Youth Town Hall 2019

On Tues, Aug 13 from 5-7:30 PM at The Clinton School, 50+ YVote youth from across all five boroughs were joined by elected officials, civic and community leaders, and peers at YVote’s second annual student-designed Youth Town Hall.

The very interactive gathering YVoters designed focused on channeling youth civic energy into sustained political collective power in our city and country and developing intergenerational alliances in the service of an emerging Youth Agenda, with Activation Stations on Criminal, Environmental, Gender, and Immigration Justice. Full program available here

Conversation and action steps linked back to voting in ALL elections and to staying actively connected to elected officials and political and civic issues in our communities. Founding YVote member and Immigration Action co-Facilitator Saskia van Horn did a great job explaining why inter-generational interactions with electeds can promote youth voting.

YVoters re-designed the “gymnatorium” into a civic community hub where people could comfortably mix and mingle. A rich mix of participants–from elected officials to leaders of civic organizations to civically-minded teenagers– arrived, signed in, got snacks, mingled, and networked.

The room hummed with energy throughout the evening

The formal program began with remarks from an array of YVoters sharing:

  • Who We Are and Why We’re Here: Saskia van Horn, graduate, Energy Tech High School (Queens College); Rhea and Renee Mendonca, Susan E. Wagner High School
  • Context: Youth Social Movements Historically and Globally–and what NYC can learn from them: Nuzhat Wahid, graduate, Academy of American Studies (Hobart and William Smith College); Meiqin Gao, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies; Baird Johnson, Stuyvesant High School; Frank Yang, Stuyvesant High School
  • What IS the Youth Agenda–and how can you contribute to it: Dysia Khazyan, Abraham Lincoln HS; Zach Byrd, Cristo Rey High School; Dulce Cortes, Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders; Yuleimy Rosas Garcia, Fort Hamilton High School; Taspia Khan, The Packer Collegiate School; Charlotte McDermott, Baruch College Campus High School
  • Who Is In This Room–and What We Can DO Together: Yessii Burgos, graduate of NYCiSchool; Vanessa Erwin, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies; Sumaira Khan, Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice; Munaja Mehzabin, Academy of American Studies

They inspired us all.

The center piece of our Youth Town Hall was the Activation Stations created by each of our Justice Action Groups. Each Activation Station started with a song or spoken word performed and in most cases written by our students, like “Don’t Tell Me” by Gifty Boanoh:

Through these stations, participants came to learn more about YVoters particular passions for the issues and the sorts of things we think can constitute a Youth Agenda that will get many more teens to understand the importance and value of voting and getting civically involved more broadly. You can get a flavor of each below:

Immigration Justice Activation Station

Activities at the stations enabled participants to:

  • wait in line at a border and be interrogated by ICE and assigned a passport that dictated the terms of whether and how you can get into the country, how much you pay– and whether you’re allowed in at all
  • walk through an Immigration Museum with a timeline of immigration policy over the past few hundred years and current policies for people from different countries
  • learn about YVoters’ proposals for immigration reform

Experience the Immigration Action Station here

Environmental Justice Activation Station

Activities at the stations enabled participants to:

  • Walk in a path of footprints, the bottom of their shoes marked with coal to symbolize every human’s carbon footprint 
  • Navigate a wall of trash created by our heedless use of plastic bottles and other non recyclables
  • Learn about concrete proposals for how people can reduce, recycle, and reuse
  • Understand climate change as an intersectional issue, with socioeconomic and racial impacts
  • Take home recycled plastic planters to grow their own plants at home

Gender Justice Activation Station

Activities at the stations enabled participants to:

  • participate in Gender Justice Bingo (aka GENDER), meeting as many participants as possible to fill out their respective boards, collaborating to answer questions like “When and what were the 3 waves of feminism?” and “Approximately how many hate crimes against LGBT people were reported in 2017?” and “How much more likely is a rape survivor prone to committing suicide than are those who have not been victims of a crime?”
  • admire feminist art
  • discuss strategies for creating more equity and inclusion in schools and workplaces

Criminal Justice Activation Station

Activities at the stations enabled participants to:

  • write down the first word they think of when they hear “criminal justice”
  • view vision boards with YVoters’ concerns and recommendations for improvements in the criminal justice system, asking participants to identify who and what is behind the root of the problem
  • learn more about the Safe Schools Act and how participants can advocate for it
  • deepen their thinking to push not just for criminal justice reform but criminal justice transformation

After circulating through the Activation Stations, we reassembled as a collective to share responses to the Activation Stations and, importantly, to make commitments to advancing the Youth Agenda as YVoters work to further codify and organize around it as part of our #2020VisionForChange campaign.

