On top of music lessons, sports practice and SAT prep, the students of America are now taking on a new role in the age of Trump: political activism. Although young people have been vocal at protests and rallies since the Vietnam War, a new wave of young teens has leapt onto the political scene since Jan. 21.
Vermont has had its share of motivated middle school and high school students who have identified a place for themselves in a convoluted political era. Ethan Sonneborn, a 13-year-old, announced in August that he is running for governor after noticing that there is no age requirement for the highest ranking state elected official. He only just started eighth grade in Bristol, Vermont, but clearly views age as irrelevant to politics.
In the Burlington Free Press, he stated, “We just elected our oldest President, and he tweets like a Kindergartener.”
Rather than juggle a political campaign with schoolwork, Hope Petraro, a 15-year-old from Montpelier, has decided to organize a rally instead. This Sunday, Sept. 17, at 11:30 a.m., citizens from around the state are expected to gather for her rally, the Race Against Racism. The event begins with a 5k run, or walk, that is followed by a lineup of speakers, musicians and artists — all convening to begin a conversation that has few platforms in the community.
“We’re trying to make the event accessible for youth,” Petraro said in a phone interview. “We want them to get their feet wet in a world of activism so that they care about racism or social or climate justice. We want them to care for something important.”
Petraro moved to Vermont from Brooklyn at age 12, and was greatly influenced by the large number immigrants she was surrounded by growing up. The adjustment to a predominantly white community after becoming adapted to one of many colors was supported by resources and forums Petraro found online.
“I retreated to the internet to help find my place in this new community I found myself in,” Petraro said.
“I found a lot of people who were very into social justice. There are all of these people on social media with progressive ideals who want to have these challenging conversations.”
To translate this newfound interest in politics into hands-on involvement, Petraro began to bring up discussions of race and social justice to those close to her in Montpelier. Quickly, teachers and peers suggested that volunteering in the community would be a means for Petraro to immerse herself in the state’s problems. Soon she was canvassing and working in the local Democratic Party phone bank, contacting residents across the region.
In a state with a political leader as progressive as Bernie Sanders, Petraro quickly was able to tap into the reservoir of activist groups in Vermont. Partnering with her event Race Against Racism are organizations such as Justice for All Vermont, Migrant Justice, and the locally-based Montpelier High School Diversity Club. The proceeds from the registration fee of $10 for adults and $5 for those 18 and under will be given to these partner organizations for their future endeavors.
Mark Hughes, co-founder of Justice for All Vermont, experienced a similar “culture shock” as Petraro when moving to Vermont from a relatively diverse town in the Midwest. His organization has backed legal reform in the state, such as H.308, a racial justice bill passed last May by Governor Phil Scott. Hughes will be a key speaker at the event on Sunday, as he will attempt to kick off a dialogue about racism that has been dormant in Vermont until recently.
“We don’t discuss race in Vermont,” Hughes noted over the phone.
“We don’t have the opportunity to have conversations and engage in activities with folks that aren’t like us. That difference could be our race, socioeconomic standing, or political preferences. With events like this we have an opportunity as a community to pull together — to raise awareness.”
Although his organization is run entirely by adults, he recognizes that young people are crucial in the laborious task of breaking barriers in Vermont.
“We’ve got to get some young folks, ones from other locations and also the ones in their twenties,” Hughes remarked.
“I’m an old guy; I’ve been at this for just a few years, but I’ve been around the block a few times. I’m not going to be around much longer.”
In Petraro’s view, the Race Against Racism marks the beginning of a new brand of activism led by young students in the state.
“I think that the Trump presidency — and a lot of the discrimination and bigotry that’s surfaced because of it — has seriously motivated students,” she said.
“A lot of them feel as if they, or their friends, or their community as a whole, is being personally attacked.”