In my work with communities, I always make it a priority to ensure that young people have a meaningful seat at the table. The presence and participation of young people always leads to better outcomes. Young people often bring a level of innovation, openness, and uncompromising commitment to their core values that is helpful for the adults in the room. These more experienced people sometimes carry with them a history that bends towards pessimism about what’s possible.
During this particular moment in time, when many people are tempted towards pessimism, Vermont’s young people are stepping up and leading us forward in truly creative and courageous ways. This is especially true when it comes to addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class and social justice. Vermont has always prided itself on its history of being the first; the first state to abolish slavery, the first state to legalize same sex marriage through the legislature, the first state to ban fracking. Most of these firsts, though, come with a backlash, and both the push forward and the backlash are being felt very acutely right now, magnified by the divisiveness of our national politics and the implementation of new policies that target the “other” (immigrants, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, the poor). History has shown that this kind of backlash often happens during times of tremendous change. As the rise of vast forces such as technology, globalization, the changing climate, and a large number of displaced people around the globe sweep over us, fear is with us and so is the backlash.
In the midst of this turmoil, Vermont’s young people are standing up in creative and courageous ways to share their voices, their hopes and dreams, and their vision for a more just world. They are working hard to address racism, injustice, climate change, and to raise awareness of our shared humanity.
Several powerful examples come to mind immediately. Muslim Girls Making Change work to break down stereotypes and fight for social justice through slam poetry. Trained peer leaders from Essex Middle School teach a class at UVM about race and ethnicity. Student leaders at Montpelier High School spend a year learning and studying together to prepare to fly the Black Lives Matter flag during Black History Month. Young people take the lead during the recent Women’s March in Montpelier. South Burlington High School student Isaiah Hines is named the Vermonter of the Year by the Burlington Free Press as he “worked to raise racial awareness among his fellow students and pushed the School Board to take definitive action. Hines stepped up when the … adults in the room fell short.”
In a state that is predominantly white, it is worth pausing to notice how many of these young leaders are people of color. Their leadership takes a particular kind of courage because of the racism they live with every day. You may not want to believe that these students experience racism but I can share with you from my own personal observations over many years, and from conversations with people of color who live in Vermont, that racist comments, policies and traditions are an oppressive daily presence in many lives. At the same time, during the recent march in Montpelier, several students of color spoke of their love for Vermont and the support they’ve received from peers, teachers, and families. It is hopeful to contemplate that amid the intolerance, racism and bigotry that exists here, there is another side to the story as well. Students of color are working together with white students, educators and community members of goodwill to find powerful ways to share their experiences, and their hopes for the future.
Vermont’s young people have much to be proud of. They are standing up and speaking out during this most important time. Despite the hateful comments, the hurtful backlash, and even the threats, young Vermonters are sharing the message that they care about the planet, justice, fairness, and our shared humanity. Our young people have so much to teach us. I hope we can listen.
Photo Credit: Vermont Public Radio