For some students, activism is simple.
“Find a group of people and show up,” said MacKenzie Murdoch, a sophomore at Northern Vermont University in Johnson.
She said she was “pretty apathetic” before she became involved with March for Our Lives, a student-led march for tighter gun restrictions earlier this year in Washington, D.C. that spawned more than 800 sister events the nation over.
The key to getting involved is “understanding your experience doesn’t represent big issues,” Murdoch said. “That’s where I was at. If there is a problem in society, it doesn’t need to be about you” to be an issue you care about.
Murdoch and four other students — Aidan Lodge, a senior at Peoples Academy, Rebecca Bingham, a senior at NVU- Johnson, Cecilia Stefanski, a freshman at Lamoille Union High School and Nathan DeGroot, a senior at Montpelier High School who’s taking college classes at the Community College of Vermont —were part of a panel discussion on youth activism at NVU-Johnson Tuesday afternoon, moderated by Ellen Hill, internship coordinator for the college.
“College activism is very prominent, but high school activism is unbelievable,” Hill said, praising the five students for their involvement.
To Hill, activism is a continuum, starting with complete lack of involvement and moving into “conscientious citizenship.”
Lodge said he grew up in an activist household, and had plenty of opportunities to get involved growing up. Now, he’s primarily focused on the importance of identity and helping people of different races, sexual orientations, gender identities and ethnicities be heard.
Bingham said she started caring about the environment when she was five and first got involved in Green Up Day, a Vermont spring tradition. Then, when she started attending NVU-Johnson, she went on a Badger Alternative Breaks aid trip to Nicaragua, and her love for opening up access to education was born.
“Everybody should have an education,” Bingham said. In Nicaragua, she saw there was no public education system there.
“That blew my entire world,” she said. “I try my hardest to get everyone educated.”
Now, Bingham coordinates the Badger Alternative Breaks program, hoping to get more of her contemporaries invested in helping people around the world access education.
Stefanski focuses on homelessness, saying a trip to Burlington in the winter when she was young exposed her to the problem firsthand.
Now, she volunteers at the Yellow House, a building in Hyde Park which Lamoille County sheriff Roger Marcoux helped convert into a homeless shelter after the Rev. Rick Swanson of St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church, and other faith leaders in Stowe, opened their church doors to the homeless last winter.
At the shelter, she primarily works with the children of families who stay there, and remembers a family of little boys who made their way into her heart.
“Knowing that I was making a difference in these really young people’s lives” helped Stefanski feel that she was doing enough.
DeGroot says he’s had “a really weird life.” A transgender man who identifies as bisexual and has experienced mental health issues, he says his primary issue is trans erasure, particularly in the wake of the Trump presidency.
“I’m very angry all the time,” DeGroot said. He’s spoken at the Vermont Statehouse, and says he never stops talking about trans issues.
“When you make your activism public, it becomes a part of your persona. … Making people uncomfortable. That’s my game.”
Lodge said it’s easy to be intimidated by speaking to adults, who often think “that we’re not informed, we’re just idealists with big ideas that aren’t going to work,” but “sometimes, just being a student at the table, you can use that as a tool to your advantage” by offering a unique voice.
“Awareness for issues is increasing a lot,” Murdoch said. She was in Washington, D.C. protesting the Hon. Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the United States Supreme Court, and says while the protesting didn’t work, and Kavanaugh was confirmed, raising awareness of everyday problems like sexual assault and harassment is what will make change, over time.
“There are some conversations in D.C. that I don’t think I will ever forget,” she said.
Murdoch has hope that things will change.
For DeGroot, hope is harder to come by, as to him, his identity as a trans man is under attack.
“To have something that’s intrinsically who you are be part of public discussion” can be traumatic, he said. “I’m in a very numb and in-shock kind of place.”
However, he finds hope in watching Christine Hallquist, the Democratic nominee for Vermont governor, a transgender woman who’s blazing a trail for other trans people.
And he finds hope in his own continued involvement.
“You don’t change people’s minds by increasing awareness and then watching from afar,” he said.
DeGroot advises other young activists, “Don’t shut up and don’t censor yourself and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Google is free. If you care about something, there is so much information.”
Bingham suggests people who want to get involved educate themselves, reflect on what they truly care about, and find a way to get involved directly.
Lodge wants to overcome other people’s apathy. DeGroot says that comes from simple fatigue.
“Our generation is bombarded constantly with the bad things going on. … Apathy is a trauma response,” DeGroot said.
All five students also agreed it’s important for people who aren’t part of the minority populations whose voices are often silenced to speak up for them, when it’s appropriate.
For instance, white allies should speak to other white people about issues that affect people of color, or heterosexual or cisgender people should speak with others about LGBTQ issues.
But, as Stefanski pointed out, “there’s a difference between talking to somebody and talking with somebody;” conversations should be civil, and productive.
Invite people to events or rallies, suggested Lodge. “That’s hard to say no to.”
“Don’t be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations, and please vote,” DeGroot told his fellow students.