We started with responses from Yvette Clarke, U.S. Representative for the 9th District of NY; Jerrold Nadler, U.S. Representative for the 10th District of NY; Helen Rosenthal, City Council Member for District 6; and Gail Brewer, Manhattan Borough President

Representative Clarke: “Brooklyn is in the house. We’re also in the House of Representatives. ”
“The heart of these Activation Stations are intergenerational–the issues you’ve identified are front and center in everyone’s lives these days and the important thing to do is make connections…”
“There’s exciting work underway–and there’s so much more work to be done”
“The struggle is not over, and I hate to see that you young people are here and have to witness the ugliness and the cruelty of dehumanization but it’s here, and what I want to see is a group of young people who have a big C on you chests. You know what the C is for? Courage. The same courage John Lewis had when he stepped across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that’s what we need today, that’s what you’re demonstrating, and I’m so proud of you.”
Representative Nadler: “I was so impressed with the youth here tonight. Youth vote in smaller numbers than the rest of the population yet have far more at stake. It’s vital that you get your peers to vote.”
Council Member Rosenthal: “What I heard today was a real sense of urgency. I believe very strongly that we have to fix the climate crisis now and we have to do it together. There’s a move to turn Rikers Island into a sustainable island once we close the jails. I love the way you all described the interconnectedness of the issues. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re thinking about these things–I’m thinking about them too and I’m excited to work with you to promote change”
Borough President Brewer: “I attended the Immigration and Environmental Justice stations and want to say that everyone did their homework incredibly well. They were passionate, knowledgeable, and well-organized.  Moving forward, I’d like to see these inspiring leaders work on specifics of policies they’d like to see implemented.  And I’d like to ensure that they read stuff BEYOND what they’re interested in and engage more with people who disagree with them.”

Next up, Brad Lander, City Council Member for District 39

Council Member Lander: “It’s a tried and true thing that elected officials show up in front of young people and say you guys are leading the way but at this moment in time, it is just plan and evidently true that it is young people who are taking leadership on the most critical issues and pushing systems that have not moved fast enough and pushing older elected officials who have not moved fast enough and those of us who are paying attention are trying hard to keep up and follow the leadership you guys are setting.”

We also shared a supportive statement by Carlina Rivera, Council Member for District 2, here. She noted, amidst her inspirational statement: “Although I could not be here with all of you tonight, I could not pass up the opportunity to say not only how proud I am, but thankful for the work you all do with YVote.  By working to increase youth engagement in politics and government, you are empowering a new generation of voters, and fostering a space for an equitable dialogue on so many important issues. These actions, although they may sometimes feel like drops in a bucket, are the steps we must take to change our neighborhoods, our city, and our country...

You are collectively giving a voice the issues that matter most in your communities. Whether they be local issues like housing and jobs, or issues on the national stage like gun control and climate change, you are driving the narrative with your vote and your voice.  Regardless of your political beliefs, I hope that you all continue to make your voices heard

If you get anything out of this, and I hope you do, let it be that we need you. As you continue your education, begin your careers, serve your communities, and even run for office, we need you to keep fighting with passion, and to bring that same integrity to whatever you choose to do in life.

Elizabeth Arzt, Youth Liaison for City Council Speaker Johnson, shared remarks on behalf of the Speaker:

Youth Liaison Arzt: “I was really impressed by the students I spoke with today. Your passion, commitment, and political prowess shown through. Because of your keen interest in government, I want to make recommendations for how you can make an even greater contribution. One of the ways is testifying at City Council Hearings. The Speaker has a whole Community Affairs division which I’m part of and can connect you with to extend your impact. I’d also like you to be part of Participatory Budgeting–a great way to get involved in voting at a younger age.”

Karin Goldmark, Deputy Chancellor for the NYC Department of Education, shared remarks on behalf of the NYCDOE (after leading us in a stretch break):

Deputy Chancellor Goldmark: “I was really thrilled, impressed, and re-energized in my own work and in my belief that young people come first and, to quote Ella Baker, ‘they have the courage where we fail.’ All we have to do is just get out of the way and let you lead so that you so much for reminding me of that.”
“At the DOE, under Chancellor Richard Carranza’s leadership, you may have noticed we take youth voice very seriously–we’ve hired a Student Voice Manager, we’ve been listening to your voices telling us to make changes to the discipline code, which we’ve proposed; you’ve been telling us to add social emotional learning resources to schools, which we have; you have been pushing us on school diversity, which we are working on and making specific proposals. We will keep doing these things and most importantly we will keep working to include student voice at the system level, at the borough level, and at the school level.”

Ramon Contreras, Founder of Youth Over Guns and Youth Activist

Ramon Contreras: “This was a really amazing event–it doesn’t get better than this. In places like this is where change begins, gathering in a room, talking about issues, creating ideas together. We have elected officials here who have the power to do so much. Thank you so much for coming to interact with young people. I hope we can take this out of this room and actually do something and start a movement to create change. There are so many issues that need to be changed.”

Next we went into responses from Issue Experts, including:

Lucy Lang, Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution

Lucy Lang: “A lot of criminal justice reform has been tinkering at the edges–about marijuana legalization, and dealing with low level, easy stuff. These young people tonight were talking about reinvesting what we invest in the criminal justice system into youth whose parents are incarcerated because we know those are the kids most likely to end up back in the system. That’s not criminal justice reform, that’s criminal justice transformation. Let’s transform it.”

