‘Democracy School’ introduces citizens to city government

The New Haven Mayor’s Office will introduce the third version of the City of New Haven Democracy School, a citizenship academy, during the first week of May.

The Democracy School aims to promote partnership and communication between the community and the city government by teaching participants about city services, programs, responsibilities, challenges, limitations and day-to-day operations. Starting May 2, the program will meet every Tuesday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. for six weeks. During the course, students will meet Mayor John DeStefano Jr., along with a number of City Hall department heads.

The program was started two years ago by mayoral assistant Kate McAdams ’01, who said she saw that citizens wanted more interaction with the city government.

“I knew people wanted more access to City Hall and to know more about it,” she said. “[The Democracy School] makes City Hall much more accessible.”

Since the program’s inception, city residents have shown interest in learning more about City Hall. Last session, the 40-person program had to turn away 20 applicants. The accepted participants included a range of Elm City residents, from city workers to senior citizens.

Ward 25 Alderwoman Ina Silverman, a self-proclaimed “big supporter” of the academy, said she believes the program offers citizens important insights into the municipal government.

“The Democracy School gives any citizen … an opportunity to meet the mayor and hear how things work,” she said. “They learn running the city is more complicated than it appears, and it hopefully encourages them to get involved.”

The program has done just that. Many alumni of the Democracy School now sit on various boards and commissions in New Haven. Others have volunteered in recent elections. Diana Mlynarsky, the current Ward 7 Democratic Committee co-chair, credits her interest in the community to her experience with the program.

“It afforded an opportunity to figure out how to get involved,” she said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have met my alderman, run for co-chair of Ward 7, or become a member of [New Haven's] Democratic Committee.”

The Democracy School also helped inspire Debra Hauser, who is now the Ward 10 Democratic co-chair and volunteers for the mayor, to become involved with the city government.

“[The classes] made me aware of the city government, which I had no clue about before,” said Hauser. “It began what is turning out to be a devotion to community activism,” she said.

Although the academy is getting favorable evaluations from participants, it still faces a few problems.

“One of the challenges is that there is not enough time for participants to talk to one another or ask questions,” McAdams said. “There’s so much information to deliver in such a short time.”

The school is currently working to solve such problems with input from its students. And despite its limitations, its participants have very few complaints.

“The Democracy School is brilliant,” Hauser said. “It’s very well conceived and gets lay people involved in government.”

Applications for this session are due April 21. The class is open to any New Haven resident over the age of 18.

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