Leaders of local youth arts groups discussed the challenges of reaching the city’s most at-risk youth at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Youth Services Committee on Wednesday.
Representatives of arts groups — which offer programs ranging from community theater to traveling arts vans to media training — crowded around the meeting table to tell the aldermen about their programs. As three aldermen and city officials asked questions about how the city could help the organizations improve their services, common concerns with venues, outreach, funding and transportation emerged. The leaders also agreed they should increase collaboration between the different groups.
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Committee chair and Ward 2 Alderwoman Frances Clark began the meeting by emphasizing the need for the city to reach out to youth programs after a year in which youth violence surged. Because the proposed youth curfew has been tabled, she said, the city must look for other ways to address the needs of New Haven and its youth.
“We have been able to use the request for a curfew as a way to start a dialogue,” Clark said. “Before we say yes or no to a curfew, we need to look at all these other things the community needs.”
At the meeting, the committee looked at the need for arts-based programming for city youth. Sharmont Influence Little began by describing how his group Universal Arts Movement uses art, especially poetry, as a vehicle to teach kids social and problem-solving skills.
Veteran police officer Shafiq Abdussabur, founder and executive director of the group CTRIBAT, which caters to high-risk youth, also talked about the need for youth programs that go beyond “guns, gangs and drugs.” He said CTRIBAT offers summer camps, media programs and extensive follow-up contact with participants.
“[Participants] may have talents that have been stifled,” he said. “We can pull back a curtain and see a diamond.”
Meanwhile, Art on the Block strives to bring art supplies and activities to streets all over the city in their traveling van, organization leader Carmella Ricciardelli said. Bregamos Community Theater strives to bring together community members of all ages and levels of experience with theater, director Rafael Ramos said. Their last show, “Kingdom,” was especially poignant, he said, as it focused on gang and youth violence.
But despite the successes of these and other groups, the leaders acknowledged that many challenges remain. Representatives of all the groups said money was the most basic constraint, as funding can be hard to obtain for programs involving high-risk youth. Abdussabur said increasing funds, whether to expand the groups’ scope or to improve current services, is worthwhile.
“Let’s say there are 10 organizations here who need $50,000. That’s half a million dollars,” he said. “That’s [the cost of] 12 non-fatal shootings.”
Other organizers suggested that the city could help them reach more youth by publicizing their activities and providing better transportation for participants, especially after dark.
“I don’t want to have it in my heart that a kid left and got shot on the way home because he had to walk,” Little said. “Kids are scared to walk alone.”
Ramos also said that poor public transportation had often left his own children unable to participate in after-school activities. Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez suggested that the city eventually replace its trolley system, which costs $300,000 per year, with a system that would cater to children.
Later, as the group discussed possible venues for their activities, Sabir Abdussabur, a junior instructor for CTRIBAT and the youngest person at the meeting, said organizations should be wary of using schools when trying to attract teenagers. High-risk teenagers who already avoid school during the day may be even less attracted to non-mandatory activities held there, he said.
The leaders agreed that they need to reach out to all youth, but they cannot ignore the most at-risk because their behavior affects everyone.
“As we all work with youth, it doesn’t matter if we have kids at no risk or low risk,” Shafiq Abdussabur said. “As long as there are kids at high risk, they are all at high risk.”
According to the New Haven mayor’s office, about seven percent of youth are considered at high risk of becoming involved in a serious crime, and three percent are estimated to have already been involved in a serious incident.