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As Vermont Works On A Climate Action Plan, Youth Activists Look To Rebuild Their Movement

A piece of paper, painted with a green fist raised high against a starry night hangs from a clothespin on a clothesline, alongside other painted images of what Vermont students see as a healthy future climate for all. In the backdrop, a maple tree and the Vermont History Museum.
Abagael Giles
At the group's first in-person networking event since the pandemic began in 2020, the Vermont Youth Lobby invited newcomers to draw what a healthy future climate looks like. They hung the resulting drawings up in the breeze on the Statehouse lawn.

Leading up to the pandemic, the Vermont Youth Lobby was staging big demonstrations — even holding a Youth Congress at the Statehouse — to call for adults to take bold action on climate change.

Iris Hsiang stands in gray jeans and a black long sleeved t-shirt, with a K-N95 mask and megaphone on the lawn of the Vermont Statehouse.
Abagael Giles
Iris Hsiang, 17, was the lead organizer of Saturday's event. Hsiang is with the Vermont Youth Lobby and also serves on the Vermont Climate Council. She said she sees mutual aid being a helpful tool in building climate resilience in Vermont, following the pandemic.

Now, as the state prepares its first everClimate Action Plan, a new generation of leaders is ready to re-launch their movement.

Dozens of high school-aged Vermonters gathered on the Statehouse lawn Saturday. They shared what they learned over the last year — and what they want adults to know — at the group’s first in-person gathering since before the pandemic.

Iris Hsiang: I’m Iris Hsiang. I go to Essex High School. I’m a senior and I’m 17 and I’m helping run this event.

I was really excited this morning, just because we haven’t really had an in-person climate justice event — or climate event or any event — since 2019. I think the last one was the Rally For the Planet … And we’ve all grown and changed and some people have graduated, so we’re looking to really revamp the movement and get younger folks involved.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Vermont's Climate Action Plan Is Racing Towards A December Deadline. Here's How To Weigh In

I think adults just need to understand how hard it is to grow up today. And we are so scared of our futures because the climate crisis is such that we just have no idea what the next year, let alone the next 10 or 20 years are going to look like. And we’re growing up in this time of uncertainty, so we don’t know what to do with our lives.

We’re always told ‘Go to college, get these jobs,’ or whatever, but those jobs aren’t necessarily going to be what’s available in our futures, and so we need to be just constantly adapting. And it’s really hard.

Merry Smith: Hi, I’m Merry Smith and I’m a senior at Harwood. I use she/her pronouns and I’m so excited to go to a real, live event because we haven’t had a lot of those because of the pandemic.

Merry Smith, wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt in gray, stands in front of the Vermont Statehouse, next to a sign that reads Paint what a just climate future looks like to you in the letters.
Abagael Giles
Merry Smith, a senior at Harwood High School, was helping to set up Saturday. A member of the Vermont Youth Lobby, she stands here by a banner students were invited to paint, with their vision of a just climate future. She joined the movement remotely during COVID-19, and got to meet many of her co-organizers in-person Saturday.

I’m nervous that it will just stay the same and nothing will happen or change.

Gabe Groveman: I’m Gabe Groveman and I go to school in Montpelier. My pronouns are he/him. I’m 17 and a senior in high school.

I think the need to do this work has become more apparent in the last year-and-a-half.

Charlotte Wood stands with a yellow piece of paper in front of the Statehouse steps.
Abagael Giles
Charlotte Wood, a senior at BFA-Fairfax, holds the letter she wrote Saturday to Gov. Phil Scott in front of the Statehouse.

I think, also, with a lot of social issues and racial issues coming to the forefront, I think that’s pushed in a good way the dialogue around a climate movement to be more just and be more focused around de-centering this kind of white, middle-class movement that it was before.

So that’s exciting to see — kind of a new look on how we can move forward, that doesn’t just prioritize white, middle-class young people.

This is a time-sensitive issue and we want to make sure that we really now use this momentum in the right way. But I think we can do it.

Charlotte Wood: I’m Charlotte Wood. My pronouns are she/her. I’m a senior at BFA-Fairfax this year and I’m currently writing a letter to Gov. Phil Scott about taking more substantial action against climate change.

I’m also just excited to be more in touch with my own peers. It was really hard to be in touch with everyone.

Even in a pandemic we can still make change.

More from VPR: 'A Perfect Age To Be Speaking': Meet 16-Year-Old Activist Minelle Sarfo-Adu

Anya Hardy-Mittell: So I’m Anya Hardy-Mittell, and I use she/her pronouns. I go to Middlebury High School.

It’s hard because it feels like there’s so much that we need to do and it’s so overwhelming, but there’s only so much an individual can do. So it’s nice to know that there are other people who are working on this stuff.

You know, agriculture is a big part of our economy and our identity. And a shift to a more just food system and more sustainable food system is something that’s really important to me.

Emma Allegretti and Cece Wendling eat lunch on the steps of the Statehouse.
Abagael Giles
Emma Allegretti and Ceci Wendling eat lunch on the steps of the Statehouse Saturday. They've been friends for a long time and were excited to get back to in-person activism.

Ceci Wendling: My name is Ceci Wendling. I use she/her pronouns and I go to Hartford High School.

I don’t know ... Adults always tell me that we’re the generation to fix things, which … I mean, they’re not dead yet, so I feel like it’s their responsibility too to work on … fixing it?

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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