[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.
[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are three young activists with the NYC Youth Agenda. Welcome, Eugenia Bamfo, Alexandra Rouvinetis, and Mukilan Muthukumar.
[00:00:25] Amy H-L: Why don’t you each briefly introduce yourself and tell us how you became involved in the movement for change. Alex?
[00:00:33] Alexandra R: Hi, I’m Alexandra Rouvinetis. I’m a part of the Intergenerational Change Initiative. I was able to join in summer of 2020.
[00:00:44] Mukilan M: My name’s Mukilan. I’m with YVote. I got involved in the summer of 2021 with the environmental justice group and I helped plan the youth policy breakfast and help write the civic education recommendation.
[00:00:59] Eugenia B: Hi, my name is Eugenia Bamfo. I’m a youth action member at Citizens Committee for Children in New York City. And this past year I’ve been able to help plan the policy breakfast and the leadership and civic opportunities recommendations.
[00:01:16] Jon M: What is NYC Youth Agenda?
[00:01:20] Eugenia B: The NYC Youth Agenda is a collection of five recommendations with other sub recommendations that really point to what the youth priorities are and what youth need. And it also features data from different surveys that were conducted by the different youth organizations that were involved in planning the breakfast and putting together these recommendations. Yeah. And with that data, what we did is we basically took all that data and picked the five policy areas that we wanted to focus on the most. And then we created the recommendations and presented that to key stakeholders in Mayor Adams’s administration this February.
[00:02:07] Amy H-L: Who collected all that data and how are you using it?
[00:02:11] Alexandra R: The data was collected by the different youth organizations. One of the methods of data collection we used was an online survey. From the Intergenerational Change Initiative, we used our Youth Asking census, which was basically a census curated by over 300 young people in New York. And basically it’s a survey created by young people for young people to express their experiences, concerns, and creative improvements that they have for the city. So that was one method of data collection.
[00:02:41] Eugenia B: And Youth Action members launched the Voicing Our Future survey last year. And we surveyed over 1300 youth from almost every zip code in the city. And we just asked them about what they needed, what they wanted politicians to prioritize and what was important to them.
[00:03:04] Amy H-L: And what are the five key points of this agenda?
[00:03:08] Mukilan M: We focused on housing security, food justice, mental health, economic mobility, and leadership and civic engagement.
[00:03:19] Jon M: Could you talk about leadership and civic opportunity? What’s the current situation and what did young people say that they want to see?
[00:03:27] Eugenia B: What we found, what Voicing Our Future found, is that a lot of organizations that youth need, and these resources exist, but most youth aren’t aware of them or don’t have access to them. So for example, there’s over 2000 youth developmental organizations in New York City, but many youth in our Voicing Our Future survey said that they needed help finding these opportunities, but they didn’t receive it. Under 50%, less than half of youth, report receiving extra curricular support for academics or career opportunities. So that was a big part in co-creating our recommendations.
[00:04:13] Jon M: I am curious about that because I’ve been involved with a lot of afterschool programs, a lot of which are funded through the Department of Youth and Community Development, which I see from their website is supporting the Youth Agenda. Do you get any answers from, for example, DYCD or any of the elected officials that you’ve talked to about why so many young people still don’t know that these programs exist?
[00:04:45] Mukilan M: I think one is the lack of funding and the lack of visibility. We specifically spoke with leaders from the Department of Education and the Youth Voice initiative, but I can check that later, and they basically told us how they were severely underfunded. There was one person in charge of the entire program, which was like a terrible problem if we want to actually get youth involved in this.
[00:05:15] Eugenia B: So actually the Civics for All initiative, and we also spoke to Amallia Orman, who is the student voice manager, who kind of handles student voice in the DOE, and really getting student input and helping students to be leaders. And when we spoke to both of them, we learned that as Mukilan said, their departments are severely underfunded. Amallia is the only person that helps with student voice. So it’s not necessarily a department, but it’s one position, and she’s the one that’s helping facilitate student voice for system of millions of students, which is obviously very inadequate. One person can’t help with student voice for millions of students. So that was something that we found in what we heard from her and Jenna, who is the director of Civics For All.
[00:06:09] Jon M: What is Civics For All’s role, and is that under the Department of Education and what is Student Voice or Youth Voice?
[00:06:17] Eugenia B: Civics for All is a program run by the DOE that helps promote civic engagement and civic participation amongst students. So during the year, I’m not exactly sure when, but they do host civics week. I think it was recently held either this month or last month. And during that time students get to learn how to be civically engaged, about civics in general. And the student voice manager, Amallia Orman, helps facilitate types of programs to help students become leaders in the DOE in their cities. So for example, she helps with the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council, which is a collection of youth leaders that help address issues in the DOE and also give input to DOE leaders about what they can do to better support students.
