getting active

What three New York City teens say about politics today — and getting their peers to vote

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nuzhat Wahid contributes to a brainstorming session during a recent YVote meeting.

Plenty of adults are frustrated with politics these days, when turning on the television or reading the latest news alert brings a fresh jolt of anxiety. A new organization wants to help teens channel that angst into action.

Founded by educators, organizers and members of the media, YVote plans to work backwards from issues that teens are passionate about to answer the question: “Why vote?” The aim is to recruit students who will be “18 in ’18” — in other words, old enough to vote in the next election cycle — to head to the polls and become the next generation of community activists.

“People in my generation and those older than us haven’t done a great job in being civil in the way they talk to each other,” Liz Gray, a teacher at NYC iSchool and a facilitator for YVote, told students at the organization’s inaugural meeting this month. “So we’re trying to set a new set of norms with all of you.”

About 50 teens from every borough and more than 20 different schools make up the first YVote class. They are an intentionally diverse group of various political stripes, economic backgrounds and countries of origin. Using the Freedom Summer of 1964 and other case studies, students will work throughout the year to design and test their own campaigns. The goal: to encourage civic engagement while learning to listen to others — even when they disagree.

Chalkbeat spoke with three teens who have joined the effort. Here’s what they think about politics and how to get their peers to the voting booth. These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Millennium Shrestha, 17, Forest Hills High School, Queens

Millennium Shrestha

I’m passionate about: computer sciences. I’d like to connect computers to mankind. I want to bring a change, a computer revolution.

Teens can teach adults about: the clichés that they hold in their thoughts and ideas. I think if you do things exactly as people in the past have done, it’s useless because you know what the outcome is going to be. But if you find new thoughts or ideas to change this world, it works really well. You have to do something weird to get attention.

One way to get teens committed to voting is: not just giving them motivational speeches about what voting is about. There should be a day just focused on getting youth involved in voting. I think it’s easier to get them to vote if you can grab their attention.

I would describe the current political climate as: not that bad. If political systems are monotonous, you’ll never get to the top of the world. It should change periodically. Now we have Mr. Trump, and I actually support Trump for president because now we’ll see different views and ideas. It might be good, it might be bad, but there’s going to be a change.

Faith Vieira, 15, Brooklyn College Academy

Faith Vieira, a rising senior at Brooklyn College Academy, is a member of YVote.
Faith Vieira

I’m passionate about: advocating for youths to be better versions of themselves and spreading influence to affect others — to have a ripple effect.

I think teens can teach adults about: what it was like to be a teen, and how the issues that they face are related to the issues we face. We’re people also, and our voice is important to their success and their social issues, too.

One way to get teens committed to vote is: to show there is an actual effect if they don’t vote, or if they do. To basically show that their voice is getting heard and their choice matters.

I would describe the current political climate as: stressful. The voice that we thought we put out isn’t really being heard. So it’s stressful — but it’s needed because it shows the division that we have in the country. But there’s going to be progress because now people are going to be forced to come together.

Nuzhat Wahid, 16, Academy of American Studies, Queens

Nuzhat Wahid

I’m passionate about: political activism. I’m passionate about world issues and conflict resolution. I like to know more and I like to try to be as open-minded as possible.

I think teens can teach adults about: respect. Recently we’ve seen in the political atmosphere that a lot of people can’t seem to compromise with others. They can’t seem to respect what their peers are saying. They can’t seem to come to an understanding or a resolution. So I think that, given that we are seeing this, we understand what not to do. And when we are adults, we may be able to talk about compromise.

One way to get teens committed to voting is: to educate them more on the voting process. To spread awareness of the fact that there are more elections than just the main, presidential elections. That there are local elections where you can elect your local representatives, and that can affect change.

I would describe the current political climate as: tense. Unworkable. Ineffective.

Brown v. Board

In her own words: Remembering Linda Brown, who was at the center of America’s school segregation battles

Linda Brown (center) and her sister Terry Lynn (far right) sit on a bus as they ride to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School, Topeka, Kansas, March 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Linda Brown, whose name became part of American history through the Brown v. Board of Education case, died Sunday.

She became the center of the legal and political battle to integrate U.S. schools after she was denied access to an all-white school down the street in Topeka, Kansas in 1950. Her father and several other parents sued with the help of the NAACP, and their case made it to the Supreme Court.

When they won, it set a lasting legal precedent. Brown was attending an integrated junior high school by then, and she later recalled the initial desegregation of local elementary schools going smoothly. But over the course of her life, she saw the reality of school integration fall short, locally and nationally.

In Topeka, where Brown would send her own children to public school, some elementary schools remained disproportionately black. In 1979, Brown was part of a lawsuit to re-open the case, which eventually resulted in a 1993 desegregation order for the city’s school district. Across the country, schools remain highly stratified by class and race; in many districts, court orders have ended and schools have quickly resegregated.

Brown seemed ambivalent about the spotlight that came with her name, and some news articles recount failed attempts to reach her. But she often spoke at anniversaries of the 1954 ruling — and while she called it a victory, she wasn’t shy about expressing disappointment at just how much the Brown case itself didn’t achieve.

Here she is, telling her own story over the course of a lifetime.

“I was kind of afraid at first. I didn’t talk about it very much, I guess, because I was afraid it would get back to someone who would make trouble.”

“Last year in American history class we were talking about segregation and the Supreme Court decisions, and I thought, ‘Gee, some day I might be in the history books!’”

— 1961 interview with the New York Times, when Brown was 17

 

“It was not the quick fix we thought it would be.”

