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Op-ed: An opportunity for our youth to join public service

BY BOB CAPANO

We often hear about the apathy of our youth in regards to government and politics. Indeed, those between 18 and 25 years old vote the least of any age group. As a former high school teacher and current college instructor with the City University of New York (CUNY), I have seen first-hand the lack of interest many students have for public policy and service. Clearly, we need to do more to inspire our next generation of leaders to take an active interest in their government and community. Recently, New York State took an important first step by lowering the minimum age requirement to be appointed to a community board from 18 to 16 years old.

Allowing younger people to serve on community boards will also give those who already have an interest in public service a concrete way to contribute to their neighborhoods and gain valuable experience. Last month, I once again had the privilege of serving as a faculty coordinator for the annual CUNY “Model New York City Council,” a program that allows 51 New York City high school students with an interest in government and public affairs to have a mock debate and vote in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. These driven students attended weeks of Saturday classes where they learned about public policy making and civic engagement. They were assigned the actual districts of sitting Council members so they could study the demographics of those districts so that when they spoke from the desks of City Council members at City Hall their arguments reflected the opinions of their “constituents.”

With this new state legislation, these students will now have the real opportunity to serve on their local community boards and sit in their own chairs. This will nurture and build their passion for public service so that they are more prepared to become our next generation of leaders.

There are some who question whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to serve as full voting members of community boards. As the director of community boards under former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, I had the unique opportunity to attend meetings of Brooklyn’s 18 boards, interview the applicants who wanted to serve on them, and work closely with Council members and the borough president on the appointments made to the boards each year. What was missing was young people serving on and applying to our community boards. In a city where about 20 percent of our population is made up of those under 18, and considering community boards discuss many issues that directly affect our younger residents including parks, after-school programs, education and crime, what could be more appropriate than an added youth perspective on our boards? Serving on one of New York City’s 59 community boards will also provide these younger men and women experience with land use, city service delivery and budgets, all of which will only benefit our future leaders.

We should all embrace this new state legislation, and I urge our borough presidents and council members, who appoint board members, to conduct an aggressive outreach campaign to our high schools and youth groups encouraging 16- and 17-year-olds to apply for membership to their community board. Let us work together to replace New York City youth apathy with participation and empowerment.

Bob Capano is an instructor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and served as director of community boards under former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

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