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A new documentary with Vermont ties explores a road trip toward shared humanity

Alex DeLuisa
Educator Mary Simons talks with students at their last campsite in Oregon.

Indigenous sovereignty. Existential dread. Collectivism versus individualism.

These are some of the topics that 10 local high school students grappled with on a three-week road trip from Vermont to Oregon last year. They met with community leaders along the way — ultimately exploring questions about shared humanity.

It’s all captured in a new documentary called "Conversations from the Open Road." It was directed by Alex DeLuise, a recent University of Vermont graduate. And the film chronicles a trip organized by educator Mary Simons.

The film will play 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Main Street Landing in Burlington.

Vermont Public’s Joia Putnoi sat with DeLuise and Simons to learn more about the film. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A white outline of the United States shows the van route in red dotting
Alex DeLuise
The red path indicates the van's route along the cross-country journey

Joia Putnoi: So my first question is for you, Mary. The students in this movie were participating in a storytelling program that you created in 2013, which is also called Conversations from the Open Road. I would love to hear the initial intentions behind the project and how it's evolved over the last decade.

Mary Simons: I started this program because I felt like I wanted to learn alongside students rather than be in front of the room with this passive model. At the beginning, for the first eight or nine years of the program, it was structured so that high school and college students would come on the journey, and they would each create their own video short about a thread of the whole. So we had collective footage that they would pull from. And then this past year, we changed it.

So this is the first year that this more longform documentary has been formed from this project. How did this collaboration happen?

Alex DeLuise: Mary and I met through a professor that I had up at UVM, Myles Jewell. And we definitely clicked right away, which was really wonderful. I think that Mary and I — our energies really intertwined. I just noticed at first that we had the same drive forward and care for the world.

Students stand next to a white van.
Alex DeLuise
Students traveled by van from Vermont to Oregon, making 17 stops along the way to speak with community leaders.

Mary Simons: But so every year for the last 10 years the program has happened, there's always a different question that we're exploring. And this time the governing question here was: how can we better care about ourselves, each other and our home? And I remember meeting you, Alex, at the cafe in Hinesburg. And I was just so thankful, like, oh, my gosh, I hadn't really realized how important it was going to be to have the right person for this project.

You made roughly 17 stops over three weeks. How did you feel the students evolved as listeners and thinkers over the course of the journey?

Mary Simons: I mean, that is one of the most profound things to be able to witness, I would say. I don't know if you'd agree with that, Alex, but I think that's what blows your mind. I mean, I am ultimately changed by every journey too, so all of us are changing.
Alex DeLuise: Yeah, I like what you said about learning along with them. And I like the idea that we're pulling from things we've learned three days earlier. And it just compounds into this beautiful knowing that I think a lot of the students were left with. We were learning so much every day. I think what was really special was that we got to talk about it as a group and process these things. That's why this kind of trip is pretty awesome in comparison to schools sometimes, where you're not really getting to process together and also feel together. You were allowed to ask questions. You're allowed to not know the answer. You're allowed to still be confused.

Person holds camera and looks off into distance while the sun shines brightly behind them
Alex DeLuise
Alex DeLuise poses for a portrait with their camera on the road trip

Mary Simons: And one of the reasons I really didn't like teaching in the public schools and also independent schools is there's a bell or there's something that tells us that we're done, regardless of where the conversation was. And this is so much more organic. We're meeting wonderful people, and then we're talking about it, and then we're annoyed at each other. And then we're eating pizza together. Like, it's just the whole experience.

I would love to get into a little bit of the content of the conversations that you were having on the open road. When you think about the trip, and all the people you spoke with, is there a conversation that stands out as particularly impactful?

Mary Simons: I thread together people that are inspiring for whatever reason, and how we can tangentially connect it to the questions. And for this specific trip, the one that I was so looking forward to, and I'm so thankful that she was generous enough to meet with us was Dekila Chungyalpa. And she runs the Loka Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, and she is just a gorgeous human being. And I know that it also left a mark for many of the students too. Dekila is a Buddhist from Nepal. And I've heard her speak and I've read what she's written. And she often offers a beautiful perspective on the individual and how that's a fallacy in so many ways. And I was really excited to just pull that from her and just really grappled with that.

A group of students gather in a circle. They sit in a shaded area of grass
Alex DeLuise
On the first stop of the journey, students meet in Brooklyn with Hernán Carvente-Martinez, the founder of the Healing Ninjas Podcast.

Alex DeLuise: Probably the most poignant person for me was the first person we met with, Hernán Carvente-Martinez. And he is the director and founder and leader of the Healing Ninjas podcast. For me, the idea of talking about pain is something that I've been working on my entire life, and to hear him so bravely speak to his pain and speak to the fact that we can all acknowledge one another and acknowledge the things we've gone through — that really stood out to me and sort of set the tone for me for the rest of the trip that this would be a space of openness for everyone. And also for myself.

Is there anything I didn't ask that you too want to bring into the space?

Mary Simons: There was the woman we spoke with a group of young people in Eugene, Oregon, who are part of this organization called 15th Night, and they work to end youth homelessness. And there was this amazing young woman, at the end of our conversation, she was just so thankful that we all just shared a moment together. And she said, “It's just so weird, you know, talking and being together is one of the only things we actually have and we don't ever give it to each other.” And I just feel like that was the thesis of this trip.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Joia Putnoi worked as a Newsroom Intern from 2022 - 2023.
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