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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Girls rock Montpelier: Local Girl Scouts learn the legislative ropes

While the Girl Scouts of America may be most commonly associated with Thin Mints and Caramel deLites, young women of the Vermont branch are working to craft an impression that is a little less about cookies and a little more about public policy. “Girls Rock the Capital,” a program funded by Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, brings together Vermont’s female legislators and girl scouts from across the state. The program provides a unique opportunity for teens to work with lawmakers and have a direct influence in Montpelier.

Currently in its sixth year, “Girls Rock the Capital” has grown from humble beginnings. Initially unsure of the interest the program would generate, “Girls Rock” began with just five teens and five lawmakers, working together for two days. That number has more than tripled to what is now 16 girls per legislative session. The program takes place over a total of 12 days, spread out between January and May, when Vermont’s house and senate are in session.

The program was conceived when young women, responding to the underrepresentation of women in the legislature, repeatedly requested more active participation. Carmel Quinn, director of advocacy for Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains, began working with House Speaker Gaye Symington in 2005 to help female teens gain a stronger voice in government.

“[The concept is] to provide an opportunity for high- school girls to experience the inner workings of the legislative process,” said Quinn.

When at the capital, the girls experience a typical day in the life of a Vermont legislator and attend regular committee meetings. They are encouraged to offer their input on important issues, in keeping with the original goal to give voice to the young female population.

Quinn evaluated this process after its first run in 2005, and, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from girls and lawmakers alike, the program began its expansion. “Girls Rock” started accepting applications from teens Vermont-wide, many of whom showed an interest in the lawmaking process but knew little about how it worked.

“We are committed to making sure it is available to girls across the state,” said Quinn.

Once selected, the girls look over the legislative calendar and commit to traveling to the capital on the chosen days. The teens are legally released from school for those days.

“We have aligned the program with Vermont educational standards,” noted Quinn.

At the capital, the girls train with Quinn to learn about the statehouse culture and atmosphere. Quinn teaches the basics of proper statehouse etiquette, such as how to introduce oneself. The girls then review the itinerary for the following day, and make sure they are interested in the agenda of their legislative mentor.

On the second day, the girls shadow their assigned mentors in all committee meetings. Throughout the experience, Quinn may help them process information or frame questions, but it is the girls who interact one-on-one with lawmakers. Quinn feels that as a result of this, the girls directly benefit.

“When I was at school they wouldn’t really talk about the government much,” said Rachael Matthewson, a 15-year-old program participant and a freshman at Middlebury Union High School. “It’s interesting to see what goes on in meetings and sessions.”

For other girl scouts, the program has done more than show them how their government works.

“For me, the program has helped most with confidence and public speaking,” said Keighty Tallman, a 16-year-old sophomore at Essex High School who has been a girl scout for ten years. “My new confidence has come from being recognized as a mature teenager by important adults such as our reps and senators,” she continued. “Our female mentors sit down and take the time to talk to us and ask us our opinions on important issues.  I have discussed bills, such as the one that legalized gay marriage, with state representatives.”

The lawmakers have also deemed this a positive experience.

“The legislators look to the girls as a source of information,” said Quinn. “The girls are a pulse of what’s happening. Their job is really to be a myth buster.”

As a result of the girls’ involvement, the legislature, according to Quinn, has been more aware.

“It has really stepped it up,” said Quinn. “Accountability has intensified because the future is ever-present for them.”
The success of “Girls Rock” is also being recognized on a larger scale. The group was invited by the Committee on the Status of Women to the United Nations, where they traveled as girl representatives. The Office on Women and Girls, created by the Obama administration in January 2009, also invited the girls to the White House in December to report on their assessment of the Beijing Accord, which evaluates the status of women in 12 critical areas every five years.
“While in D.C., I was able to sit down and talk about issues for females and Vermonters with Rep. Welch and Sen. Sanders,” said Tallman.

Both Matthewson and Tallman admit that they would like to continue with the program, but that it is becoming increasingly difficult to miss school.

“The reason that keeps me coming is the great leadership opportunities,” said Tallman.

For Quinn, who is currently organizing the expansion of the program into New Hampshire, the benefits of “Girls Rock” are similarly unmistakable.

“Kids know how to contribute and they want to contribute,” she said.