NEWS: Sanders Holds Roundtable Discussion with Student Finalists of State of the Union Essay Contest

BURLINGTON, Vt., March 28 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a roundtable discussion at the Vermont State House on Saturday afternoon with the student finalists of his twelfth annual State of the Union essay contest. The contest gives Vermont high school students an opportunity to write about a major issue facing the country and propose what they would do to solve it.

Find photos of the event here.

“The reason we do this contest,” said Sanders in his opening remarks. “Is that we live in a democratic society. Which means, unlike an autocracy, all people have the right to express their views and help shape the direction in which the country goes. And by all people – it doesn’t mean you have to be 18 or older – it means all people, including young people. It’s especially important, as I think this moment calls for, for young people to be involved because so many of the important issues facing our country and the world are going to impact the younger generation even more.”

This year, 409 students from 38 Vermont high schools submitted essays. A panel of six Vermont teachers served as volunteer judges, scoring the essays and selecting seven finalists and three winners. Students wrote on important issues, including voting rights, hunger, reproductive rights, the opioid crisis, racial justice, climate change, and more.

After Sanders’ introductory remarks, each finalist presented their essay topic and proposed possible solutions to the issues they identified. Sanders then opened the discussion portion of the event. The students spoke about a broad range of issues, including the state of American democracy, tax fairness, universal health care, the cost of prescription drugs, campaign finance reform, income inequality, and access to mental health care.

A significant part of the discussion focused on attacks on our democratic institutions. Sasha Lann, the first place winner and a sophomore at Brattleboro Union High School, said, “It should be easier to vote than it is. It is the most important process in our country. There needs to be legislation to ensure voting rights and make voting accessible.” Sanders and the students spoke about different forms of voter suppression, the disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals, the role of money in politics, and efforts to institute publicly financed campaigns.

When discussing the hunger crisis in America and a universal school meal policy, Samuel Leggett, the third-place winner and a junior at Woodstock Union High School, said, “Food insecurity across the country, and here in Vermont, was worsened by the pandemic. No family wants to experience situations that prevent them from providing nutritious food to their kids. The only way to achieve equity and ensure students receive the meals they need is to spread the financial burden.” During this discussion, Sanders posed a question to the students, asking them, “Is eliminating hunger a social issue?” Finalist Jocelyn Dunn, a junior from Essex High School, responded, “Yes. The children of our country are the future of our country.”

Throughout the conversation, Sanders and the finalists considered the impacts of the pandemic and the fact that many Americans continue to struggle. When speaking about what it means for individuals and families to live paycheck to paycheck, finalist Isabelle Tupper, a sophomore from Brattleboro Union High School, said, “You don’t have spare money. You don’t have enough to pay your bills – your electric bill, your gas bill. You don’t have as much privilege as others to spend your money on what you want.” Eva Frazier, the second-place winner and a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School, said, “The pandemic only highlighted our country’s inequities. We’ve seen it in every part of our society – health care, education, incarceration. It’s low-income people that are the most impacted.”

Sanders ended the event by encouraging the students to be hopeful and to continue thinking about the solutions to the major issues we face, saying: “Thank you all for being here. We’ve gone over some of the very serious problems facing our country and the world. But there are solutions to these problems. I don’t want you to leave here feeling like there are no solutions – there are. As a country, we’ve gone through difficult times. This is just another tough time. I think if we’re smart, we can pull through this thing. But to do it, I think we’re going to need the help of your generation, big time.”

Sanders entered the finalists’ essays into the Congressional record – the official archive of the U.S. Congress – and presented each student with a framed copy at Saturday’s event. Since Sanders started the contest, over 5,300 students across Vermont have written essays.

To read the essays of the finalists and winners, click here.