New Haven’s newest representatives do not have college degrees or even high school diplomas.
Twenty-six high school students from around New Haven were sworn in Monday to become the first members of the city’s Youth Council, a board designed to advise the city on pressing issues for the youth of New Haven.
“The Youth Council is committed to empowering city of New Haven youth by providing ongoing and direct input on government policies and practices that may affect them,” council member Ashley Hayes read from the council’s mission statement.
Ward 13 Alderwoman Rosa Santana was instrumental in starting the program, which takes as its model youth councils in other cities.
“It’s an opportunity for youth to find out the inner workings of government — not necessarily politics — and understand the processes by which decisions are made,” said Santana, who is also vice-chairwoman of the board’s education committee.
Last December, New Haven students accompanied city officials to the National League of Cities’ Congress of Cities in Atlanta, Ga., to learn how other youth councils operate. At the conference, students met with members of youth advisory councils from other cities.
“We thought New Haven needed one as well,” said Hayes, a senior at Hill Regional Career High School who attended the conference.
Students from all areas of the city then submitted applications. Santana conducted interviews and selected the student representatives ranging from sophomores to seniors.
Daniel Steif, a senior at Wilbur Cross High School, said he was happy New Haven had created the Youth Council.
“It’s something that should have been established a long time ago,” Steif said. “The youth has never been represented.”
City officials present at the ceremony described council members as New Haven’s future leaders and said they would work with the council to remedy this situation.
“They are leaders in their own right,” said Charles Warner, Director of Instruction for the New Haven Board of Education.
City Town Clerk Ronald Smith said to the students that New Haven is a great city and they will be instrumental in improving it, both in their current capacity as youth council members and in the future.
“You do have a good city,” Smith said. After explaining how others criticize New Haven because it is one of the poorest cities in Connecticut, he added, “They haven’t seen what you got yet.”
Smith also led the swearing in part of the ceremony. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. was supposed to lead the oath, but he arrived too late.
When DeStefano entered, he apologized for being late and spoke to the students about the partnership between himself and the council.
“I will take you seriously. I will listen to what you say,” DeStefano said. “No matter what, it will be done in a context of respect.”
But some of the representatives said they were skeptical of DeStefano’s words. One reason for this doubt was his late arrival.
“I think it’s kind of a slap in the face,” Steif said.