New York Times Age 16, and Not Too Young to Join the Community Board by Vivian Yee
New York Times
Age 16, and Not Too Young to Join the Community Board
Being a teenager in New York has always conferred unrivaled access to adult privileges. No cars are needed to get around town. Over-21 beverages are easily found.
Now comes another perk for the precocious: a role in city government — if only the lowest rung.
This is the first year that 16- and 17-year-olds can join the city’s community boards, the local advisory groups where the civic-minded, the concerned and the community’s grumblers do battle against encroaching developers, vet liquor license applicants and air block-by-block grievances. Nineteen of them were appointed as unpaid members after the State Legislature lowered the age minimum from 18 last year, an unusual privilege even in a country taking small steps toward expanding youthful civic engagement.
In Maryland, Hyattsville and Takoma Park became the country’s first municipalities to lower the voting age for local elections to 16, from 18, and similar measures are generating interest in Chicago; Lowell, Mass.; New Mexico; and San Francisco. Several cities, including San Francisco and Santa Clara, Calif., have also established youth commissions or teenage councils that act as advisory groups to elected officials.
But New York appears to be unique in the combination of youth participation and community board structure, which allows the citizenry to play a formal, if advisory, role in zoning and land-use issues, budgeting and the delivery of city services. Residents can join the City Council’s participatory budgeting process as young as 14.
“This sets them up for a life of civic participation,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, an Upper East Side Democrat who sponsored a resolution urging the Legislature to adopt the measure. He noted that about one in five New Yorkers is under 18.
Borough presidents appointed five 16- and 17-year-olds in the Bronx, six in Manhattan and eight in Brooklyn, relying on an application, an interview process and council members’ recommendations. None were appointed on Staten Island or in Queens. Most of the newly appointed teenagers were attending the first meetings of their two-year terms this month.
Some have grown up in the trenches of local politics. Others were learning.
“I did not even know it existed,” said Mahfuzur Raman, 16, one of the new members of Manhattan Community Board 11 in East Harlem. “I would hear ‘mayor this, president that,’ and I never really heard about our community boards.”
Mr. Raman stumbled on the concept only after his curiosity about some police cars parked outside a building led him to wander into a committee meeting last year. Like most of the other teenage members interviewed, he cited zoning, development and gentrification, all watchwords in a debate consuming the city, as among his top priorities for his term.
Mulan Burgess, 16, of Community Board 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, is eager to address the displacement of residents and mom-and-pop businesses that gentrification is accelerating in the neighborhood where he has lived all his life.
But his motives for joining the board were equally, and unabashedly, personal.
“That is one of my end goals — to be one of New York’s chief senators,” Mr. Burgess said, before breathlessly describing his life plan: college, run for the Council, run for the State Senate “and then possibly, maybe, run for mayor.”
He paused. “And also, like, being on the community board,” he added.
This trajectory is not quite as ambitious as it might sound.
Several of the elected officials who pushed for the law’s passage were once among the youngest members of their community boards, like State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, who sponsored the bill alongside State Senator Andrew Lanza.
“I’m still known as the woman who passed the 16- and 17-year-old community board bill around here,” said Ms. Rozic, a Queens Democrat. “I’m one of the younger members of the State Legislature anyway, so it sort of fits into the portfolio.”
Mr. Kallos, who read every membership application submitted to his office (“Yeah, I do care way too much about this,” he noted), said he once served on a community board alongside a 16-year-old who, having managed to join the board through some loophole before the formal age minimum was enforced, went on to work for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. And backers of the bill uniformly cited the experience of Scott M. Stringer, who was appointed to a community board as a 16-year-old in 1977 and is now city comptroller.
Skeptics questioned whether appointing teenagers would trivialize the boards’ work and whether teenagers were qualified to vote on complex zoning, budgetary and liquor license matters. But those who have been appointed said they had received warm, if slightly nonplused, welcomes.
At least one board, Brooklyn’s Community Board 6, which stretches from Cobble Hill to Park Slope, asked the borough president for young members, saying they would provide a valuable perspective. Board membership tends to skew toward those in midlife and older.
The board received three teenagers, including Akash Mehta, 17, a Boerum Hill resident. The reaction from family and friends? “My friends make fun of me and call me ‘Mr. Public Official Mehta,’” he offered. “In an endearing way.”
The teenagers have the same privileges and responsibilities as any other member, though one, Leila Eliot, 16, said she had asked the chairman of her board whether she should abstain from liquor license votes. (The answer was no.)
“There are some people who definitely had doubts — the fear that I’ll ask ridiculous questions, that I won’t pay attention during meetings. It’s the same problems you’d have with anybody, really,” said Ms. Eliot, who has been going to meetings of her board, Community Board 3 in the East Village and Lower East Side, since she was a child and her father was a member. “People just assume teenagers are trouble.”
These, however, seem unlikely to disrupt the workings of government too significantly. Sarah Shamoon, 16 — who is Ms. Eliot’s counterpart on Manhattan Community Board 6, in Stuyvesant Town and Tudor City — has completed internships for two local politicians and is committed to a career in politics. She was dismayed recently to have to cut short her post-meeting networking to study for her Advanced Placement test the next morning.
Jon-Michael Provetto, a 16-year-old member of Community Board 10 in the Bronx, said, “I think that the community won’t really respect me too much for being my age, but I hope that if I do make a difference in the community, then I’ll gain more respect.” (Among his previous civic experiences: working in the camel barn at the Bronx Zoo.)
After a high school student in 1991 wrote a letter to The New York Times complaining that he had been denied a community board seat, another reader responded and offered a consolatory precedent: As a 16-year-old in 1970, he had been one of a group of high school students named to boards by the Bronx borough president at the time, Robert Abrams.
The author, Richard Wexler, ended with a word of warning to future public servants.
“Experience ultimately taught me,” Mr. Wexler wrote, “that the annual dinner meeting of a community board is not most high school girls’ idea of a fun date.”