At 17, Activist Sebastian Bowen Discovers the Power of his Voice


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Sebastian Bowen, a student activist.

ANDY McMILLAN

AT 2:15 P.M., there’s a loud buzz. A voice begins reading the dismissal announcements—late buses, soccer practice reminders, and last, “Make sure you have patience and understanding this Friday.”

On cue, teenagers pour out of Independence High’s front doors like a pack of wild animals, hunting for the fastest possible exit out of the school parking lot. Book bags bounce as students run to their buses or cars, or to the small walking path that eventually leads to the Food Lion lot on Wilson Grove Road, a detour from the backlog of hand-me-down sedans and bright yellow buses. Horns honk, and there’s a middle finger out a driver’s window.

Sebastian Bowen, a senior, is in no hurry. Bus number 229 will take him to his home in the Shelburne Place neighborhood, and from there, he’ll walk the 26 minutes to his job stocking shelves at Harris Teeter. The bus is leaving any minute, but he ambles slowly, taking in the wild country that is high school.

It won’t be that way for much longer—he’s graduating a couple weeks after our May afternoon meeting—so, he reasons, he should enjoy it while it lasts.

Two months prior, the scene at Independence was less chaotic and more somber, as the names of the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were read aloud on March 14. More than half of the high school’s student population of 2,500 participated that day in the nationwide walkout to remember the lives lost by gun violence in schools.

“We live in a country where we have a voice,” Bowen said that day, his voice echoing across the bleachers; all students, teachers, and reporters were silent. “Let’s make our country a better, safer place. Let’s hear your voice.”

In high school, many students are still unsure of how to speak out. They worry that their voices will crack, or that their opinions won’t fit the norm, or that no one will listen. Bowen had never spoken to a crowd that large before, a speech that would be watched more than 10,000 times online.

“That was my first time stepping out of my comfort zone. As a sophomore and junior, I was much more introverted,” he tells me. Bowen moved to Charlotte three years ago from Boone, so he was the new kid, trying to adjust and keeping to himself.

But his passion for activism grew. After encouragement from his government teacher and Marion Teshome, a junior who helped organize the walkout, Bowen realized it was time to ditch comfort and raise his voice.

Though Bowen was born in Riverdale, Georgia, and spent his younger years in Jacksonville, Florida, he calls Boone the place where he grew up. In 2006, he remembers leaving Florida—and a father, who Bowen says was abusive and addicted to drugs—with his mom, Georgia, and two sisters. With no family left to lean on, the family moved into a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“I’ve watched my single mom pull us out through the ranks,” he says. “I’ve had people tell my mom, ‘Oh, you’re poor because you’re not trying hard enough,’ but then I see my mom working 90 hours a week and still struggling.”

Georgia pressed on and went back to school, earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Appalachian State. She even brought Bowen and his two sisters along for her study-abroad trip to Uruguay.

“She’s interesting,” Bowen laughs. “She has super bright red hair and she’s not like a traditional mom, but she’s always been an inspiration for me. I’m a momma’s boy, I guess.”

Next year, he plans on heading back to Boone to study economics and political science at App, the same school his mom went to, where he was awarded a full scholarship. 

He’s excited about the future; he wants to get a summer internship and get involved in extracurricular activities in college. More than anything, Bowen wants to make a difference. “The world is a giant sandbox for me right now,” he says. “And I want to use my period of time to help people.”

For now, though, Bowen’s more focused on the moment. Enjoying each afternoon with his girlfriend, Carly, watching Game of Thrones or creating art. Spending time with his mom and younger sisters. Reflecting on the last days of high school instead of rushing to the bus. 

In a world where 17 lives can be lost in just six minutes, it’s these moments that matter most. The school bus can wait.

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