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When Young People Talk…People Listen

youth neighborhood plannersMAS recently sat down with four young people from the Bronx and Brooklyn who are confronting neighborhood planning challenges head-on. Armed with information, enthusiasm and a supportive network of adults, these young people are taking the lead in addressing critical neighborhood issues. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Caesar Alcaite and Celeste Del Brey (pictured at left) have been working with UPROSE, a community-based environmental justice organization. When they came to UPROSE, neither had much knowledge of environmental justice issues. However, after spending more time at the organization and working with youth organizers, these teens quickly learned that there is a connection between their local environment and their quality of life. Since coming to UPROSE these teens have developed strong leadership skills — reaching out to neighbors to inform them of local environmental concerns; helping middle school students map neighborhood assets and burdens; and leading neighborhood environmental justice tours for city officials, other youth groups, and most recently, a group of 50 Columbia University graduate planning students. youth neighborhood plannersManny De la Cruz and Miguel Rodriguez (pictured at left) of the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx are part of Sistas and Brothas United, the youth affiliate of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA). For the past year, these teens have having been organizing alongside other young people in the Bronx to advocate for increased community benefits in the proposed Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment plan. The armory, which is approximately the size of three football fields, is slated to become a large-scale retail destination. Some Kingsbridge residents have expressed concern over the impact of this project and have advocated for changes to better align the proposal with the community’s vision for neighborhood redevelopment. Many young Kingsbridge residents have been at the forefront of the decision-making process — speaking at public hearings, creating literature and even helping to organize rallies and demonstrations. Both Manny and Miguel described this experience as “powerful” and have been inspired to continue working on behalf of their community well beyond the armory conflict. For most of the teens, this is their first experience with neighborhood advocacy. Miguel describes it as “having the blindfolds removed from his eyes” once he became more aware of the planning-related issues in his neighborhood. Celeste shared this sentiment, noting that her learning experience at UPROSE has only complemented what she learns in school — helping her to think about topics such as civics and democracy in more practical terms. In a city so young, where over 25 percent of the population is under the age 19, having young people participate in community decision-making is critical to creating a city that meets the needs and reflects the vision of its residents. Although young people are sometimes considered apathetic and disengaged, these teens prove that when equipped with information and a legitimate opportunity to participate; many young people are more than ready to rise to the occasion.