Last summer, with a grant from the United Nations, teenagers at the organization Open Road of New York interviewed neighborhood kids to find out what they thought their communities needed.
This summer they're responding to what they found, and it's not only local teens reaping the benefits: Open Road youth leaders are cleaning up parks, organizing block parties to help make the neighborhoods feel safer, and creating community maps that provide information such as the best parks to bring toddlers, which parks are friendly by day but dangerous at night, and which are good hang-outs for teens. The maps will be distributed in community centers.
The workers at Open Road are some of what experts estimate to be several thousand New York City teenagers who spend all or part of their summers working to change the world, or at least their communities. New York City has a particularly rich history of youth activism and organizing, from the Young Lords and underground high school newspapers of the 1960s to the 2002 youth organizing that helped stop the proposed juvenile jail for Brooklyn.
Many of these teens work specifically on behalf of other youth, like Tiffany Chiu, 17, who worked with the HIV Prevention Organizing Project (or H-POP). Chiu surveyed students to determine whether New York City high schools were providing condoms to students who requested them, which is required by the New York City Board of Education. These mandates, explained Chiu, "are really important, but they're not enforced. A lot of high schools aren't following the rule."
Other activist-minded teens take on projects affecting people of all ages in their communities, but tackle them from a youth angle.
Some New York City teens work on broader social or community issues that aren't youth-specific.
Like most of his family, Murad Awawdeh suffers from asthma. The pollution in Sunset Park, where he lives, was making his and his family's condition worse. Awawdeh wanted to do something about it. So seven years ago, when he was just 13, he joined UPROSE, an organization in Sunset Park that tackles youth justice issues in the community.
He and other youth organizers fought to keep a new power plant from being built on the neighborhood's waterfront. They made a short film about pollution in their neighborhood, called Industrial Takeover, which was shown at the United Nations. They alerted community residents by blanketing Sunset Park with fliers, and they organized rallies and met with elected officials.
Now 19, Awawdeh looks back at satisfaction at a fight that ended in victory for his side; the power plant was not built.
Fighting to keep his neighborhood free from more pollutants "gets me all hyped up," said Awawdeh.
This summer, Arab Women Activists in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) organized over 20 young women to develop radio pieces highlighting the issues they saw affecting Arab women in their community. The radio spots will be broadcast at schools and community centers.
AWAAM is one of eight grantees of the North Star Fund receiving funding this summer to hire young people for community organizing. Sophia Silao, program officer of North Fund, said the initiative helps these community groups acquire extra staff while also widening their outreach to youth. Teen interns provide the organizations a perspective that too often goes missing in community organizing -- the youth point of view. "When you have policies or practices and different services in low-income, people-of-color communities, the voices of young people are often left out," said Silao. "But young people are extremely aware of what goes on in their community and often they don't have a means to really propose solutions to problems that are affecting them."
Partly due to the over one hundred New York City groups working with activist-minded young people, that's slowly changing. The notion that youth should have a voice as well as a means to effect change is becoming increasingly common. In the last ten years, even New York City's Administration for Children's Services has begun several initiatives for teens to share their points of view in foster care, including a youth advisory board. And one aspect of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for education reform is getting "report cards" from public school students on how their schools measure up.
Ultimately, said Silao, bringing youth to the table when discussing issues and policies having an impact on them is an investment in the city's future. It nurtures the next generation of activists and organizers. "Grassroots efforts have historically been really important in creating systemic change, so it's important to provide organizing training and leadership training for young people," she said. "They are the ones who will hopefully take up the baton and move forward and make real change in their communities."
Jennifer Morron also contributed to this article. All three write for magazines published by Youth Communication.