Vermont teens find activism at end of paintbrush
By Kevin O’Connor
Staff Writer | July 07,2014
Kevin O'Connor / Staff Photo
Dylan McAllister, the newest student representative to the Vermont Board of Education, paints a sign at the Governor's Institute on Current Issues & Youth Activism now taking place in Brattleboro.
BRATTLEBORO — Ask 15-year-old Molly Engels what she and her peers are talking about at this month’s Governor’s Institute on Current Issues & Youth Activism and she points to a full spectrum of societal problems and possible solutions.
“We are the generation of change,” she says.
That’s why the Rutland High School sophomore and 60 fellow Vermont teenagers have momentarily stopped texting and Twittering to dip into an even more fluid means of communication: Tempera paint.
When institute leaders at Brattleboro’s World Learning arrived with Dixie cups full of washable color, some students 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 action.
Randolph Union High School students Kate Conard and Addison Rooney tapped a smartphone to translate and paint the word “peace” in nearly a dozen languages.
Conard, 16, noted her father and grandfathers served in the military. She supports them — but doesn’t like to see anyone placed in life-threatening situations.
“I feel very strongly about peace,” Conard said. “It doesn’t make sense to be angry. It just makes things worse.”
“We’re all one species,” Rooney, 15, added. “Why do we have to fight?”
Montpelier student Leah Sagan-Dworsky voiced similar sentiments as she transformed a sheet of corrugated cardboard into a Jackson Pollock canvas featuring the words “equality for all.”
“I’m a feminist and a supporter of everybody having rights,” she said, “so I thought, let’s make it colorful.”
That, and she accidentally splattered paint all over her once-white paper, leading to a larger experiment in abstract expressionism.
Some signs played with slogans. (“Drop bass not bombs.”) Others poked at public opinion. (“I love GMOs — please don’t hurt me.”) And a few thoughts went undeclared, based on calls for discretion.
“You can provoke,” co-director John Ungerleider advised, “but not alienate.”
“That’s not an effective way to start a conversation,” colleague Simon Norton added.
Dylan McAllister, 16, of Greensboro, hoped to get people talking with a two-part sign. The first featured a drawing of a fish and a monkey beneath a tall tree. The second bore the word “fair” surrounded by question marks.
Have a few yourself? The Hazen Union High School junior and newest student representative to the Vermont Board of Education explained the signs to be a unique critique of standardized testing that expects all students, regardless of differences, to reach the same heights the same way.
The 25th annual program — one of nine summer institutes that also include arts, Asian cultures, engineering, environmental science, information technology, mathematics and, new this year, entrepreneurship and “Farms, Food and Your Future” — offers 12 days of classes in politics, policy and public service.
Participants are working alongside fellow World Learning visitors from Germany, India, Iraq and Ireland and the states of Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts. Vermonters say they appreciate the diversity.
“There are so many cultures here,” said Caitlyn Duff, 16, of Stowe.
And so much camaraderie, added Hawley Snipp, 17, from nearby Morrisville: “I come from a school that is very strong for gun rights. If you have a different opinion, you’re ostracized.”
At the institute, young people are limited only by the amount of space on which they can share. Florida student Fermin Mendoza recalled the first day when, asked for their state, national and world concerns, teens filled an entire chalkboard. That’s why he painted his sign with the words, “Acknowledge our issues — we have many.”
“One of the reasons they don’t get solved,” the 16-year-old concluded, “is people don’t know about them.”