School might already be in session for New Haven and Yale students, but there is another educational opportunity coming up for all city residents.
The city’s fifth Democracy School will introduce 25 people to the in-depth workings of New Haven politics and services. Over the course of six Wednesday evening sessions beginning Oct. 3, students will meet with city officials — including department heads of all major city agencies — for presentations on topics such as public safety, economic development, budgets and youth services. Applications for the free program are due Sept. 20 and are available on the city’s Web site.
Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James called the program a “wonderful opportunity” for residents to become acquainted with the city’s political processes, allowing them to form a connection with the Board of Aldermen, New Haven’s legislative branch.
Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison echoed her sentiments, saying he knew many program graduates who enjoyed the experience.
“What they really liked about it was it wasn’t just a school class in civics,” he said. “It was all about how things actually happen.”
The class will meet at locations around the city, including the Mayor’s Office, the Police Department headquarters, the Chamber of Commerce and the Sound School, a local vocational high school. Students must also complete one “assignment” involving attending an event such as the Mayor’s Night Out or a Board of Aldermen meeting, or arranging a meeting with a city employee.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said she has been impressed by the diversity of the participants. Democracy School students have represented a cross section of New Haven in past years, from Yale students to mid-career workers to retirees, she said. Many city functions are carried out by volunteers who sit on over 40 boards and commissions, the functions of which are described to participants.
“You can use that knowledge to be an informed citizen or to say, ‘Gee, I’d like to be on the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Cultural Affairs Commission.’ ”
Clark said that volunteer work can be particularly rewarding in New Haven because the city’s small size makes the results of hard work more visible.
Some Democracy School students have indeed found the program to be a gateway into increased involvement into civic affairs. Diana Mlynarski, an employee of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, attended the school and went on to serve as the co-chair of Ward 7. One of last spring’s graduates is now on the Democracy Fund, according to Emily Byrne, the Democracy School coordinator.
Byrne acknowledged that the program tends to attract people who are already somewhat active in community affairs, as some are steered toward the program by aldermen.
“People who are going to apply are already interested in how the city works,” she said. “But it’s open to anyone.”
The program provoked similar criticism from some city officials in the past. Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James has called the program self-selective, saying it does little to reach out to those with little to no interest in city affairs.
While Democracy School students must be over 18 years old — the only requirement — the mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Che Dawson is working to launch a similar program for New Haven teenagers.