Teyonna Lofton has always loved to talk. The youngest of six children, her speech was often boisterous, loud and, inevitably, the target of rebuke from teachers who called her classroom animation a “disruption,” Lofton said.
“I always got in trouble just for talking,” said Lofton, who emphasized, “talking” with incredulity as she leaned forward with a wide smile and her hands on her hips. “I just liked to talk. I didn’t understand then why it was a problem.”
A high school mentor helped Lofton take her love of talking and earn a positive reputation as a go-to public speaker, said Lofton, a first-year student at the University of New Orleans. Lofton hasn’t chosen a major, but is interested in communications and helping people, she said.
“She sat me down and told me that I have leadership skills and that people watch me,” said Lofton, a high school honors graduate. “As I got older, I saw how it wasn’t just about me … that my friends would see and know that they could do so much more just like me.”
She was chosen to speak at school assemblies, to give school tours and to engage with school administrators on behalf of her peers on a variety issues, Lofton said.
In her Chicago neighborhood, Lofton became an advocate for anti-violence and social justice initiatives through a church organization called B.R.A.V.E., which stands for Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere. The program aims to teach youths how to be leaders and peacemakers in their communities.
She also worked with Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education and his Chicago-based anti-gun violence organization. The National Basketball Association selected Lofton to a part of its NBA All-Star Youth Leadership Council in 2020, part of the league’s initiative prior to the NBA finals held in Chicago that year.
“I realized I had everything I needed inside of me and I just needed to use it the right way,” said Lofton, who recalled battling to be heard over her older siblings. “Once I started to communicate properly it was like, ‘Oh, you want to hear me speak? They are asking for Teyonna Lofton to come speak on this platform? To speak in front of Arne Duncan? To speak in front of the NBA players? Oh yeah, I’ll do it!’”
“I can talk!” Lofton said laughing.
This year, Lofton was on the seven-person committee that selected the inaugural recipient of the NBA Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award, a new annual honor that will recognize a current NBA player for pursuing social justice and upholding the league’s decades-long values of equality, respect and inclusion.
While most of the selection process was conducted via email and telephone calls with an NBA representative, Lofton said she enjoyed learning about the programs the professional athletes were involved with in their communities.
“I was very happy to have my voice and vote for one of the NBA players for this award,” Lofton said. “It was really nice to hear about the things they were doing in their communities and everything.”
Lofton, who has spoken out often about the lack of resources in her Auburn Gresham neighborhood—most noticeably, the absence of a medical trauma unit in an area known for frequent gun violence, learned first-hand what that void meant after she was shot.
The shooting happened May 31, 2020, just a few hours after Lofton’s family had held a socially distanced parade in honor of her high school graduation.
Lofton was looking forward to starting college that fall and experiencing a new environment in Louisiana. She has friends who attended college in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and couldn’t wait to start her own new adventures.
Those plans were sidetracked when gunfire erupted from a passing vehicle as Lofton stood in line outside of a neighborhood gas station. Lofton and others were wounded in the incident, which was captured on surveillance video.
An injured Lofton can be seen on the video trying to crawl to safety after a bullet ripped through her left arm, damaging a major artery.
“The first thing I did was start praying,” Lofton said. “Once I hit that ground, I told God, ‘Not me, not today.’ My mom told me she prayed as well and I believe that’s what got her through it as well.”
Several frantic calls from Lofton to 911 went unanswered and then when answered, Lofton said she was told that no one could respond because they were busy elsewhere in the city. It was six days after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer and areas of downtown Chicago were beset with looting, Lofton said.
Lofton called her mother.
“I told her that I had been shot and no one was coming,” Lofton said, getting emotional as she recalled the events. “I come from a neighborhood where somebody is shot every two minutes and we have not one trauma unit. The closest hospital to my neighborhood is 15 minutes away, so that’s exactly where my mom had to get me.
“No extra speed, no escort, in a regular truck. A Trailblazer.”
Lofton spent nearly a week in the hospital after having emergency surgery in which the medical team had to graft a vein from her thigh to repair the damage in her arm. Occupational therapy has helped her regain some mobility, she said.
There was no police report of her shooting, Lofton said. So, she started talking.
“I had to make my own noise to get my story out so I could get a police report,” Lofton said about calling the news media and sharing her story. “I finally got a police report three weeks after the incident; they still didn’t find the shooters.”
Lofton said being the victim of gun violence has increased her drive to speak out and speak up for victims and the need for resources and support systems to help victims recover.
“What I didn’t realize or take into effect was the trauma behind whatever happens to you, and how you overcome it,” Lofton said. “I come from a big family and they were there, they were very loving. I had certain resources … but other young people do not have those things. Our city does not provide anything for them to move forward and it made me realize why so much gun violence or violence overall has a ripple effect, because we’re not getting anything to help us.”
Lofton said she wants to help get better resources for her Chicago neighborhood and other communities that are lacking needed social services.
“My goal with my activism is not just to be heard. When I speak out, my hope is for something to get done,” Lofton said. “The point of my activism is to show that young people understand, that we are aware, that we are coming and that we are here. I won’t be 19 forever, but while I am young I want to make as much noise as I can!”
On May 31, 2021, Lofton held a “do-over day” in New Orleans. She wanted to mark the anniversary date of her shooting with a positive declaration and to make note of her progress surrounded by her family and friends who arrived from Chicago.
They all wore orange T-shirts, the signature color for gun violence awareness.
“I’m here for a reason and I thank God for a second chance,” Lofton said. “I want to encourage more young people to speak out and embrace their second chances. It’s OK if we fail; what matters is that we get back up and that you keep going.”