We the Young People: Seven Vermont Teens Who Are Making a Difference | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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We the Young People: Seven Vermont Teens Who Are Making a Difference 

Published March 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Joelyn Mensah, Lauren Ryea, Nathan Degroot, Hannah Pendyah, Molly Thompson, Celine Morris, Greta Solsaa - AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury
  • Joelyn Mensah, Lauren Ryea, Nathan Degroot, Hannah Pendyah, Molly Thompson, Celine Morris, Greta Solsaa

Exactly one month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Vermont students across the state plan to walk out of their classrooms to protest gun violence on March 14.

The young survivors of the Valentine's Day slayings are making significant progress on restricting access to firearms — more so than any other group that's tried since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down their classmates at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999.

Two hundred school shootings later, a movement is under way, and teens are driving the conversation.

"The main message is that we're young people, and we care about what's happening at our school, and we want there to be some sort of action," said Sophia Venturo, a 17-year-old senior at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans.

Venturo and a committee of students are planning their own version of the National School Walkout on March 14. They'll exit the building for 17 minutes to honor the 17 school shooting victims in Florida, she said, but whether or not the demonstration is silent remains up for debate. The students also aren't in agreement on what changes they'd like to see, according to Venturo. Some advocate for stricter gun laws, while others would rather see armed teachers or guards on campus, she said.

Such activism is common among college kids, but this generation of Vermont high schoolers appears to be engaging earlier in responses to current events.

Last year, student journalists at Burlington High School petitioned the Vermont legislature to better protect their free-speech rights, and their bill passed the Senate.

In South Burlington, Isaiah Hines led the charge in getting the high school to drop its Rebels nickname, which many thought had racist connotations. Now a first-year student at Columbia University, he's getting an award for his activism on March 15, the day after the national protest.

At the same award ceremony, the Burlington-based Peace & Justice Center is also honoring a slam poetry quartet of local high schoolers known as Muslim Girls Making Change. The young women — Hawa Adam, Kiran Waqar, Lena Ginawi and Balkisa Abdikadir — "have used their words to challenge gender roles, fight racism and stand up for social justice," Seven Days reported in 2017. The year before, they were on the Huffington Post's list of "17 Muslim American Women Who Made America Great."

Adam was among the student activists who lobbied successfully to hoist the Black Lives Matter flag at BHS, just a few weeks after Montpelier became the first high school in the nation to do so.

Waqar testified before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on February 22, urging action on gun-control legislation. Like many Vermont youth, she was shaken not just by the Parkland massacre, but by events closer to home: In January, police gunned down a robbery suspect on school grounds in Montpelier; more recently, a young man's foiled plan to commit mass murder at Fair Haven Union High School "changed completely" Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who is now open to legislation designed to make Vermont safer.

Waqar's onstage experience served her well at the Statehouse. "When we leave an event, and a person tells us that they were inspired and want to make a change, it is the most amazing thing," she told Seven Days in 2017 about the exhilaration she felt speaking to a room full of people. "If they take action, just imagine the ripple effect."

In Vermont, young people are doing just that. Future leaders are raising their voices for Abenaki, disabled, transgender and unborn people who lack representation. Here are seven who aim to turn ripples into waves.


Greta Solsaa, 16, Rutland High School

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Despite being nervous, Greta Solsaa sounded confident when she stepped up to the podium on January 20 to address 4,000 activists on the Statehouse lawn in Montpelier.

Before the "mind-boggling" crowd, the 16-year-old encouraged her peers to speak up.

"Though I know it can be difficult in a world that is trying to silence you, never forget your voice," she said. "Never forget that we are the future, and we have something to say about it."

Solsaa's speech was the culmination of nine months of planning for the March for Our Future, a youth-led rally to advocate for human rights and dignity on the first anniversary of the Women's March.

It wasn't the young activist's first organizing effort; in 2016, she helped start an Amnesty International chapter at Rutland High School, where she's a junior. Local reactions to a plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the surrounding community helped spark her early interest in human rights.

To help those resistant to the plan understand the crisis in that country, her group sponsored a movie screening and discussion about it. Despite their efforts, the federal government halted the refugee program after just a few Syrian families had moved to the area.

click to enlarge Greta Solsaa speaking at the March for Our Future in January - COURTESY OF GRETA SOLSAA
  • Courtesy of Greta Solsaa
  • Greta Solsaa speaking at the March for Our Future in January

Solsaa, meanwhile, has become Amnesty International's student activist coordinator for the entire state, serving as a liaison and spokesperson for Vermont's three high school Amnesty groups.