— 1984 New York Times interview marking the 30th anniversary of the ruling

“Brown was a very necessary victory. It opened up doors to entertainment, housing, education, employment. All facets of black life was affected by Brown. After 30 years, yes, you do feel that Brown is still not fulfilled. Which is very disheartening to me. I find that after 30 years, desegregation of schools is still very much the issue of today.”

— May 1984 interview with ABC News, marking the 30th anniversary

 

“I was a very young child when I started walking to school. I remember the walk as being very long at that time. In fact, it was several blocks up through railroad yards, and crossing a busy avenue, and standing on the corner, and waiting for the school bus to carry me two miles across town to an all black school. Being a young child, when I first started the walk it was very frightening to me um, and then when wintertime came, it was a very cold walk. I remember that. I remember walking, tears freezing up on my face, because I began to cry because it was so cold, and many times I had to turn around and run back home.”

— 1985 interview for “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years

 

“It is very disheartening. We are still going through the old arguments.”

— 1989 interview, again in the New York Times, at age 46

 

“We feel disheartened that 40 years later we’re still talking about desegregation. But the struggle has to continue.”

— 1994 Washington Post story, “Ruling’s Promise Unkept In Topeka,” on the ruling’s 40th anniversary

 

“It’s disheartening that we are still fighting. But we are dealing with human beings. As long as we are, there will always be those who feel the races should be separate.”

— 1994 New York Times story, “Aftermath of ’54 Ruling Disheartens the Browns”

“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”

“I ran across a quote, in a new book by one of our black women authors — her name is Mildred Pitts Walter — that I believe says it all. ‘It is not the treatment of a people that degrades them, but their acceptance of it.’”

— 2004 speech at the Chautauqua Institution, near the ruling’s 50th anniversary

the right mix

How to integrate Manhattan middle schools? This parent says make them enroll a mix of low- and high-achievers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities.

In Manhattan’s vast District 2, students can choose which middle schools to apply to — but many of the schools get to choose which students to accept. As a result, some schools wind up with many high-achieving, privileged students, while others serve many needy, struggling students.

One parent has a plan to fix that: Require each middle school in the district, which stretches from Lower Manhattan through Chinatown to the Upper East Side, to enroll a mix of struggling, average, and high-achieving students. Shino Tanikawa, a member of the district’s Community Education Council, presented her idea at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

“We need an admissions system that does not judge students or value some students more than others,” she said.

Tanikawa is part of a small but growing group of advocates across the city who are trying to combat segregation by reforming how students are assigned to schools — a grassroots effort that the de Blasio administration has encouraged and, in one district, turned into official policy.

But the administration has so far only been willing to act on plans that have local support. That could present a challenge for Tanikawa’s proposal in District 2, where parents are used to competing for spots at selective middle schools. While most families support classroom diversity in theory, many also want their own children surrounded by students with similar skill levels.

“There is research that shows that just as some kids at the lower end need support,” said Debra Freeman, a parent at Wednesday’s meeting, “there are kids who are at a higher end who will be very bored and can have issues if they’re not sufficiently challenged.”

District 2 families can enroll at middle schools near where they live, or apply to others across the district. Eighteen programs at the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, interviews and other factors. Most schools consider students’ attendance records in admissions decisions — a screen the education council has proposed to eliminate based on research showing that poor students are more likely to miss school.

Critics say that screening applicants by ability exacerbates school segregation, since academic achievement is closely linked to students’ socioeconomic status. In District 2, schools are largely divided along race and class lines: Among schools with middle-school grades, the student-poverty rate ranges from a high of 70 percent to a low of 3 percent, according to data collected by Tanikawa.

“These are public schools,” said Robin Broshi, a member of the education council who supports the proposal to mix students with different academic abilities. “There’s no reason why one segment of a population should have a systematic advantage over another segment of the population to public schools.”

Tanikawa’s plan is based on the so-called educational option, or “ed opt,” admissions system used by some of the city’s high schools. Designed to promote integration, schools using that model aim to enroll students along a range of different academic levels. However, many have struggled to attract enough high performers because they compete for those students with the most selective schools.

To prevent the same thing from happening in District 2, Tanikawa’s plan calls for all the middle schools to use the ed-opt model. Tanikawa said the district should also adopt recruitment practices to attract a diverse mix of applicants to each school, and better ways to share information about schools with parents. She would pair those changes with efforts to attract more teachers of color to the district and ensure that classroom instruction reflects all cultures.

But getting families to apply to middle schools that currently serve more needy students is likely to be an uphill battle, with a school’s selectivity often equated with its quality. Parents who listened to Tanikawa’s proposal said that some of the district’s middle schools offer advanced courses and are known for sending students to elite high schools — while others are not.

“Work has to be done around these middle schools because there are disparities,” said Tunisia K. Riley, a parent in the district.

Other districts that have tried to adjust their middle-school admissions policies to promote integration have faced pushback.

When the superintendent in neighboring District 3 floated a plan to integrate Upper West Side middle schools by reserving some seats for low-income students, some parents rebelled and the idea was shelved. An outcry also ensued at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn when the education department changed admissions there. Parents at the elite school worried academics there would “deteriorate.”

In District 2, a final plan is still a long ways off.

Tanikawa intends to recruit parents, principals and district leaders to come up with specifics for the proposal. While the education council does not have the power to enact it, Tanikawa hopes that if it garners enough local support, the city will make good on its promise to back local integration efforts and sign off on the plan.

That is what happened in District 1, which includes the East Village and Lower East Side. After years of advocacy, parent leaders won city approval for a new admissions system designed to make the district’s elementary schools more diverse. It will be in place for the upcoming school year.

“I’m hoping people will have the courage to change the system in a meaningful way,” Tanikawa said.