Teen storytelling group gears up for cross-country travel

LINCOLN — For teenagers, summer is a time to relax after a long school year or make a few extra dollars working. But a group of eight Vermont teens this summer will experience a few weeks on the road. They will wash their clothes in Laundromats, eat meals at truck stops and sleep at campsites or dormitories.
This won’t be an ordinary road trip. Along the way they’ll produce video and photography on topics including gentrification in New York City’s five boroughs, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Western Pennsylvania and the shrinking coasts around New Orleans.
The trips are part of Conversations from the Open Road, an experiential learning outfit that sends a small team of students on two-week long trips around the country, traveling with instructors in vans filled with video and audio recording equipment.
“It’s going to be one busy summer,” said Lincoln resident Mary Simons, the program’s founder and director.
The idea for Conversations from the Open Road came from Simons’s experience as a teacher of 10 years at public schools in Connecticut and at the private Red Cedar School in Bristol. Simons said she became frustrated with the separation between the school environment and the world outside of the classroom.
“I couldn’t stand that when the bell rang, the conversation stopped,” she said.
Simons went to graduate school at the New School for Social Research in New York City and earned a master’s degree in politics and education. For her thesis, she developed a website that allowed teachers from around the state to share ideas and collaborate on projects. She returned to Vermont hoping to influence education policy in Montpelier.
But even in a progressive state like Vermont, she found the world of education politics moves too slowly for her liking. Rather than navigate the political landscape, she decided to start her own program.
“Politics is entirely different from being on the front lines doing the work,” she said. “I thought it would be more valuable if I started a program that held all the values that education should have. I thought that if I started a program, then that would move the conversation forward.”
Simons received help from the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology’s Middlebury office to answer what she called the “big picture questions.” The goal, she said, was to expose teens to issues facing society by having them meet and interview people directly experiencing the effects of such things as environmental degradation and the increasing gap between rich and poor.
Simons said Vermont students bring a unique perspective to these projects.
“It’s a sense of place and a sense of culture that we have,” she said. “There’s a certain something that you start with that’s different from anywhere else.”
The lifestyle of roving documentary makers is largely no-frills. Groups sleep when and where they can and eat meals at irregular hours. Unlike most teenagers, Simons said the groups have grit and a comfort with the unknown.
“It’s electric, crazy and so fun,” she said. “They’re open to anything. We’ll sleep on floors and they’re fine with that or eat dinner at 8:30 at night. There’s no stuck-ness about them.”
For the past few summers, groups have traveled in one or two rented minivans loaded with equipment, clothes and sleeping bags. The Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury supplies the group with high-quality voice recorders while students and staff bring an assortment of digital cameras for shooting video and stills. Students join the program with a range of experiences in short documentary production. Some join as experienced amateurs, others with less experience. They share all the equipment as well as the laptop computers with editing software.
When it comes time to edit, the group spends hours working on their respective projects in libraries or coffee shops.
“It’s so organic and based on what’s needed,” Simons said.
The group also shares their progress with family members and other followers through online tools like the multimedia blogging platforms Tumblr and Cowbird.
Simons said traveling and working in a small group keeps the team agile and lets them follow up on opportunities as they arise. The size of the group also creates an intimate dynamic. After leaving Bristol, traveling to their destination and returning, Simons says the team is more like a family. The short documentaries produced by the students have been screened at the Green Mountain Film Festival.
In its first two years, Conversations from the Open Road has completed four trips. In 2013, students traveled to the coast of Maine to investigate changes in the local fishing economy and to Appalachia to take a look at the lasting legacy of the coal industry. In 2014, they went to southern Utah to get a look at how the Federal Bureau of Land Management allows the public to use land for multiple purposes and to Detroit to examine issues of race and class in a city still struggling with economic hard times.
From all these first cross-country experiences, Simons and her students identified some common themes uniting these diverse topics.
“It’s all grappling with the architecture of our society,” she said. “It’s looking at how we get our energy, shelter, food and how we relate to each other.”
This year, Simons will lead teams on three journeys — the most she’s attempted in one summer. One will travel to the area around New Orleans for an investigation into the shrinking bayous; another will head to New York City to take on the issue of gentrification and a final one will drive to Western Pennsylvania for an in-depth look into the development of natural gas and the wells’ effects on the local economy and environment.
“I’m trying to tease apart the layers,” said Simons. “We have to recognize that the structures we’ve created aren’t inevitable, we still have choices and we’re likely going to have to make new ones in the future.”
Simons has plenty of ideas for trips in the future including immigration on the Arizona-Mexico border and migrant farm labor in Vermont and Florida, state efforts to clean up Lake Champlain and energy and water use in Las Vegas.
Simons said she started the company with the intention of changing education. While she says she’s made progress toward that goal, she also admits she still has a ways to go. In the future, she hopes to design custom experiences for classrooms and to lead trips year-round throughout the school year.
Through her work with Conversations from the Open Road Simons has accidentally found herself in the world of journalism, which she says she enjoys. But for now, she said she enjoys exposing teens to the issues that matter.
“I feel like that’s the best way to learn,” she said. “When you hear the nuances and complexities from people on the front lines.”

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