"Greta's a quiet ember that just keeps burning," said Marsha Cassel, a Rutland High School humanities teacher who serves as the Amnesty chapter's adviser. "And she's tenacious."

Cassel has witnessed Solsaa latch on to issues, including Amnesty's efforts to lobby Vermont lawmakers for limits on solitary confinement for incarcerated youth. The young woman is currently helping to organize a March 24 protest in downtown Rutland, one of many to be held across the country that day in response to the Florida school shooting. She hopes to attract hundreds of southern Vermont students as part of "a continuation of youth seizing our power."

Solsaa has also begun a campaign to get her own school to fly a Black Lives Matter flag, after successful student efforts in Montpelier and Burlington.

She sees her work as a way to bridge differences through education.

"Oftentimes, I don't think people are actively trying to be malicious or shut an event down — it's just that they don't understand," Solsaa said. "There's a lot of fear that comes from not understanding the issue."

The optimistic Vermont teen aspires to be a diplomat, or perhaps an advocate for a nonprofit such as Human Rights Watch. Politics is also a possibility, said Solsaa, who expresses herself through poetry and art.

"There is so much to change," she said, "but there is also so much to be hopeful about."

— K.J.

Molly Thompson, 16, Woodstock Union High School

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Like many social activists, Molly Thompson didn't choose her cause — it chose her. The 16-year-old Hartland native was born with Pfeiffer syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes the bones of the skull to fuse prematurely, resulting in various physical anomalies and health challenges. In her case, Thompson lives with a tracheotomy tube and uses hearing aids.

When Thompson was a third grader at Hartland Elementary School, just before one of her many corrective surgeries — she's had more than 30 — she gave a presentation to her classmates about her condition and invited her plastic surgeon to explain the procedure. Her teacher was so impressed with the presentation that she asked Thompson to repeat it for the entire school.

"I remember feeling quite empowered," Thompson said. "Maybe it was an innate talent for public speaking, or maybe it was just the natural confidence of a child. I wanted people to know my story, and it just somehow came naturally to me."

In middle school, Thompson was invited back to Hartland Elementary to give yet another talk to the students. There, she met Sam Drazin, a Norwich-born educator and founder of Changing Perspectives. The Vermont nonprofit creates school curricula for teaching students empathy for, and acceptance of, people with disabilities and other differences.

click to enlarge Molly Thompson speaking at a local school - COURTESY OF MOLLY THOMPSON
  • Courtesy of Molly Thompson
  • Molly Thompson speaking at a local school

Drazin, who also grew up with a rare genetic disorder, was so impressed with Thompson's poise that he invited her to be a guest speaker in his program. Since 2016, Thompson has visited 10 schools and spoken to more than 1,000 students throughout Vermont.

"I knew right from the beginning that Molly was someone who had a lot to share, who had an inspiring story, and who had the confidence and courage within herself to share it," Drazin recalled. "Not everybody has it."

Though Pfeiffer syndrome is rare, affecting one in 100,000 people, Thompson said she's never felt isolated by her disability but instead has made many friends through her activism.

"When I speak to students, I want to spread awareness about my disability, but more importantly, I want them to know that I'm a normal girl who is just like them in many ways," she explained. "These challenges don't define me. Disabled or not, I'm still relatable."

Thompson said she is often asked about her future plans. Now a junior at Woodstock Union High School, she has yet to decide what career she'll pursue. It will likely incorporate some form of activism.

Among her favorite questions to answer, she added, is a thought-provoking one: If you had a choice to live without your disability, would you?

"I always answer no, because I feel my disability and the challenges that came with it have made me who I am today," she explained. "Without these experiences, I wouldn't be the same person."

— K.P.

Nathan DeGroot, 16, Montpelier High School

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Before Nathan DeGroot found himself at the Northeastern Family Institute Hospital Diversion Program, an inpatient facility for suicidal teens, he had used a girl's name. But he checked in as a boy, and when he walked out of the hospital three days later, he kept that identity.

Finally, something felt right.

DeGroot said he lived for years "feeling super uncomfortable in my body." He didn't realize being a boy was an option until 2015, when he shadowed a student at Montpelier High School who had a trans friend. "I met him and was like, Oh no, this is it!" DeGroot recalled.