Sherry Hakimi, Executive Director of Gender Equality

Sherry Hakimi: “The thing I was most struck by is how much knowledge you each have. Knowledge is power and you are all so powerful. What i took away from the Gender Justice and Climate Justice activation station is that you all know how to take the statistics and facts and turn them into stories and experiences that move people. This is what we need if we’re going to see change in our lifetime. Knowing that you are doing this work makes me feel so good about our future and I’m so proud of all of you and hope that you all keep it up because you’re doing incredible things”

Liz Ngonzi, NYU Center for Global Affairs

Liz Ngonzi: “What I realized listening to all the presentations is that everything is so connected. Sounds so obvious, but I’d like to support you in telling stories that help you illuminate this and to tell stories within your particular areas of expertise.”

Caleb Schwartz of Divest Harvard

Caleb Schwartz: “I think the biggest takeways I got from the Climate Justice and Immigration Justice Activation Stations was connecting to the larger idea of justice and who actually gets to decide our environmental future. They were adamant about the fact that when we’re talking about climate justice, we’re talking about inclusion and climate refugees and people who are marginalized and don’t have the resources to act. I’m inspired by youth activists like Greta Thunberg who call UN out by noting that the house is on fire. The youth here tonight recognize that even though they may not be able to vote, they can hold institutions accountable. There are a lot of institutions who are afraid of this. Even if you can’t vote, you can hold electeds accountable and I’m glad these young people will.”
Rachel Lee: Zero Hour has chapters all around the world working with high school students on the issues that affect us most like the climate crisis. I encourage you all to join us on Sept 20 when hundreds of thousands of students will be skipping school to rally and march and push for change.”

While we didn’t have time to hear from all participants aloud, we “heard” them through the Commitments they made on paper, letting us know

  1. What struck you most about what you heard or learned from youth leaders tonight?
  2. What do you commit to doing to support elements of The Youth Agenda (in formation) we’ve discussed tonight?
  3. What questions are on your mind that you’d like to explore further together in the future?

Responses are here–and we intend to hold you to them. Sample feedback:

I learned a lot about the gay rights movement and the abortion crisis–and realized how much I didn’t know.  I was surprised about the conditions of these movements and fascinated by the stats and impact these movements have made”–Jane Chen, Student, Bronx High School for Science

“It was so refreshing to hear the youth leaders speak about these important topics.  These things are happening right now and to see them speak about it was so insightful.  They are the leaders of tomorrow. You guys have inspired me!”–Umera Khan, Student, Hunter College/Bronx Community Board 6

“I was struck by Congress Member Yvette Clarke’s words about being a beneficiary. It made me imagine how all of us are beneficiaries of one movement or another and I am committed to creating a new generation of beneficiaries.”–Kaitlyn Velasquez, Student, Middlebury College

I was educated on the impact of criminal justice on black and latino communities and how they have affected us socially and politically, and what I can do to change the number to impact these communities.”–Daniel Young, Intern, Community Board #6

“In the climate justice group, I was particularly struck by how young people are the best to lead this work because they are the ones who are inheriting our one and precious world.”--Deborah Chang, #NYCEDU

We closed out the evening with a rousing Call to Action by Adam Neville, co-facilitator of our Environmental Justice Action Group

If you can speak on an issue, be it but a whisper or a primal scream, you can take a stand. 
Throughout this event, people of all varieties of status, position, and beliefs had the opportunity to learn from one another. Beyond what you want, beyond what you think, you had the opportunity to think about what we can do, together. We’ve spent the night discussing the bright hopes of the youth agenda. In truth, there is no idea more central to the youth agenda than the hope that our elders will believe in our idealism, will listen to us, and will lend their hands.  
Beyond polarization, beyond partisanship (as YVote will have you know, we are a CROSS-partisan organization), the youth have always dared to dream. To some, this dream is a nightmare, and to others, nothing more than a fantasy. 
Consider how easy it is to choose cynicism. How easy it is to dismiss the countless successful youth-led movements as a fluke, how easy it is to call us bleeding hearts or radicals. 
But I say we prove them wrong, twice over. Do not merely dare to dream. Dare to do. 
By now, we’ve all made a commitment to do something in our personal lives. That’s one true victory, not one against the opponents of our ambitions, but against our own inaction. Forget talking. Abandon the nay sayings of slow bureaucracy, of echo chambers, of unreasonable idealism. By the time we’ve all finished this grand dialogue, we are doing something.

We are ending the climate crisis.

We are leveling the patriarchy.

We are liberating the innocent.

And we are ending the camps.
There is so much to do. We of the youth agenda are happy to have your support. Thank you.”

And we ended with the critical fuel of all social movements: music, with a beautiful rendition of Better Together by founding YVote Member Divine Soona Ndombo and of Fight Song by Renee and Rhea Mendonca

We WILL continue to fight, and we will be better together. Many thanks to everyone who attended our Youth Town Hall, with special thanks to:

And very special thanks to our amazing videographers and photographers this summer, Julissa Bedford, Kareyni Davis, and Omar Garcia from the High School of Art and Design, and to our stalwart jack of many trades photographer of the Town Hall, Justin Cohen.