[00:07:09] Jon M: Is there anything that anybody would want to add in terms of that in terms of, well, I guess the question would be, what is it that the Youth Agenda is asking that the DOE and I guess DYCD in particular or other agencies, what are you recommending that they should do to remedy this?
[00:07:30] Mukilan M: So our recommendations were mostly focused on a couple of things. One of them was localization and the other one expanding marketing and expanding the visibility of these programs. So we, in terms of our sub recs, for voting, we wanted to create hyperlocal programs so we could actually impact voter turnout in these communities and target high school students to pre-register to vote and, expand increased funding for all the organizations we talked about and increase student participation and eligibility for this. Like Community Education Councils to generally see an increase in student participation, and just their knowledge because if they have knowledge, they are going to want to get involved. If they don’t know that it exists, they can’t get involved.
[00:08:19] Amy H-L: Good point. What about the housing proposal?
[00:08:23] Alexandra R: So, what we gathered from our data was that housing insecurity is a really, really big issue and it’s concerning a lot of young people. So some of our main recommendations were just overall creating affordable housing. This would look like increasing access to public and affordable housing for housing insecure youth that incorporate a culture of care while building self-sufficiency, specifically apply the community land trust model, which creates a permanently affordable housing market for generations. We’d also like city agencies to work together on a plan to help schools identify families at risk of homelessness and connect them with services and support. We would also like to improve outcomes for students in temporary housing and provide supports for housing insecure students that are college bound, because those are really big issues as well. So we would like to basically in terms of sub recs,, provide adequate resources and supports for those students who might really be struggling in a specific way that [inaudible] was expanding communities, accelerated study in associate programs to all CUNY and SUNY schools.
[00:09:27] Jon M: A large number of students are either unhoused or at risk of being unhoused at any given point. What did you find in terms of students’ responses around this? And also, in terms of the recommendations, are there any immediate things that the city can be doing to give greater support to students who are experiencing housing insecurity?
[00:09:54] Alexandra R: Some of the specific data points we found where that 54% of young people said affordable housing would make the community better. So we already see more than half of them really demanding affordable housing because it’s not only impacting them, but it’s shaping their communities. We found that 31% of youth addressed lack of affordable housing as an issue in their neighborhoods, and what was really alarming was that 40% of youth don’t even feel hopeful about their ability to live in New York City when they grow up. So that’s really upsetting because young people are not seeing this access to affordable housing and it’s pushing them out of their communities. And what was the second part of the question?
[00:10:32] Jon M: Was there specific discussion about immediate things that the systems can be doing? For example, I’m not sure currently. I know from the past that you would have students, say, who were living in a shelter environment in one location and would be going to school near there. And then all of a sudden the family would be moved, say from lower Manhattan to the Bronx, which would just totally disrupt everything in terms of their school. Even though they had the right to continue to go to the same school, it could frequently become very impractical. I’ve wondered if this was anything that came up in either the opinions or in the discussions with the Chancellor and people like that.
[00:11:15] Alexandra R: I know specifically in our recommendations, some immediate things that we have were baseline childcare funding for homeless college students with dependent children, which was really important. We also, similar to what you had mentioned about students that are housing insecure having to be moved suddenly, designating shelter units for housing insecure students who are enrolled in college so they will have their own dedicated space where they are able to focus on school. And we would also just basically like to uplift, provide adequate resources, overall, access to wifi devices for students in temporary housing, academic support, expanding afterschool programs and social emotional learning, which comes up also in other recommendations for different topic areas.
[00:12:01] Jon M: Sure. What are some of the proposals to combat food insecurity, and did students cite this as a big issue?
[00:12:10] Alexandra R: Yes, the young people cited this as a big issue. One of the alarming data points that we found was 47% of young people who took the Youth Census in 2021 reported experiencing food insecurity in the last three months prior to taking the survey. So that was very, very alarming. It did show a big demand for the city to focus on making food accessible and consistent. As far as recommendations, creating micro food hubs and community gardens and urban farms was a big recommendation because we’re able to involve young people in all aspects of the food production. Letting city-funded youth programs pivot to meet community needs with any flexible funding that they may have; supporting young people and youth programs to develop mutual aid initiatives was something that we heard a lot. And creating community fridges that are also working as works of art was something we saw from our youth, because they want their communities to have art into look beautiful and appealing in a way that uplifts them but also to address the immediate needs of the community members, which was having access to consistent food. And expanding food safety net programs already in place was another one of our recommendations.
[00:13:20] Jon M: What are micro food hubs?
[00:13:22] Alexandra R: Micro food hubs basically look like the community gardens and urban farms. But then community’s local spaces for growing food specifically for the community.