Coming out after his 2016 hospitalization, and working through that fear, likely saved DeGroot's life. Now he's trying to do the same for others.

During his sophomore year, he got involved with an online forum called What's the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team, which encourages students to connect by exploring social issues. Through that platform, DeGroot joined a group called Breaking Binary, which aimed to promote awareness of trans identity and value in a classroom setting.

click to enlarge Nathan DeGroot at a Gun Sense Vermont rally in Montpelier - JAY ERICSON
  • Jay Ericson
  • Nathan DeGroot at a Gun Sense Vermont rally in Montpelier

The group created a 30-minute documentary to raise awareness for trans students, as well as shorter videos to help teachers make their classrooms more inclusive.

As a trans teen, DeGroot is acutely aware of safety, too. The soon-to-be 17-year-old spoke on the steps of the Statehouse last month in support of three gun-control bills. DeGroot related, somewhat gleefully, that he addressed Gov. Phil Scott during a press conference, saying that the governor's stance on one of the bills "was not a definitive answer."

He may have been speaking out of turn, he noted, but at least he was speaking up.

Now a junior, DeGroot is part of a school club planning a speaker series for next year on "social sustainability" issues and organizing a concert to benefit Spectrum Youth & Family Services and the Vermont Ibutwa Initiative, a nonprofit that provides aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He recently started writing poetry. "I write about being trans, and not only being trans but being a boy in a relationship with another boy," DeGroot said.

At a recent open mic at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he "floored the audience of graduate students," said Kerrin McCadden, his former English teacher.

By making his voice heard, McCadden suggested, DeGroot creates space for others to join him. "His writing is one of the ways he stands up for people," she said. "And I hope — I trust — that he will have many books on the shelves."

— S.W.

Lauren Ryea, 17, Missisquoi Valley Union High School

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

It wasn't too long ago that Abenakis in Vermont had to hide their identity to avoid being targeted by the state's eugenics program. But today, Lauren Ryea, a senior at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton, proudly embraces her Native American heritage.

"She's the real deal," said Jeff Benay, director of the federally funded Indian Education program for Franklin County. He's known Ryea since she was a preschooler. "Lauren exemplifies the values and commitment the local Abenaki community takes pride in, and she is certainly one of the young people who will one day take her place as a community leader."

The unassuming teen has volunteered at Circle of Courage, an after-school cultural program for Abenaki and non-Abenaki students, since she was in seventh grade. Today, 34 students are in the program, which teaches Abenaki dancing, drumming and artwork.

click to enlarge Lauren Ryea doing a "fancy shawl" dance at a powwow - COURTESY OF CIRCLE OF COURAGE
  • Courtesy of Circle Of Courage
  • Lauren Ryea doing a "fancy shawl" dance at a powwow

Once a year, they perform for the third-grade class at Malletts Bay School in Colchester, where Benay's wife is the principal.

Ryea has put in more than 2,000 hours volunteering at the center in the last six years, estimated program director Brenda Gagne. "She's a part of the heartbeat of our community," said Gagne, who's also Ryea's aunt and guardian.

The 17-year-old is a "fancy shawl" dancer, which means she can participate in competitions at powwows, but she chooses not to. "I dance because I enjoy it and don't believe in competing," said Ryea.

She first attended Circle of Courage as a young child. In 2012, when she was 12 and the Missisquoi tribe gained state recognition, the group performed in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier.

Ryea was shy until her peers elected her to take over as drum leader at the end of sixth grade, Gagne noted. Now, the Highgate teen is comfortable in front of large audiences. "It's a good feeling," she said.

To be a Circle of Courage volunteer, Ryea has to maintain good grades; she's a straight-A student. In addition, she had to take an oath of purity, promising not to use alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

A student representative on the Abenaki Parent Advisory Committee, which oversees all educational and cultural support services for the tribe, Ryea recently pushed the issue of suicide prevention to the forefront after the death of a schoolmate last year.

A difficult upbringing may explain her outsize empathy for others. The youngest of three girls, Ryea was in third grade when she and her sisters were taken out of their home to live with Gagne. Their biological parents, who struggled with substance and alcohol abuse, were deemed unfit to care for their children.

