“Some call me a troublemaker.”

Liz Beatty-Owens

Kayla Friedrich

Liz Beatty-Owens

Liz Beatty-Owens, a Johnson State College senior majoring in the interdisciplinary study of political-science, photojournalism, and sociology was raised in Calais with a politically active family. Some of her fondest childhood memories involve the “holiday” Labor Day, where she spent the day marching with her father, a member of the Vermont chapter of the National Educational Association, in the North End of Burlington.

Carrying on the family tradition of activism, Beatty-Owens speaks on behalf of debt-ridden students at the Statehouse and, sometimes, Vermont State Colleges board of trustees meetings, and is heavily involved with the Vermont Student Union as well as the Vermont Worker’s Center.

What made you create your own interdisciplinary degree?

I started off as a music major, then a wellness and alternative medicine major, then a political science major, and I was thinking sociology but I realized I kept switching my majors because no one area of study really fit for the way I learned. Between my sociology, business, political-science and photography classes I was taking one topic and applying it to all areas of study; this engaged me far more than I’d ever been engaged in high school.

I took time off from school and during that time I was offered a job with Bernie Sanders for his election campaign in 2012 as a paid intern. A month in I was promoted to a full-time organizer for the campaign, an opportunity of a lifetime, and I learned way more than I could in school. It was 80 hours a week and I was constantly being tossed information and parts of our training were really intense.

Before that, I had never thought about political community organizing as a career path, but I realized I loved knocking on people’s doors. I must have hit thousands of doors working for Bernie, and I’m doing that again working with the Vermont Worker’s Center.

I like talking to people about their struggles and helping them realize they actually have the power to change what’s happening politically. I want to bring this country back to grassroots organizing because right now it’s so controlled by corporations and media. I want to give the people the power.

What is a grassroots movement?

Currently we have got big-money in the political scene where they buy ads on television and do big political rallies, buying campaigns and politicians… We see corporations allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to politicians and a lot of politicians don’t disclose who they get money from, or at least not openly.

Grassroots organizing is building a movement of people rather than paying for a movement. Canvassing, door-knocking, tabling; building your power with the amount of people rather than amount of money.

In the last three years I feel like the grassroots-organizing has exploded. Not only in Vermont, but the Keystone-XL dissent group that just rallied in Washington D.C. that pulled thousands of college students in. That was real grassroots organizing.

It’s interesting because social media is coming into play with grassroots organizing – this is part of the reason I am doing the photojournalism aspect [in my degree program]. It’s not just showing up to a rally with signs anymore, people are too busy, but that they can be activists online. Figuring how to include those people is huge – just reposting something on Facebook can make a bigger difference than you think because it’s seen.

Can one citizen change anything?

Visualize a teeter-totter. On one side you’ve got the big-wig politicians, the media, and the corporations: the decision makers. Here’s you on the other side of the teeter-totter, writing a letter to a senator. Standing alone and doing one action alone, is like you jumping on one side of the teeter-totter and trying to move the other side. You jump, jump, and jump and nothing ever happens.

What if you go out and knock on your neighbors’ doors and go to local town offices and you all get together to jump on the other end of the teeter-totter? It starts to move, so you get more people, and they join you. Finally there can be so many people when you all jump on that teeter-totter, it flips and the people are being heard and creating the decisions.

Standing alone will not create change, but by building a movement with a unified voice – that’s when we create change.

There are people who consider you as brave. You spoke in front of the board of trustees of Vermont State Colleges, telling it exactly what you thought, and it’s been said you caused a reaction.

I would phrase it as I was asked to meet with Dave Bergh and I requested to chat with Barbara Murphy – it definitely had a ripple effect and I know that some of my comments were probably a bit disturbing for administrators. So I was reached out to by both of them, separately.

I’ve had a really great conversation with Dave Bergh, and I am scheduling a meeting with Barbara Murphy to further explain my thoughts. At the board of trustees meeting, needless to say, I was rather upset and there were certain points I would like to go into more detail on.

My point at the board of the trustees meeting was I don’t necessarily think the board should be voting to increase tuition, like they have every year- it’s happened for 20 years straight, when really they should be finding funding for the Vermont State Colleges, they should be lobbying at the Statehouse, or calling our representatives.

They were completely out of touch with the student population and it was disturbing for me to hear the way they spoke about students. That was part of my passion and my shaking while … I felt like I had to say something.

For an example, the Vermont Student Union and the American Federation of Teachers … testified at the Vermont Statehouse to the House Education Committee [recently]. Not one administrator or board member was present: No one to represent the chancellor. They knew about it, I told them at the board of trustees meeting. We had 10-15 students, staff and faculty members, parents, and supporting politicians, but no administrators or board members. That says a lot to me… that’s what I have a problem with.

Can getting students involved change anything?

Yeah, and I feel like it has… if you look throughout history, student activism has been huge. Look back to the 60s and 70s when students really pulled through for the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and activism around the Vietnam War. Look at the 90s when the Student Labor Action project really sprang up and activism flared around unfair labor laws in this country and across the world. Student action goes up and down, but it really does do a lot.

[Students’] ideas are valid, and it’s tricky because students get beaten down really easily – I see it happen all the time by having the impression their ideas aren’t valid because of a bad interaction with a politician or a teacher or a school official of some sort. Sometimes I feel like that’s a tactic, to keep students in their place

Do you ever worry with your activism you are compromising yourself as a student?

Definitely – I’m outspoken… there have been times where I’ve wondered if my grades reflect a disagreement with my professor more than my capabilities.

I love this school, I love this community; I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. It’s not just Johnson State College who is not supporting students as well as they could, it’s a national crisis and I just happen to be here and identifying it.

I do think about my interactions with, predominantly, administrators because I actually have a lot of allies who are staff and faculty members because I work closely with the unions.

I feel I get labeled as a trouble-maker on this campus … I think about it all the time, but it’s not worth it for me to stop doing what I’m doing… Sometimes I think of it as a badge of honor.

Do you look at them as the enemy?

No, and that’s the thing. I try to make this point a lot. I know sometimes what I’m saying comes across that way but really my ultimate goal is to create an institution where we’re all on the same level and treated equally, including administration, the chancellor’s office, and board of trustees.

I don’t want students running the school, I don’t think that’s effective for our education, but I do think students need more say on campus. I’m clear when I speak with administrators that my goal is not to demonize them but I am going to call it how I see it. If no one brings it to their attention, nothing will ever change and we can find a solution to work for everybody.

I don’t mean to sound cruel, but why do you guys think you’re so special? Back in the 80s it was the starving, overworked student and that was that.

You sound like some politicians I know!

It’s different because the debt ratio to the cost of living as well as the average income for Americans is so drastically different. You talk to people who graduated from JSC back in the 70s and they had $5,000-$6,000 worth of debt, maybe. I understand costs have changed since then, but when you are talking to students who are now over $100,000 in debt when graduating from JSC, that’s not right.

It’s not that we’re so special; it’s that we want to include more students and more people in higher education and make it more accessible to anyone who wants the opportunity to go to college. By decreasing state funding and increasing tuition rates, it’s becoming more elitist.

What has been your most gratifying moment?

When I was working for Bernie Sanders and he personally asked me to speak about the student-debt crisis at several of his events and being taken seriously by a U.S. senator really gave me the nerve to be the person I am today.

What is the worst moment you’ve experienced?

I’ve had plenty of doors slammed in my face and I’ve had people follow me down the street, yelling at me after I tried to talk to them. I’ve had a couple of “scary” situation at doors – but compared to the number of positive interactions, it hasn’t been bad.

I have a hard time of looking at them as negative, though, because I’ve learned from them.