Last year, H.293 was passed to create a Vermont State Youth Council “composed of a diverse group of Vermont youth from each state county who are responsible for advising the Governor and General Assembly on issues affecting young persons including education, equity and anti-racism, climate change, and mental health.” Vermont students from grades 5-12 were invited to apply and 28 were selected out of 200 applicants, including Harwood Union Middle School eighth grader Harmony Devoe, Warren.
The group began meeting in January 2023. Though most of the twice-monthly meetings are held on Zoom, as students come from all over the state, they did get to meet in person once in Montpelier. David Englander, senior policy and legal advisor at the Vermont Department of Health, gave the students a presentation via Zoom on the Vermont legislative process and writing and passing a bill.
The students have now split into subcommittees to tackle some of the issues most important to them. Devoe, the Harwood Unified Union School District’s sole representative, is on the equity and anti-racism committee. There are also committees focused on climate action, education, youth mental health and leadership.
Asked why she wanted to be a part of the equity and anti-racism committee, Devoe said, “I joined the youth council because as a mixed-race female, I wanted my voice and opinion to be shared and to make a good difference. We're trying to educate people, especially on different cultures and communities, and to help us have improved mental health and to help drug abuse, the opioid crisis in Vermont, and vaping in schools.
“I like seeing that there are other youths like me who do care about things and the future because sometimes I feel like people, especially youth, don't really care and I feel kind of singled out. But when we all come together, it makes me hopeful and inspired.”
Asked about the kinds of goals she hopes to achieve, she said, “There is a very small amount of BIPOC-owned farms in Vermont. We could try giving money to the few that there are, especially because most of them are women or queer-owned, which is even more important. And a lot of them educate youth on how to grow their own food and steward land, which I think is important. I also think we should have more lessons in schools about cultures that may be different from yours so that people don't grow up only seeing white people and then when they see a person of color, it's like a shock.”
Regarding some of the issues the committee has discussed so far, Devoe said, “One person said that every kid that she knows is either struggling with depression, anxiety or an eating disorder, which also every kid I know is also struggling with one of those, which I think is a really important problem we have to address. And then another kid, who is African-American, was talking about how he feels unsafe with the police in Vermont, because there's a much higher incarceration rate. And a girl with dyslexia, who wants to have more open conversations and places for people to go to talk and to learn.
“We are representatives for all the youth so I've been telling the youth at my school if they have any ideas, they should bring it to me and I can try to make their ideas happen. I've been taught that, if you really set your mind to it and you're really determined and diligent about something, you can basically get anything done, especially if you're really passionate about it.”