Both of Ryea's sisters are now in college. "To watch them push through, make something of themselves, is really just inspiring to me," said Ryea, who wants to become a surgeon. "The one thing I'd like to do is give back to the people," she said. "If I can try to save lives and give them another chance at it, it'd be worth" the hard work.

— K.S

Celine Morris, 18, homeschooled in Barton

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Being a pro-life activist in Vermont is probably something like being a gun-control advocate in Alabama. Or, we suppose, it could be akin to being a pro-choice activist in the Yellowhammer State. The point is: It ain't easy.

Mary Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, estimates that 70 percent of state residents identify as pro-choice. Turning that tide — particularly in a state that legalized abortion in 1972, one year ahead of Roe v. Wade — is an uphill battle. Judging by past precedent, it's also likely a long one, which makes the development of young activists such as Celine Morris paramount to groups like VRLC.

"We're always looking for youth," said Beerworth.

Though Morris has only interned for a few weeks with the Montpelier-based nonprofit, the Barton native has organized fundraisers for the lobby group since she was 13 through Vermont Teens for Life. Among other moneymaking initiatives, VTFL sells roses on Mother's Day, runs "baby bottle drives" and hosts bingo at the Orleans County Fair each summer. In January, the group places small crosses on a snowy hill in Barton to represent "all the babies that were killed," explained Morris.

click to enlarge Celine Morris at the Statehouse - DAN BOLLES ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Dan Bolles ©️ Seven Days
  • Celine Morris at the Statehouse

Morris, 18, said she came to the pro-life movement both by her Catholic conviction and familial example. She is the third youngest of 13 children, three of whom were adopted.

"I'm very pro-life," she said with a chuckle, adding that her family is generally politically conservative. "I love life, and I think that, from the moment of conception, it's a soul," Morris continued. "It's just sad to think that we are killing the next generation. Just think about who that life could have been: the next great president. A great doctor."

Like each of her 12 siblings, Morris was homeschooled by her mother — her father is a long-haul truck driver. She studies tae kwon do and is nearly a black belt. She also works as a certified emergency medical responder in Barton and is just a written exam away from her emergency medical technician certification. Recently, Morris won an oratorical contest held by her local American Legion on the topic of gun control — she's against it.

"I'm all for the Second Amendment," she said.

This fall, Morris will attend the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where she plans to study political science with the long-term goal of becoming a defense attorney.

"I want to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves," she said.

Morris intends to get involved in the pro-life movement at the Catholic school.

"They pray at the abortion clinics, and they raise a lot of awareness that there are other options available," she said. "Life is precious."

Given that she's devoted nearly a third of her life to raising awareness around pro-life issues, Morris should fit in just fine at Franciscan.

Said Beerworth: "I just hope she comes back."


Joelyn Mensah, 18, Montpelier High School

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Two years ago, Joelyn Mensah gathered with her fellow students to hear Major Jackson, the celebrated Burlington-based African American poet, in a Montpelier High School assembly. Mensah heard someone in the crowd use the N-word.

"I was not shocked at all," Mensah, now 18 and a senior, told Seven Days. But she was upset.

Mensah sought out her school's social worker, Mary Ellen Solon, who helped her connect with other students of color. The teen went on to found the school's Racial Justice Alliance. Eight of its 25 members are black, at a school where only 18 of 350 students are African American.

Mensah and other students of color chronicled specific incidents of racism they'd experienced in school, from inappropriate jokes to feeling they'd be brushed aside or ignored if they raised their concerns to adults. With the help of MHS principal Mike McRaith, the group presented its findings at a faculty meeting.

The teachers were surprised and appalled, according to Mensah. "School's supposed to be a place where you're safe and where you're in an environment to thrive," Mensah reflected. "The racism that was going on was distracting from my learning. I want students in the future to be able to go to school without that being as big of a hurdle as it was for me."

click to enlarge Joelyn Mensah raising the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Joelyn Mensah raising the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School

So on February 1, when Montpelier became the first high school in the country to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, it was a personal victory for Mensah.

"Some students weren't on board," she said of the RJA's crowning achievement; they didn't believe the school should be a place to express political opinions. National media attention brought backlash from beyond the local community, too.

"I wasn't really anticipating all the attention," Mensah said, "so when it did come, it kind of shocked me."

In honor of Black History Month, the student group went on to orchestrate classroom screenings of 13th, a documentary on mass incarceration. It organized a school-wide "privilege walk" during which students took steps forward according to aspects of their identity and circumstances of their upbringing.

