‘Demand that your voice is heard’

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At right, Alex Escaja-Hess, was one of four young panelists pictured with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman during the High School Town Hall at the Vermont PBS studio in Colchester last week. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Last week, Alex Escaja-Heiss was asked what superpower she wished she possessed – a not unusual question for a teenager. Her answer, though, illustrated what sets her apart her from many of her peers.

“The ability to stop time,” the South Burlington High School junior said. “Take a pause, take a breath, finish some homework and then continue.”

Escaja-Heiss was one of four young activists on a panel with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman at Vermont PBS’ Colchester studio last Thursday night for the one-hour live broadcast of High School Town Hall.

She was joined by recent college graduates Austin Davis, Elise Greaves and Haley Lebel-Stephen, all 20-something Vermonters active in local organizing.

Greaves, a UVM graduate and Hardwick native, is a field organizer at Rights & Democracy VT and helped pull off the Vermont Women’s March in January.

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people descended on Montpelier for the rally, effectively shutting down Interstate 89 exits and overwhelming the capital city after early projections forecast attendance at just 4,000.

Zuckerman, who spoke at the rally alongside stirring politicos like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, congratulated Greaves on her efforts. To her, that success was a testament to the power of local organizing and an obvious display of peoples’ desire to engage.

Each panelist spoke of wanting to spark that initiative in their peers, who are often chronically underrepresented in politics and notoriously unlikely to civically engage despite bearing the consequences of today’s decisions, panelists said.

That’s an oft-repeated refrain when it comes to climate change, an issue about which Davis is most passionate. The UVM grad serves as policy and communications coordinator at 350Vermont.

“We’re on the cusp of total climate catastrophe,” Davis said. “It’s systemic.”

Thanks to its size, Vermont can uniquely effect real change, Davis added, noting city-level initiatives have the greatest global impact.

“At the end of the day, mayors rule the world,” he said. “We have a central role to play in our own backyard.”

Other panelists offered their take on the state’s most pressing issues. For Greaves? To quote a former president: It’s the economy, stupid.

That hit home for her as a college sophomore, when Sanders’ clear lamentation of economic inequality resonated after the senator visited UVM.

Today, she’s passionate about a livable wage, citing Vermont’s high cost of living and how other issues take a backseat “if you’re struggling to put food on the table,” she said.

Affordability and economic promise will attract and retain more young people in Vermont, Davis added, an endeavor state legislators regularly contemplate.

Another UVM visit by then-Rep. Sanders 25 years ago lit a fire in 21-year-old Zuckerman, who went on to become the first Progressive candidate to win a statewide office in Vermont last November.

Last week, Zuckerman had a message for his young guests in the studio and beyond: “You are our future.”

If involvement is any indicator, Escaja-Heiss has taken that to heart. Passionate about LGBTQ rights, the junior is president and founder of SBHS’ Gay-Straight Alliance, a student school board representative and a youth representative at Outright Vermont.

Most inspired by personal conversations about gender and sexuality awareness and inclusivity, Escaja-Heiss was spurred to action early in her high school career when she realized South Burlington had a GSA on paper but not in reality. She changed that, and a summer at Camp Outright further galvanized her activism, particularly at school.

“A lot of students feel like their voices aren’t heard,” Escaja-Heiss said, a problem compounded when people making key decisions affecting youth don’t hear said youth’s input.

The student activist encouraged others to find their voices – a less daunting feat when empowered by a likeminded group – and use them.

Davis recounted his initial intimidation in doing just that, but called for other young people to stay the course.

“There’s no literacy test in an issue for someone to get involved,” he said. “Whatever follows the word ‘but,’ just forget it and do it.”

Greaves offered similar encouragement.

“Don’t get caught up in what you think you don’t know,” she said. “If you care about something enough to want to fight for it … you should do that, and you will learn in the process.”

Zuckerman said that sentiment holds true for citizen legislators, who come to their positions from varying walks of life.

“Your experience is your expertise,” he added.

Lebel-Stephen advised young people to “get involved in everything,” a lifelong practice her parents instilled in her as a child in Rutland County. She later studied journalism at St. Michael’s College but found her post-grad passion in mentoring. Today, she works with Mobius, Vermont’s Mentoring Partnership.

“You never know what’s going to spark joy for you,” she said.

Speaking into the camera, Zuckerman urged more young people to become civically engaged, even if only by emailing a legislator. Panelists agreed social media has expanded opportunities for education, connection and action, especially for young people in a rural state.

And lawmakers want to hear from people affected by policy, Zuckerman said – even if they’re not old enough to vote yet.

“Democracy is a team sport,” Davis added. “We need to get involved if we want action that reflects us.”