VP Harris, inaugural poet Gorman inspire in the Upper Valley

  • Grace McKinnon, 9, and her mother Whitney Carroll McKinnon, of Bradford, Vt., at their home on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Together, they watched highlights of the inauguration on Wednesday after Grace got home from school and were particularly moved watching Vice President Kamala Harris take the oath of office. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Youth filmmaker Ezra McGinley-Smith at his home in Norwich, Vt., on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. McGinley-Smith was inspired by inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and hopes her success will encourage adults to include more young people in important events. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

  • Vice President Kamala Harris bumps fists with President-elect Joe Biden after she was sworn in during the inauguration, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool Photo via AP)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2021 10:25:37 PM
Modified: 1/25/2021 9:11:10 AM

When inaugural poet Amanda Gorman read The Hill We Climb at the swearing-in of President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first Black, Asian-American and female vice president, she became an instant sensation. Gorman’s message about race, hope and the state of the country, delivered alongside Harris rising to a position previously held only by white men, marked a historic ceremony that resonated across the U.S. and especially in the minds of young creators, poets and students in the Upper Valley.

While Gorman’s verse drew near-universal praise, her age — at 22, the youngest known inaugural poet in history — also served as an inspiration.

“It’s super-, super-exciting to see someone that age up there because a lot of times when you see these great writers and poets and they’re so much older than you are,” said Lily Krause, a 17-year-old living in North Haverhill whose politically themed poem Time Played a Trick on My Good Friend William was recently published by the Young Writers Project. “It drives me a little bit to keep creating and doing what I love.”

Ezra McGinley-Smith, a 13-year-old filmmaker in Norwich, said he hopes Gorman’s powerful reading and the impact it had on people of all ages will give young people more opportunities at events that might’ve been reserved for older folks.

“I think that the government people are going to realize how much impact that had on people,” he said. “They probably learned from that that they should probably bring on more youth speakers.”

Gorman’s performance also reinforced two different yet interlocking principles: Representation matters and young people have the power to change the world, or at the very least the national conversation.

“For young Black people and young Black girls in particular, it must be profound,” said Trica Keaton, an associate professor and interdisciplinary social scientist of Critical Race and Afro/Black French Studies at Dartmouth College.

Keaton cited the lines of Gorman’s poem that read: “Where a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves and raised by a single mother / can dream of becoming president / only to find herself reciting for one” as being particularly moving.

“That this person can also dream of becoming president, but also knowing when hearing these words and seeing her up there, it’s also about dreams and how dreams come true,” Keaton said of seeing Gorman on the same stage as the new vice president.

As an educator, she said students have told her it matters to them to see instructors who look like them because it shows them it’s possible for them to reach those positions. That same principle holds true for Harris’ achievement on Wednesday.

“What we see through Kamala Harris is the realization that our nation and those who are in those positions must reflect our nation. And she is the reflection of our nation and also of our future,” she said.

Young people have been involved in social justice movements throughout the country’s history and have played a role in leading the charge for change, like when they bravely sat at lunch counters in the deep south during the Civil Rights Movement.

“These were young people too who inspired the next generation,” Keaton said. “Youth, particularly Black youth ... have shown us over and over again that, where we may be blind or focusing in another director, they see.”

Part of that next generation has been the youth leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — the last speech the civil rights icon gave before he was assassinated — he spoke about going to the mountaintop and seeing the promised land.

“In so many ways, we see through Amanda and young people in general, that the mountaintop is visible in ways that it has never been before, and we can thank these young people largely for clearing the clouds and making the visibility apparent,” Keaton said.

Sophie Whittemore, 22, graduated from Dartmouth last spring and is currently working with filmmaker Nora Jacobson, as well as on projects with White River Indie Films.

Whittemore, who uses they/them pronouns, watched the inauguration with their mother in “complete silence and awe.” In addition to the important messages from Gorman about social justice and change, another important lesson “is that everyone has the ability to create and everybody should be encouraged to express themselves and their worldview.”

Whittemore was equally inspired by Vice President Harris.

“I think it is crucial to see that the children of immigrants can contribute to this country,” they said, adding that they are a child of an Indonesian immigrant mother.

Nine-year-old Grace McKinnon watched highlights from the inauguration with her mother, Whitney Carroll McKinnon, after coming home from Bradford Elementary School.

“It was really cool,” Grace said, because Harris is the first woman vice president. “It made me determined I could do anything I can set my mind to even if a boy tells me I can’t.”

Grace has had a growing interest in politics and gave a speech a couple years ago at a youth rally in Montpelier.

“Grace is a very determined little girl, and it’s so cool to watch her be inspired,” said Carroll McKinnon, who said she cried while watching the ceremony with her daughter. “We talk a lot about things she can do if she puts her mind to and it’s powerful to see it in action. It goes beyond words.”

Watching Harris become vice president made Sage McGinley-Smith (older sister of Ezra) reflect on how much can change can occur in such a short period of time, while still being aware that continued action is needed.

“I was born into a very different world than kids even a few years older than me,” McGinley-Smith, a senior at Hanover High School, said. “I think it’s amazing that people who are born today will never live in a world where a woman was never in that office. It just shows that change does happen, even if it happens slowly.”

In her poem, Gorman acknowledged that there is still work to be done and it’s up everyone to pick up the unfinished work of the country to move it forward. She speaks to that point in the closing lines: — For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it / If only we’re brave enough to be it.

“Every time we see someone who breaks a barrier, breaks that glass ceiling, it makes it all the more easy for the next person to rise, to rise above,” Keaton said. “Now there may be shards in that glass as they’re rising, but that wouldn’t inhibit them. That’s the stuff of resilience, the stuff of empowerment, the stuff of knowing dreams come true.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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