and her ideas into meaningful messages for other people.”  

Pannell noted that she has loved the people she has met at Duke so far, and likes how the students advocate for what they care about. 

“I’ve noticed that students take matters into their own hands here,” she said. “Students speak up.”

Although Pannell hasn’t been super involved in campus activism yet, she plans to do more in the future. A political science major with a minor in African American studies, she explained that she wanted to adjust to Duke’s campus and academic life before committing to lots of different activities. 

However, she noted that she has identified issues in the black community on campus especially and recognizes that Duke needs to increase its diversity. 

“It’s hard being a minority here,” she said. “When you walk around campus, I don't see a lot of people who look like me, which is an issue.”

The Duke community can eagerly await her future activism on campus issues, which she will undoubtedly engage in. After all, she’s only a first-year. 

As for the long term?

“I want to run for president in 2036,” she said.