Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark can still remember clearly the time she was most impressed with the youth of New Haven.
She remembers a girl who came to the front of the stage at one of two public youth hearing hosted by the Board of Aldermen last year to speak against a teenage curfew proposal.
“You gave birth to us,” Clark said the girl said to the audience. “Can’t you give one hour to talk to us?”
That line — along with other questions asked by over 300 upset teenage attendees — caused aldermen and parents alike to be “blown away” after the hearings, Clark said. She said the adults present did not know their kids could be so engaged in New Haven public life.
One year later, City Hall and local community centers are making an effort to foster the same level of youth participation that was evident at the hearing — but in a less confrontational way. From the recently reinstated YMCA Youth and Government program to the likely creation of the Department of Youth in City Hall, local youth group leaders said they are looking for ways to increase youth involvement in the city.
But some teenagers and a few local leaders said the programs have not been effective in encouraging widespread civic participation because the city does not sufficiently focus on issues — such as youth violence and public school quality — that pertain to residents under 18.
City Hall Deputy Chief of Staff Che Dawson said he does not think apathy to the civic process is endemic among local youth.
As part of the city’s effort to reach out to youth, Dawson will host a program for teenagers — based on the model of the Democracy School — in which 25 adults will discuss issues with local politicians and community leaders in an effort to understand the inner workings of the city.
He said he plans to invite students from the Youth Council — a group of 26 local teenagers that has provided input to the Aldermanic Youth Services Committee since 2002 — to be a part of the first Democracy School.
Dawson is slated to oversee the Department of Youth, a City Hall umbrella organization that will oversee city- and community-based youth programs focused on providing safe and creative outlets for youth, especially to address issues of gun violence.
But several teenagers at the YMCA who said they were interested in politics said they were not aware of any of the city-run civic programs in the works.
Joshua Parker, a student at Hill Regional Career Magnet High School, attends a YMCA program called Youth and Government, in which students draft bills to be presented at a mock-congress session with other Connecticut students at the state Capitol building.
After completing the program, Parker said, he would love to continue with other political-process programs. When told of the Youth Council, he said he does not think many youth know about it, which limits the opportunities for participation.
Clark, chair of the Aldermanic Youth Services Committee, said the committee announces Council openings to local high schools at the beginning of the school year. Students fill out a paper application and are interviewed for the position.
Dawson said the application process is “competitive.” But there are vacancies for about half of the 26 spots, he said, which he hopes will be filled by December.
“We would like to have representation from every school,” Dawson said. “We’re still working on it.”
Antoine Jones, another student who attended Youth and Government, said even if the city offers civic programs, students may not participate because they are not necessarily raised in households that emphasize civic responsibility.
“[Teens] see people not caring — they see a lot of bad stuff,” he said. “And when they grow, they’re going to be the same way, and they won’t care.”
Some youth group leaders at the YMCA said they agreed with the students that the city does not do enough to reach out to teens.
Terry McCarthy, the director of New Haven YMCA Youth Center and co-chair for City Wide Youth Coalition, said many teenagers in New Haven are not well-informed about the political process.
But Dawson said City Hall has methods for reaching out to city youth. He said the city sends schools notices, leaves phone messages for parents and posts flyers around local neighborhoods in order to notify students of city programs and initiatives.
“I’m not saying the city can’t do more to reach out to the kids,” he said. “But we are combating something that has gone unaddressed for a while. You just don’t change the culture overnight.”
Carmon said Youth and Government’s sister program Leaders of Tomorrow will head to Hartford in March to meet with the other delegates from across the state for a weekend session at which they will debate and pass bills. Several teenagers who attended the program last year said they became much more focused on their work as the session neared.
“They are smart kids,” social worker intern Firmena Bruno, who works during the joint session, said. “They just need the push.”
Despite the success of these programs, members of city government itself have not interacted directly with youth since a year ago, when over 300 teenagers came to public hearings on the city-wide youth curfew, Clark said.
“They were powerful,” she said. “People came away with a sense that we had responsible kids in the community.”
But Carmon said the city is not getting teenagers in touch with the civic process in the setting that is most accessible: the schools.
“Most kids don’t think their vote matters,” he said. “But if the community stressed voting importance to kids in the classrooms — even it were for two weeks in a social studies class — kids would be more involved.”
Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, the director of communications for New Haven’s Board of Education, and other school officials declined to comment for this article.
But in the end, Carmon said, if the city officials want to know how to get kids involved, all they have to do is listen.
“If you really want to know about the kids, ask them,” Carmon said.
The Board of Aldermen will vote on the proposal to create a Department of Youth at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting.