For Vermont youth, politics meets the personal

Students glean behind-the-scenes takes from a who's who of state leaders at the Governor's Institute on Global Issues & Youth Action at Landmark College

PUTNEY — High schoolers at the Governor's Institute on Global Issues & Youth Action, cell phones in hand, pointed to U.S. Rep. Becca Balint as the political pioneer trumpeted by the Teen Vogue headline on their screens as “Vermont's first woman and LGBTQ+ federal representative.”

But the subject herself knows the less-reported flip side.

“It's not just the stories that people tell about us, it's the stories that we tell about ourselves,” the 55-year-old shared with students at the start of the week-long session on June 26. “When I was in my 40s, the story I had about myself was that I missed my opportunity to run for office, that it was too late, that I should have gotten started in my 20s, and that there was no way that I could be in politics.”

Then Balint won a bid for state senator in 2014, becoming that chamber's majority leader in 2016 and president pro tempore in 2021 before launching her successful congressional campaign last fall.

“It was only after I changed my story that I was able to run for office,” she said. “These stories can keep us small. What's keeping you small?”

That's just one of the questions 55 young attendees - meeting with a who's who of state leaders at Landmark College - have been asked to mull as they aim to go big.

Teens listened, for example, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dropped his stump speech on June 27 to inquire about what they wanted to know. Those assembled threw him every hot topic in the headlines, eliciting many classic sound bites (“You know what oligarchy means?” he asked), as well as a few surprises.

Take Sanders' thoughts on school shootings.

“It's such a horrible thing,” he said, “but until recently, I kind of chickened out and almost never talked about it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I met with family members of young people who were killed. They had pictures of their kids. I never know what to say. What are you going to say?”

Another student asked how Sanders prepared for presidential debates.

“With great anxiety,” the two-time Democratic primary candidate replied.

Sanders noted his interest in youth issues dated back to 1981, when he first won election as Burlington mayor by 10 votes and set up an office on the subject.

“I also got a wife out of that,” he joked of his former municipal-department-head-turned-spouse, Jane O'Meara Sanders.

'So many ways to make change'

The Global Issues & Youth Action program is one of eight nonprofit, nonpartisan Governor's Institutes - others include the arts, engineering, entrepreneurship, environmental science, health and medicine, mathematics, and technology - that take place each summer at college campuses statewide.

“I really want youth to understand there are so many different ways to make change in the world,” said state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the new director of the Global Issues & Youth Action program when she isn't chairing the House Ways and Means Committee. “There's rallying and letter writing, but there's also being a legislator, being a bureaucrat, being a journalist ....”

That's why the institute guest list also includes Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas and Treasurer Mike Pieciak, the newly resettled Afghan refugees who create murals as the ArtLords, Brattleboro contradance caller and musician Andy Davis, Cambridge drag entertainer Emoji Nightmare, Oscar Mayer heir turned Guilford author Chuck Collins and, by video, Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Maggie Meserve, a 17-year-old soon-to-be Springfield High School senior, appreciated the mix of personal and professional insights woven through 10 days of classes and conversations.

“It's definitely cool to see someone in more of a human way than you get to normally,” Meserve said. “It inspires me to think about if I want to do this kind of work - and know it's possible for me to.”

That's what the annual institutes, celebrating their 40th anniversary, work to inspire.

“I think the earlier young people start paying attention and feel[ing] the possibility of social change, the better off we all are,” Kornheiser said. “A lot of political action is motivated by outrage. I want folks to see that hope and stories are much more sustaining forces.”

Then again, Balint revealed another source of fuel when asked about her new political power.

“Power?” the representative said to students.

In the U.S. House, “the Democrats are in the minority, and I spend day in and day out fighting with extremists in the Republican conference about basic facts,” Balint said.

“What I do have control over is how I interact with people,” she continued. “Today, I told my staff to cancel three Zoom meetings so I could be here. You have to take the joy when you can.”

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