Vermont teens rally for the planet

Editor’s note: This story was written by Mount Abraham Union High School senior Hannah Funk of Bristol.
On Thursday, April 28, hundreds of students from high schools around Vermont flocked to the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, where they proceeded to march down State Street to the Statehouse. Students waved signs, sported life-size puppets, and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go!” When this crowd of students converged on the Statehouse lawn, they made history as the largest youth-driven environmental rally the state has ever seen.
An estimated 50 students from Mount Abraham took part in the rally.
Molly Funk, a sophomore at Mount Abraham and a member of the Environmental Action Group, says the rally was important because “it brought the environmental youth of Vermont together to show support for a more sustainable future.”
The idea for the rally began months ago, with a group of Harwood Union High School students and their dedicated civics teacher Matt Henchen. Henchen’s students had tried to directly influence the divestment from fossil fuels in the state pension fund but that bill did not pass. These students wanted to know what next steps they could take so they formed the Youth Lobby, a coalition of Vermont students focused on civic participation and activism. In January, Youth Lobby reached out to other Vermont high schools, including Mount Abraham, Vergennes, Champlain Valley and Mount Mansfield union high schools, as well as Winooski High School. This group set about making the rally a reality.
The rally itself began with students from more than 23 high schools, colleges and universities collecting on the green of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here, students were able to create posters and signs, add a ribbon to the Climate Ribbon Project and assemble for a march to the Vermont Statehouse. At 10 a.m., the Rally for the Planet March commenced, traveling down the hill of East State Street, crossing Main Street and onto State Street, and continuing toward the golden dome of our capitol building. Sign waving, chanting and excitement filled the air, supported by honking car horns and cheering from onlookers along the march path.
Once at the Statehouse lawn, students could visit informational tables, get a free scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and listen to speeches and musical performances. It definitely had a festival flair and excited students gathered at the bottom steps to listen and dance. Rally speeches kicked off with one from Gov. Peter Shumlin, who congratulated the youth for their concern for the environment of Vermont. Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Hinesburg, also addressed the students.
Others gave speeches directly related to the environmental bills the students were lobbying for. A representative from 350 Vermont spoke about divestment, or removing fossil fuel company stocks from state pension investment portfolios. Graham Spraney, a senior from Mount Mansfield High School, delivered a moving speech about his connection with the Vermont outdoors and urged legislators to pass a bill that would institute a state tax on the carbon in gasoline and heating oil.
Other students got involved as well. Andy Siki, a Winooski student, performed a song he wrote himself, and a Harwood band opened the rally with a rousing tune. The musical portion of the rally culminated with a performance by Headphone Jack and the Splitters, a Burlington-based hip hop band with a focus on environmentalism and activism.
Students were also able to interact with legislators from their hometowns. As the day went on and the noise of the rally shook the Statehouse walls, representatives and senators came out to talk to their young constituents and ask about their priorities for Vermont’s future. Mount Abe students had a lengthy interaction with Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, about various bills facing the Vermont lawmakers. Later in the day, the House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing all of the youth activists and honoring them for their involvement in Vermont’s legislative process.
By 1 p.m., the bands had packed up and left, the free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream had been all eaten up, and most of the dancing, chanting students had boarded their buses and headed back to their respective schools. No sign remained on the Statehouse lawn to show what had happened. But the students remember that day as the first time they realized the power their voices could have, and hopefully, when it comes voting time on the next environmental bills, our legislators will, too.

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