“I’m just spreading awareness so everyone knows it’s an issue,” the Stowe High School student said as she painted the words “Hungry for Change” on a piece of corrugated cardboard. “Then you take the step to do something about it — although I’m not sure what that is yet.”
Whatever the action, credit its start to the Governor’s Institute on Current Issues & Youth Activism, which has drawn 50 Green Mountain teenagers to the campus of World Learning in Brattleboro the past two weeks.
When organizers of the annual program arrived with Dixie cups full of washable color, many of the high school participants wondered if they had fallen back into kindergarten. But after instructors offered a crash course on the dynamics and durability of the protest sign, the plugged-in generation proved game to turn pigment into political statements.
Dillon LaViale, 16, of Stowe hand-lettered the words “We The People, Not We The Corporations” to contest a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision — Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission — that ruled corporations share the same First Amendment rights as individuals to donate freely to causes.
“If we truly want a democracy,” he said, “corporations can’t have such an advantage over the average person.”
LaViale knew he wasn’t the first to promote the issue: He learned about it from Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s Independent U.S. senator turned Democratic presidential candidate.
“I think we’ve all been surprised by how much traction he’s gained in a short period of time,” LaViale said of Sanders. “A lot of youth are engaged with him on social media.”
Not that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is lacking teen supporters. Hartford High School student Madelyn Koff painted her sign with the declaration “Women Are People, Too.”
“I am a feminist,” the 14-year-old explained, “and have always been into equality.”
That said, Koff lamented fewer play opportunities for girls and pay opportunities for women.
“We’ve definitely made amazing strides,” she said, “but we have a long way to go.”
The nonprofit program — one of eight summer Governor’s Institutes that also include arts, Asian cultures, engineering, entrepreneurship, environmental science, information technology and digital media, and mathematics — offers 10 days of classes in politics, policy and public service.
“I’ve met a lot of like-minded human beings here from all over the state,” Koff said.
Consider Noah Eckstein, 16, of Warren. Painting a sign promoting “local food, slow food, sustainable food, healthy food, good food,” he described his daily media diet that ranged from his hometown Valley Reporter to the New York Times.
“It’s not common,” he said, “but the people I’m friends with are aware of what’s going on in the world.”
Zoe Werth, 16, of Waterbury didn’t wait for a reporter’s prompt to explain her “There Is No Planet B” sign.
“How did I get interested in climate change?” she said before being asked. “I’ve always been interested in our world and where it’s going and I really want to be involved. I feel discouraged by all the facts that there are, but we really need to do something.”
Participants began by marching their signs up Brattleboro’s Main Street at the town’s annual Fourth of July parade. Nic Buonanduci, 17, of Bradford used both black and white and a rainbow of colors to write the words “How Can Discrimination Be Legal?”
Yes, the student knew about last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming same-sex marriage. But he noted such status doesn’t extend to coast-to-coast nondiscrimination laws based on sexual orientation, or to feelings of racial justice for all.
“I’ve had friends beat up for being black or gay,” Buonanduci said. “It’s not over.”
A nearby student lettering a “Trans Rights” sign agreed. Caitlyn Jenner may be pictured on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, but the teenager didn’t want her name or school reported so not to call attention to a transgender classmate facing challenges at their school.
“One of the problems with a lot of issues is people solve them halfway and then say it’s fixed,” the student said. “If people are pretending the problem isn’t there, it’s hard to make it better.”
And so her peers picked up paint brushes and stroked on specifics.
Kathryn Turnbull, 15, of Burlington printed “Size Up the Slaughter” in blood-red pigment to draw attention to the nearly 10 billion animals killed for food in the United States annually.
“I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life and a vegan for a year,” she said. “I care about the animals and the workers and how many resources the meat industry uses up, but a lot of people are unaware how much meat the U.S. eats and how much damage it does.”
Hilary Bergstrom, 16, of St. Albans wrote the annual U.S. average wage — $41,444 — and, underneath, the annual U.S. average college tuition bill — $55,000.
“I try to stay optimistic, but I’m definitely concerned,” the Rice Memorial High School student said. “My brother just graduated college and had to start paying off thousands of dollars in student loans, which is difficult.”
Matthew Brown, 17, of Hardwick made a sign with the concise if not confusing declaration “Act 77.”
“I want to study sociology and psychology and minor in music therapy,” the student said.
But many classmates without college or career plans don’t have motivation even to finish high school, he continued. That’s why he was calling attention to the “Flexible Pathways” act approved by the state Legislature in 2013 to, as the law says, “increase the rates of secondary school completion and post-secondary continuation in Vermont.”
Organizers of the Governor’s Institutes hope their program — explained further on www.giv.org— sparks its own inspiration. Since its start in 1983, the gatherings have welcomed more than 10,000 high school students to enrichment experiences at college campuses statewide.
Mason Charlebois, 15, of Vergennes said the institute taught him the saying on his sign: “A Boss Creates Fear, A Leader Creates Confidence.”
“I think society overlooks young people, but we are the generation that’s going to be leading this country,” he said. “We should help change the world for the better.”
Eckstein, for his part, said although he knew the importance of supporting local farmers, it wasn’t until he attended the program that he fully understood agriculture’s positive and negative effects on the planet.
“To be honest, I don’t know what to feel,” the student said after 10 days of immersion in societal problems and possible solutions. “I’m scared, but I still have hope my generation can come together and make a difference.”
Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: [email protected]