"The work I do for the RJA is more than I do for any class right now," Mensah admitted. Still, her transcript is a mixture of As and Bs, and she's a self-identified "math geek" — both of her parents are accountants.

Mensah is anxiously waiting to hear from her top two college choices: Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. She hopes to study medicine and to become an ob-gyn focused on the reproductive health of women of color.

"Joelyn is a great student and wonderful activist," McRaith said. "She is as wise as she is brave."

At the 2017 end-of-year assembly, Mensah was given the Solon Award, which recognizes students who have "demonstrated exceptional leadership in helping to build a positive school climate." Staff and students gave her a standing ovation.

Though tenaciously dedicated, Mensah admitted that she is not a fan of public speaking. "I only do it out of necessity," she said.

The same is true of her social activism. "For me, it's not a passion," she said. "It's something I have to do because I'm faced with these problems every day."

— R.E.J.

Hannah Pandya, 18, St. Johnsbury Academy

click to enlarge AARON SHREWSBURY
  • Aaron Shrewsbury

Blending in with the crowd was not a realistic option for an openly lesbian woman of color growing up in rural Vermont. Hannah Pandya stood out last month, too, in a packed Cedar Creek Room at the Vermont Statehouse, where she urged lawmakers to take decisive action to prevent gun violence.

"The time has come over 500 times since the tragedy at Columbine," the St. Johnsbury Academy senior told the crowd of reporters, students and legislators last month. "The names of these communities are now synonymous with the senseless violence and destruction wrought by dangerous, unrestricted weapons, many of which are designed to slaughter large numbers of people in a short space of time."

Pandya got her start in activism by supporting LGBTQ efforts at school and in the Northeast Kingdom. The LGBTQ adults in that community inspired her by being "very out and proud and outspoken in an area that can be very harsh and unwelcoming," Pandya said.

One of those mentors is Elisa Lucozzi, pastor of United Community Church in St. Johnsbury, who met Pandya through a youth LGBTQ support group she facilitates. She said Pandya's drive as an activist comes from growing up as a minority lesbian in rural Vermont.

"I think because she has those pieces as part of who she is, that has made her ... have to be an activist for herself, initially," Lucozzi said, "and I think that's motivated her to be an activist for those who come behind her."

It was Lucozzi who connected 18-year-old Pandya, of East Montpelier, with the Youth Lobby, the organization that brought student advocates to the Statehouse on February 22.

"I think on the gun issue it was just that one moment of, I'm tired of watching this happen, I'm tired of feeling powerless, and here is this opportunity to do this that hasn't been presented before," Pandya said.

click to enlarge Hannah Pandya speaking at the Statehouse about gun violence - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Hannah Pandya speaking at the Statehouse about gun violence

The teen has never handled a gun, but she said attending school in the Northeast Kingdom has given her a clear sense of the cultural affinity for firearms in Vermont. She doesn't take issue with the state's gun culture, but she has problems with policies that make assault rifles easier to buy than scratch-off lottery tickets.

A former legislative page, Pandya said her more recent trip to the Statehouse made a big impression. She said she's now certain she wants to pursue a career in advocacy or nonprofit work, advancing issues that are important to her.

Although she's looking at colleges in the Boston area, Pandya plans to return to Vermont after graduation. Political gridlock, such as that in Washington, D.C., "would be a lot easier to overcome here at the local level," she said.

Meanwhile, she said she'd "continue to pass petitions around, write letters to the editor, take any opportunity that I'm given to speak to the legislators" — including at a rally scheduled for March 24 in Montpelier.


For more information about March 24's March for Our Lives, visit marchforourlives.com.

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About The Authors

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles is Seven Days' assistant arts editor and also edits What's Good, the annual city guide to Burlington. He has received numerous state, regional and national awards for his coverage of the arts, music, sports and culture. He loves dogs, dark beer and the Boston Red Sox.
Sasha Goldstein

Sasha Goldstein

Sasha Goldstein is Seven Days' deputy news editor.
Katie Jickling

Katie Jickling

Katie Jickling is a Seven Days staff writer.
Rachel Elizabeth Jones

Rachel Elizabeth Jones

Rachel was an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.
Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.
Kymelya Sari

Kymelya Sari

Kymelya Sari is a Seven Days staff writer.
Sadie Williams

Sadie Williams

Sadie Williams covered art for Seven Days from 2015 to 2018.


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