Social Justice Symposium provides education and community for emerging activists


One of many informative tables set up in the A building hallway during the Symposium held a variety of social justice themed pins.

Jenna Peterson

Co-written by Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson

On April 14th, 2018, Burlington High School (BHS) hosted the Social Justice Symposium for the second year in a row. The event was put on by the Peace and Justice Center, a Burlington based social justice organization, and Dr. Laura Clemmons.

Three student performers kicked off the symposium, including BHS seniors Ella Staats and Rivan Calderin.

Ella Staats Symposium Performance

Rivan Calderin Symposium Performance

With over 40 sessions to choose from, the attendees were able to select four presentations, community conversations, or panels. 23 organizations tabled in the BHS hallways to provide additional information.

“I feel like it was a really successful event, this was my first year attending, and I learned so much,” Balkisa Omar, a senior at BHS, said.

Staats and Binti Malawia, a BHS sophomore, agreed that the presenters, such as the Human Trafficking Activism Awareness Club, had provided them with new insight. That session was led by three University of Vermont (UVM) students.

“It was interesting because they actually told us about human trafficking instead of just talking about an organization,” Staats said. “The founders of the club actually discovered a massage parlor in [Burlington] that was involved in human trafficking, which is really wild.”

Malawia saw an opportunity to make connections across activist groups.

“I’m hoping to do a collaboration with them since we do the Social Justice Union and human trafficking is an injustice,” Malawia said. “I learned how I contribute to human trafficking […], the people that are vulnerable to it, ways to help prevent it, ways to see it, and what to do if I do suspect human trafficking is going on. […] I’m hoping to raise awareness around that and to educate my peers.”

Omar says she also learned a lot from the high school and middle school panels. She was intrigued by the different ways the older and younger students handled their frustration.

“A lot of them [middle schoolers] had a lot of built up anger. They were like “ah this person’s really ignorant in my class. We don’t know how to deal with that yet”, Omar said. “They were talking about these same things but it was really different and I was just like, wow, self care is so important.”

She says students should be taught these skills from an early age.

”This just made me realize how we need to do a lot of work in middle schools,” Omar said. “These kids, they’re so interested but they’re gonna face a lot of hardship and a lot of pushback and backlash and that’s not something we necessarily teach.”

Students from other high schools in the area, such as Thabitha Moruthane, a student at South Burlington High School, and Dina John, a senior at Rice Memorial High School, came to BHS specifically for this event. Both students went to a session called “From Rebels to Wolves” about the controversy surrounding the South Burlington High School Mascot name change.

“I liked how we got to have a conversation within it as well. It wasn’t just a lecture. We also got to talk to each other and talk about what we’re doing within our schools, and also different aspects of life within our schools,” Moruthane said.

John is eager to take the information she learned in this session and apply it in her own community.

“I’m going to continue to educate myself on matters that involve racism and racial oppression as well educate my own high school,” John said.

Sarah Senanayake and Annie McAneny, both UVM students, attended sessions run by Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington and Let’s Grow Kids.  

“I’m really interested in racial justice and I’ve been getting involved with it on UVM’s campus, so I’m trying to reach out more into the community,” Senanayake said.

McAneny heard about the event through her volunteerism at the Peace and Justice Center, and was intrigued.

“I knew that they were having the event and it just seemed like so many cool organizations were going to be here and I just wanted to see what they had to say about different issues going on and what we can do here more locally,” said McAneny.

Also among the attendees was Georgia Cumming, now retired, and likes to use her spare time to do volunteer work.

“I like the Symposium because I can look at different volunteer opportunities within this area of Vermont and learn what different organizations have done and are doing so I can then say ‘this is where I want to put my energy,” said Cumming.

Pat McKittrick is a nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center who enjoys community outreach. She took away a hopeful sense of teamwork.

“I learned that there’s a lot of people interested in working together to build strong communities. I think we need to bring our voices together and work more collaboratively,” said McKittrick.

The students attending the Social Justice Symposium used the event as an opportunity to do just that.

19 students attended Generation for Social Change, their last session of the day. The students made sure it was a youth only conversation.

“I think it [Generation for Social Change] was very powerful because a lot of the times adults think when we’re all in a room together we’re just fooling off, but it had a huge impact on me,” Omar said.

The students exchanged contact information and are currently still in communication.

“Just seeing the power in numbers in that room, and everybody working towards one mission, and being able to bounce ideas off of each other and being like ‘I got you, I’ll be there to support you for that event’, it was just really nice,” Omar said.