Evan Vogelbaum

Year of Graduation: 
Headshot of Evan Vogelbaum

"I could have gone in there with guns blazing, but that's not the Harkness way. You have to take into consideration everyone's viewpoints."

Engaged Citizen: Addressing the Ohio State Legislators

It's not every day that high school students find the opportunity or the gumption to address a fractious crowd of state legislators and their divided constituents, but Evan Vogelbaum ’19 did, when he stood up to testify against Ohio’s HB554 over Thanksgiving break last year.

The bill, designed to renew a freeze on state-wide renewable energy standards, attracted nearly 60 environmentally minded opponents who were eager to testify in front of Ohio’s General Assembly that day. Supporters of the bill, concerned about how regulations would affect the coal industry, were present as well. The atmosphere was emotionally charged, and as the hearings dragged on, according to Vogelbaum, the lawmakers grew testy. “They were asking kind of ‘gotcha’ questions with some of the other people that testified,” he recalls. But the young activist, who had practiced his speech ahead of time, managed to elicit laughter from the lawmakers while inviting them to consider things from a different angle.

To prepare for his testimony, Vogelbaum drew on his Exeter experience, taking pains to ensure his remarks would reflect an awareness and understanding of the other side’s concerns. “I could have gone in there with guns blazing, but that’s not that the Harkness way,” he says. “You have to take into consideration everyone’s viewpoints.” Vogelbaum started his remarks by talking about the work he’d done in a solar energy lab at Case Western University the previous summer. “I wanted to highlight the innovative, Ohio-based technology that could be used to build businesses if the state were to invest in clean energy,” he explains.

Ahead of the event, he had asked for some language coaching from his friend, Justin Psaris ’19, who hails from Hong Kong. When, midway through his testimony, Vogelbaum began to address the crowd in Chinese, it caught the attention of his listeners. Switching back to English, he told them: “You may be wondering why I just chose to speak to you in Chinese. That’s because China is the world’s leader in investing in renewable energy, spending 36 percent of the world’s total investment last year.”

Pausing to let the statistic sink in for a moment, he gestured toward his parents and quipped, “I don’t want to have to move to China to be on the forefront of this industry. My mother would really miss me. So please, for me, for my generation, and for the Ohioans who will benefit from investment in renewable energy, please stop this bill.” The mention of his mother drew a laugh from the lawmakers. It was a welcome moment of levity during an afternoon of heated exchanges, and the story got picked up by the local media.

Despite his best efforts, HB554 passed through Ohio’s House and Senate sessions, although Gov. John Kasich later vetoed it. Regardless of the outcome, Vogelbaum says, it was a lesson in civics — and the importance of having a sense of empathy and humor. His broader mission was to let the lawmakers know there are young people in their state who are interested and aware. “They’re worried about a particular set of workers, but there’s a whole state out there,” he says, “and the fact of the matter is, there’s an entirely new generation coming up that will be affected by their decisions.”

Vogelbaum hopes more of his peers will look for ways to reach out to their state and national lawmakers about issues that matter. “It might not change their minds, but at least it will put it in their minds,” he says.

—Genny Beckman Moriarty

Editor's note: This profile first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.