The Columbia Journalist Teens of New York: Community Boards Want You by Christine Chung
Austin Ochoa was dressed smartly in a suit and tie, nothing out of the ordinary for him. It’s the uniform he wears monthly to Community Board 4 meetings in Manhattan, where at 20 years old he’s the youngest member. But this past Sunday he had a much larger audience. Ochoa took to the podium, a little nervous but measured, to introduce Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at her 2015 State of the Borough address.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Ochoa. “I haven’t spoken in front of a big crowd like that ever in my life. Hopefully, it’s the first of many.”
In an interview Wednesday, Ochoa, a sophomore at City College, talked about representing Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen and the importance of young people getting involved in local government. He’s just one example of youth volunteers eager to be included in the community conversation. Soon there likely will be more. As of last August, 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible to apply to be members of the 59 community boards across New York City. In Manhattan alone, some 30 teens have applied for open seats, according to Brewer.
“As a former Community Board member, I know Community Board service is a serious commitment,” said Brewer in an email. “Through a long career in public service I’ve met so many young people who are absolutely up to the task of Community Board service. The teens serving on our boards are doing outstanding work already.”
In Manhattan, Brewer has been spreading the word to local teenagers. Just last month, she held an informational meeting at her downtown headquarters. The guests of honor were New Yorkers hailing from the five boroughs, most in their teens. Among this youthful group was Leila Eliot, a 16-year-old who currently holds the title of Manhattan’s youngest community board member. Eliot, a student at Bard High School Early College, is a new member of CB 3, which represents the Lower East Side and part of Chinatown.
“There is a big lapse in my community,” Eliot said in a recent interview with The Villager news site. “There are teenagers who don’t get to say what they feel, say what they think, have a voice in their local community.”
Eliot and Ochoa both represent the youth voice. Ochoa has been a member of CB4 for nearly two years. He still remembers submitting his application a few hours before the deadline, skipping all of his classes to fill it out and fine-tune his resume.
While he felt empowered and excited by his acceptance, he admits he felt like an outsider at first. “It took some time,” said Ochoa. “People weren’t sure what my motives were. I have a lot of respect for everyone on the board. They’ve definitely embraced me.”
Despite the growing pains, Ochoa said being a part of CB 4 is worth it. It’s a way for him to bond and give back to the neighborhood he moved to nearly three years ago — a kid from California coming to the big city for college. Even with his heavy school workload, he finds time to serve on two committees and attend lengthy board meetings.
“It’s more of a 365-day-a-year commitment,” said Ochoa. “There are some pretty late nights.”
In his speech on Sunday, Ochoa said that while he’s honored to be CB 4’s youngest member, he doesn’t expect he will be for long. Winning applicants for open Manhattan positions, including CB 4, are expected to be announced in April.
Each borough has its own selection process. In Brooklyn, which is still accepting applications for its 18 community boards, Borough President Eric Adams has been vocal about his support for teenage applicants. “Teenagers play a vitally important role in our communities,” he said in a recent press release. “It’s time they sit on these boards as well.”
In August, Governor Cuomo signed legislation lowering the minimum age from 18 to 16 years old and alloting up to two seats on each community board for 16 and 17-year olds. The legislation, originally introduced in 2008 by Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan), had many backers, including City Council member Ben Kallos of Manhattan and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Queens).
Rozic has plenty of experience being the youngest person in the room. With her 2012 election to the State Assembly, she became the youngest woman in the state legislature. As a member of her local community board in Queens for years, Rozic said she understands firsthand the importance of engaging in civic discourse from an early age. She disagrees with critics of the age limit who argue that young people lack the maturity and time to commit to the work demands of a community board.
“Lowering the age to 16 allows us to empower youth and give them the chance to offer their perspective on a variety of issues in their communities,” Rozic said in an email. “It’s important that we involve them in the process as soon as possible. This way, they have experience both in and outside of the classroom that prepares them for a lifetime of civic participation.”
Kallos also believes young people bring a unique perspective to the discussion in local government, said spokesperson Sarah Anders. “Community boards are really the most local form of government,” said Anders. Kallos “believes that young people should have just as much of an opportunity to get involved.”
Ochoa and Eliot join a legacy of civic-minded individuals, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who received a special appointment to join Inwood and Washington Heights’ CB 12 when he was 16. In an August press release, Stringer credited that early community board experience as formative to his work in public service.
Ochoa wouldn’t mind the opportunity to follow Stringer’s path and run for office someday. He sees himself in New York for the long haul. “Why not try now, especially if I have these aspirations of going into political office?” he asked. Being an elected official, he said, would be a dream come true.