Gun control advocate Gabby Giffords joins fundraiser for Gabe Zimmerman Memorial Scholarship

Former Arizona Congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly spoke at a fundraiser for a scholarship named for UC Santa Cruz alum Gabe Zimmerman, who was Giffords' community outreach director when he was killed by a gunman in 2011.
Kelly welcomes Giffords to the podium, above. Yethzell Diaz, below, was the inaugural recipient of the Gabe Zimmerman Memorial Scholarship. (Photos by Nick Gonzales)
Pictured above are scholarship co-founders Jonathan Klein, left, and Alex Clemens with Giffords at the fundraiser. Below, Chancellor Blumenthal presents Gabe Zimmerman's parents, Ross Zimmerman and Emily Nottingham, with a Distinguished Alumni Award in their son's name. (Photos by Joop Rubens)

As the director of community outreach for Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, UC Santa Cruz graduate Gabe Zimmerman organized and attended a constituent event at a Tucson shopping center in January 2011. When gunfire rang out, Zimmerman ran towards Giffords, who was the target of the assassination attempt. Giffords, gravely wounded, survived; he did not.

That's the kind of man Gabe was, Giffords' husband Mark Kelly said during a private event to raise funds for an undergraduate scholarship established in Zimmerman's name.

"He had high-minded ideas about service and democracy, and he really deserved an entire life advancing that," said Kelly, a former astronaut who, with his wife, is one of the nation's most visible and vocal advocates of "common sense" gun laws.

In the weeks after the 2011 shooting, the Gabriel Zimmerman Memorial Scholarship was established by UC Santa Cruz graduates Jonathan Klein (Merrill '89, politics) and Alex Clemens (Porter '89, international politics), who were moved by the tragedy. The scholarship honors Zimmerman's legacy by supporting undergraduates who have demonstrated a commitment to public service. Among the attendees at the fundraising event were Zimmerman's parents, Emily Nottingham and Ross Zimmerman; UC President Janet Napolitano; Chancellor George Blumenthal; Social Sciences Dean Katharyne Mitchell; as well as scholarship recipients, alumni, and donors. The event was hosted by Nion McEvoy (Porter '74, literature) at Chronicle Books, where he is the chief executive officer.

"Gabe was a very special person in Gabby's office and Gabby's life," said Kelly. "He was the kind of staff member every organization would love to have—a hard worker who was really, really good at his job."

The reception took place less than three weeks after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed.

Calling gun violence a "horrific problem," Kelly said, "The saddest thing is we know how to fix it." He cited the impact of strong gun laws in states across the country and called for a legislative approach, acknowledging that "politics and corporate money" are formidable opponents. Kelly hailed the young survivors of the Parkland high school shooting, saying, "They are smart, very articulate, and they're angry. My sense is they're not going to give up any time soon, and they're going to be voters pretty soon."

"If Congress won't fix this problem, we need a new Congress," he said.

Giffords echoed her husband's remarks, saying, "Stopping gun violence takes courage… I've seen great courage when my life was on the line… Be bold, be courageous. The nation is counting on you."

Scholarship co-founder Jonathan Klein joshingly lamented having to follow Kelly and Giffords, whom he called "American heroes," on the program, and then invoked the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam to describe his desire to "repair the world."

"Our country's in trouble," said Klein, but there are reasons to be hopeful, including the emergence of youth as a powerful force. "They're going to solve this for us," he said. "The Zimmerman scholars are the most amazing people. Their commitment to social justice and public service… This is how we're going to repair the world."

Inaugural Zimmerman Scholarship recipient Yethzell Diaz (Stevenson '12, Latin American and Latino studies and sociology) said she, too, feels energized by youth. Diaz works as a program manager with Digital NEST, a Watsonville-based youth empowerment organization.

"Today's youth often get a bad rap… dismissed as apathetic and entitled," she said. "But what I see day-to-day is what our country got a glimpse of after the horrific events of February 14th in Parkland, Florida," she said. "Youth are challenging notions of what's possible, and challenging us to catch up with them."

Chancellor Blumenthal presented Zimmerman's parents with a posthumous Distinguished Alumni Award. Zimmerman earned a degree in sociology from Stevenson College in 2002. His mother, Emily Nottingham, credits UC Santa Cruz with helping Gabe find his path.

"Before he was a talented adult, he was a teenager," she said, with a smile and a sigh. In his college application essay, he wrote that his "number one goal is to have fun and to get something accomplished along the way."

Four years later, in a college essay, he wrote, "It is my passion to see systemic change… to cause change in systems that are unnecessarily hurtful."

"At UCSC, he went from being a young boy to being a man," Nottingham recalled. He went from being caring and curious to wanting to take action in pursuit of societal truths. Today, the scholarship in his name identifies caring young people who want to pursue public service, and it "takes them from dreaming to actually being change makers."

Social Sciences Dean Mitchell expressed a desire to increase the endowment to fund a "fellowship of the fellows" that would bring Diaz and other scholarship recipients back to campus for an annual retreat so they can "work with each other and train the next generation."

"They'd be foot soldiers for peace, an army for peace," she said.