High school student Ava Goldman and CB6 chair Molly Hollister before a transportation committtee meeting on March 5. Photo courtesy of CB6
Three years ago, Queens Assembly member Nily Rozic and Staten Island State Senator Andrew Lanza tweaked the New York State public service law to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve on the city’s 59 community boards. At the time, some questioned whether teenagers would be able to deal with the complicated issues facing the boards, but if there is any consolation to be derived from the horrendous Parkland, Florida school shooting, it is that unlike their Gen X parents and baby boomer grandparents, the eloquent post-millennial Gen Z is fired up and ready to kick.
By all accounts, the Rozic-Lanza plan to bring teenagers into the city’s civic and political process has been an unqualified success. The first 19 teens were appointed in 2015, six of them in Manhattan where Borough President Gale Brewer has made it her policy to work with literally hundreds of young interns. Serving on a Community Board, she says, “provides a comprehensive view of how the city works, invaluable for these young New Yorkers who are our future.”
In fact, East Side Councilmembers Keith Powers, Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera all began public careers at Community Boards, a step Powers heartily endorses. Kallos, who reads every CB membership application submitted to his office (“Yeah, I do care way too much about this”), was on Manhattan CB8 alongside a 16-year-old who managed to make his way onto the board before the new law and then went on to work for Governor Cuomo. As for Rivera, as someone who joined her community bard at a young age she knows “firsthand the challenge for young people whose voices are, after all, often at the center of the most successful progressive movements.”
CB6’s current chair, Molly Hollister agrees. Her board now has a high school student, Ava Goldman, whose first priority is environmental issues. “Being a teen on a community board is extremely empowering,” Goldman says. “The opportunity to be a voice for your constituents, to hear their concerns and be a part of the planning and ultimate solution, is a position of importance that I encourage more young people to seek. I am able to contribute a different perspective that diversifies our decision making to reflect the diversity of the constituents we represent. What you put into your community, you get back tenfold.”
If there is any drawback to teen service, it’s that, as CB7 chair Roberta Semer notes, the students often leave to go to college. True, says Rick Egger, former chair of CB6. “Our first 16-year-old member, Sarah Shamoon, was active on the Board for two years before she left to go to Harvard last summer. She was among the first to volunteer when Board members were needed at events like Night Out Against Crime and presented issues and worked on writing resolutions at her committees. Had she been with the Board longer, I could easily see her taking on a committee chair or vice chair position.”
Some, though, do stick around. Forty-two years ago, a 16-year-old Bronx high school student slipped under the radar as one of Manhattan Borough President Percy Dutton’s two stealth appointments to Manhattan CB12. On Tuesday, January 11, 1977, the news made the front page of the New York Times, and once installed, the young man went to work to save the A train (“my lifeline”), and, among other things, create after-school programs.
He’s still at it: “Obviously,” says NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, “the Board had a major impact on my life.”