How Vermont teenagers view present-day politics


Participants at the Governor's Institute on Current Issues and Youth Activism may not be able to vote, but that isn't stopping them from asking questions or proposing answers.

BRATTLEBORO >> Brandon Blau, 15, of Jay may be the only student in a gaggle of several dozen Green Mountain teenagers sporting a Bernie Sanders campaign button, but he says it speaks for a majority of Vermont youth.

"I'm going to estimate that 90 to 95 percent here support Bernie," he says of the U.S. senator's presidential bid. "I wear this every day because I feel I have to represent him as much as he represents us."

Grace Young, a 16-year-old Colchester volunteer for gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne, is just as politically committed — if not a bit surprised by her recent stints on the campaign's phone bank.

"People shockingly don't know the primary is Aug. 9," she says. "They often don't even know who the candidates are."

Like Blau and Young, most of the other participants at this month's Governor's Institute on Current Issues and Youth Activism aren't old enough to vote. But even before finishing 10 days of classes in politics, policy and public service at Brattleboro's World Learning, many started with enough knowledge and experience to shame the average adult.

Take Cal Hale. The 16-year-old Hartland student calls himself a lifelong Dunne supporter, even though he was yet to be born when his candidate first won election to the state Legislature a quarter-century ago.

"Matt and I are both from the same town," Hale says, "and he has such a broad range of experience. He served on the board of trustees of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center "

"And was national director of AmeriCorps," Young interjects. "I looked at his LinkedIn page."

The two were eager to make calls for the Democrat, only to discover they often know more about the upcoming primary (Dunne, they'll tell you, faces party rivals Peter Galbraith and Sue Minter, with the winner to run against either Republican Bruce Lisman or Phil Scott) than many of the registered voters they're phoning.

"It's very disappointing," Young says.

"But even if we can't vote, we can help out," Hale says.

"This is how we can affect the political process," Young says.

That's why students created a plethora of political signs to carry in Brattleboro's recent Fourth of July parade. Olivia Squirewell — a Florida visitor in a program welcoming teenagers from not only Vermont but also Illinois, New York, Bosnia, Germany, Iraq, Ireland and Spain — painted a "Dump Trump" sign in opposition to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"I want to share what most of us are thinking," says Squirewell, who'll turn 18 just before the general election. "My father is in the military, and I was raised to speak for the good. Donald Trump's views are not how I was taught. I haven't heard of anyone here who supports him."

Blau, adjusting his "Bernie 2016" pin, confides he knows one participant who does.

"They haven't publicly revealed their identity," he says.

And Blau isn't pointing the supporter out, practicing the institute's respect for individual opinion and privacy.

An 18-year-old known as Elver has a different reason for not disclosing his full name. The Mexican student now living in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program says he's concerned if Trump is elected and upholds a campaign promise of mass deportations.

"Vermont is very culturally white," the teenager says of his "Help Keep Immigrant Families Together" sign. "I hope this will help people realize what's going on."

Nava Crispe has similar aspirations for her sign against the state's Act 46 school governance consolidation effort. The 17-year-old Danby student attends Long Trail School in nearby Dorset but worries the new law will curb such choice.

"I don't think a lot of kids my age know about this," says Crispe, who shared her thoughts publicly this spring at a State House press conference.

Organizers of the Governor's Institutes hope their program — explained further on — sparks awareness about a variety of issues. Since its start in 1983, the gatherings have welcomed more than 10,000 high school students to enrichment experiences in the arts, Asian cultures, current issues, engineering, entrepreneurship, environmental science, information technology and mathematics at college campuses statewide.

Not that every statement has to be so wordy. Caleb Mercure, 15, of Colchester needs only a minute to paint a circle and upside-down Y.

"That's it," the student says of the resulting peace sign. "It speaks for itself."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and correspondent who can be contacted at


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