(Creating) The Amazing Race

There are lots of important and drama-filled campaigns underway in NYC, from those of Borough Presidents to District Attorneys. Our mayoral primary race was like watching those contests on the screen at baseball games – one clear front-runner at the beginning, confusion and jockeying for the lead in the middle, and then a surprise breakaway at the end. The front-runner of the season, Bill de Blasio, didn’t officially cross the finish line until after yesterday’s general election, but with an over 40-point lead in the polls, it was really just a waiting game.

The only thing missing from the campaign/baseball metaphor is the crowd of screaming, cheering spectators.

The media have bemoaned the lack of excitement for this season’s local political races time and again. That’s why last week I was surprised to find myself in the far reaches of Manhattan, sitting amongst a passionate and enthusiastic audience whose participants were eagerly waiting to hear about – and participate in – one such local campaign.

The group, largely members of Community Board 12 in Washington Heights, had turned out to support a quiet initiative to open community board membership to 16- and 17-year olds. There are 59 community boards across NYC, composed of 50 members each and charged with advising city officials on zoning issues and other neighborhood concerns.  Board membership is currently limited to constituents 18 and older, though outgoing Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was appointed to his community board at the age of 16, and apparently his wasn’t the first illicit appointment.

Stringer’s presumed successor at the Borough President’s office, Gale Brewer, delivered the keynote address at this community forum and has been a fellow face of the campaign since legislation to amend the New York Public Officers Law, which dictates eligibility requirements for board membership, was first introduced in 2008. Assemblywoman Nily Rozic and State Senator Adam Lanza sponsored the bills to amend the law in the last legislative session, but, as they have for years, each effort garnered support but ultimately failed to muster the required votes. Grassroots leaders of the campaign have now set their sights on persuading the City Council and community boards themselves to pass resolutions in favor of the amendment, to be presented to state officials as evidence of homegrown support.

And so I found myself at the “Teens on Board” campaign’s Manhattan Borough Forum on 191st Street one late cold night in October. The meeting was intended to build support for the initiative. The eloquent Community Board Chair and Board’s Youth and Education Chair introduced the evening and campaign. Al Kurland, (the maestro of the entire movement) and Gale Brewer provided details and historical context. And then a panel was assembled to enunciate different perspectives in support of the campaign. The audience politely listened to me, a parent representative, and the director of a Police Athletic League site make our arguments.

But then the young people spoke. And people really paid attention.

Sean Abreu is a local student who graduated from the neighborhood high school and now studies at Columbia University and has served as a public non-voting member of the board for several years. Pablo Vasquez is the Public Relations Officer for the Washington Heights/Inwood Youth Council.

And there they sat at the public forum, articulating their beliefs in the power of young people and demonstrating through their presence the commitment that many young people have to thoughtfully participating in and improving their communities.

The audience couldn’t get enough of them. Wanted to clone them and send them directly into schools to serve as role models for their peers.

And I believe that they were on to something. Imagine if every community in the city had its own supply of ready-made civic role models, similarly ambitious and capable students who were invested in improving their communities. But instead of begging people to come to night meetings to learn from them, they were currently enrolled high school students who, over the course of a natural school day, had countless opportunities to share their experiences with their peers. They could poll their classmates about relevant issues, inform them about local resources, and mobilize teen support for important community initiatives. Yes, the adults could do that – but do they have easy access to young people? Or their attention? Or a commitment to representing these often overlooked constituents? For the most part, no. And that Thursday’s audience knew that these young people held the power.

Patterns of civic participation are set early in life. Allowing 16- and 17-year olds to represent their communities, specifically their peer groups, on NYC community boards would strengthen the civic commitment of the young board members and of those around them while strengthening communities by bringing a diverse perspective to the boards charged with assessing and addressing their entire community’s needs.

Generation Citizen is just starting to think beyond the classroom walls about what political and structural barriers are preventing young people from being civically engaged. Reach out to your local Site Director if you’re interested in learning about what’s going on in your community. In NYC, consider lobbying your local community board to pass a resolution in favor of amending the Public Officers Law.

If we start educating and engaging and listening to our young people now, odds are good we’ll have a much more interested and informed electorate in generations to come. And then the campaign trail might look a little more like that forum on 191st Street – full of energy for and optimism about what the future holds.

– Sarah Andes, NYC Site Director

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.