Engaged youth, New York City (photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)
As CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City (BBBS of NYC), the nation’s first youth mentoring organization, I hear from young people nearly every day. I’m consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, bravery and solutions-driven creativity. Each of our Littles has a unique perspective, but I’ve heard one consistent gripe over this last year: They want us to listen to them!
It’s remarkably disheartening to continuously see the city’s leaders not heed the voices of our youth. But, there is an important opportunity for change.
We need the next New York City government administration, due to take office in January, to prioritize the ideas of New York’s youth, and implementing a city-wide youth council is a wise place to begin.
Rather than the multiple Youth Leadership Councils currently in operation, this single body could be endorsed and sponsored by the next mayor and give the youth of our city a chance to meaningfully influence policy ideas.
Nearly 1 million New Yorkers voted in this year’s primaries, the highest participation in a local election since 2013. This came after New York City officials sought to double the turnout of registered voters aged 18 to 29. It’s clear more New York City youth want to vote and have their say in government. It’s less clear that New York City politicians and public officials are listening to them.
Resources to public schools ranks among the biggest issues for young New York City voters, yet mayoral candidates Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa -- the Democratic and Republican nominees, respectively -- have talked more about across the board budget cuts. The next mayor of New York City needs to go the extra mile and create a platform for youth to ensure their voices are heard and their suggestions are heeded.
BBBS of NYC has its own youth council to function in a similar fashion. In fact, it was created at the suggestion of the youth themselves. They’ve pushed our organization to make impactful changes, including advancing LGBTQ inclusion throughout the organization. I envision a citywide youth council operating in a similar fashion.
If we are serious about getting youth more engaged, we would be foolish not to listen to them. By incorporating youth voices alongside our city’s leaders, we fill an important gap in our policymaking process.
All levels of city government and planning too often take young people’s voices for granted. I’m both a parent and a youth mentoring executive who is still dumbfounded that youth were excluded in planning the 2022-2021 school year. Why wouldn’t we consider the voices of the people most impacted by these decisions? Let’s make certain that the 2021-2022 school year is shaped differently through the viewpoints and informed experiences of its students. A city-wide youth council representative of the extraordinary diversity of New York City gives an important yet long ignored constituency a voice and seat at the table.
This isn’t just my idea. Youth across New York have made it known they want to have a say in the city’s future. A recent survey from Citizens’ Committee for Children found that 40% of respondents ages 14 to 24 believe they have a say in how our government runs. These are youth who want and believe they have the power to influence change. I’ve seen this same passion and optimism from the participants in BBBS of NYC’s youth council.
Consider Jena, a young Korean woman on our youth council. Over the last year she has struggled to adapt to remote learning, frustrated over being tested on lessons she felt she was never taught. At the same time, she dealt with the anxiety associated with being an Asian woman amid increasing xenophobia and violence. A city-wide youth council offers Jena a chance to speak directly to the next administration about what concrete steps are needed to protect the Asian American Pacific Islander community. With youth unemployment hovering around 12%, higher than the overall rate, it also gives Jena and her peers a chance to advocate for opportunities beyond programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).
Mayor de Blasio has said young New Yorkers are poised to play a “pivotal role” in the city’s recovery from the pandemic. I couldn’t agree more. I challenge the new administration to do more to fulfill that promise and finally give New York City’s youth the chance to have a real say in their future.
Alicia Guevara is the Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. On Twitter @BBBSNYC.