[00:13:34] Jon M: What are some of the ways that you could see the City supporting mutual aid societies? I know that there are mutual aid groups springing up around the city. What are some things that the City could be doing?
[00:13:48] Alexandra R: Providing funding and supports for the mutual aid initiatives that are present. We found that the young people really demanded that and felt that they were really helpless. So I think that it’s important that if we see our young people advocating for something that they say is helping them, that our city step up with whatever the young people and the community members feel is necessary. So whether that looks like funding, extra supports and things like that.
[00:14:12] Amy H-L: What are the students asking for in terms of improved mental health?
[00:14:18] Mukilan M: So for the mental health recommendation, we have tons of data points. For example, 69% of students reported being anxious enough to make it hard to participate in their academic, social, or family lives. And 83% of those taking the census reported feeling stress, and I can read off these data points, but I feel like the mental health crisis, especially with the youth in our country, is so clear and has been so well documented, but there haven’t been real solutions and we need to actually fund, progress because it’s clearly a crisis that we have in our city.
And for our recommendations in terms of mental health, we focused on expanding social emotional learning and mental health supports, specifically for people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and immigrants. And we want to strengthen relationships between schools and community-based behavioral health providers to get specific attention to communities that need it in terms of mental health.
And then in terms of schools and communities, we want to expand and invest in community-based response teams that can actually understand and help and aid youth mental health, and reroute mental health 911 calls to experts. And for schools, we want to reduce the number of school safety officers and retrain officers with deescalation-in-crisis training to better be able to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ people and minority communities.
[00:15:52] Eugenia B: And in terms of data, we found that more than a third of youth report wanting or needing mental health services. And these were particularly youth from the Bronx and Manhattan and among the youth that wanted mental health services, only 42% reported receiving those services. So clearly there’s a disconnect in who wants mental health services and who’s actually getting mental health services.
[00:16:23] Jon M: The surveys were conducted, I’m assuming, during the pandemic. Is, that right?
[00:16:29] Alexandra R: Yes.
[00:16:30] Jon M: Was it possible to get a sense of how much students felt that a lot of these issues across the board, but especially I’m thinking of mental health, were particular to the pandemic period or, exacerbated a lot, or was it that these were issues that have always been there, but then perhaps the pandemic just made worse?
[00:16:51] Eugenia B: Well, we didn’t see this in the survey particularly, but I can definitely say that mental health was definitely an issue prior to the pandemic. A lot of students, particularly in my school, didn’t really feel safe going to guidance counselors or going to people who were supposed to be “trusted adults” in their school for mental health issues, because they felt that they couldn’t trust their teachers or these “trusted adults” with their issues. They were always scared that the teachers would use their mental health issues against them, or, you know, disclose this private information to their parents or other teachers.
[00:17:38] Jon M: Wow, that sounds like a really serious issue. Do you have any idea of whether it’s something that the school system is dealing with or is it just something that’s there but nobody talks about? And I know that you may not have statistics on this, but I’d be curious with any of these.
[00:17:57] Eugenia B: Yeah. So I recently heard from, there’s a person in DOE that handles this, and I heard from her that this past year, they’ve added significantly more guidance counselors and social workers to schools. I don’t have the exact number, but the DOE is working to solve the mental health problem through that avenue. But. I’m not sure how they’re trying to solve the trust issue. That still seems to be a problem. Yeah, I think that definitely needs to be addressed quickly.
[00:18:34] Jon M: Definitely. What should the City be doing to improve economic mobility?
[00:18:40] Mukilan M: We specifically focused on youth employment and improving school curricula. Those were two, two of the main focal points we had in our recommendations. And for youth employment, we wanted to increase partnerships with local companies, expand on the SYEP program and for schools to teach financial literacy and skills for economic security. It’s basically absent from the NYC DOE school curriculum. And when we consider how important it is in our world and how important it is to have a future, to be able to be adequately financially sound, and know what you’re doing. It’s just incredibly important.
And the other part we wanted to add was increasing the life skills part of the NYC DOE curriculum since again, these are real world applications of things that students need to be learning and students need to be doing in their life. So if they don’t know how to do it, it’s going to create a problem that could be avoided if we simply just teach them that in high school. And yeah, those were the focuses of our recommendations.
[00:19:49] Jon M: One of the questions I wanted to ask is, I mean, the data that you’ve collected isreally powerful. And it sounds as though the whole process was, was done in a really solid kind of way. What kind of organizational support have you been receiving from adult organizations? For example, that have, have a lot of experience with data collection and on.
What role have the groups that you’ve been working with played?
[00:20:19] Alexandra R: Specifically for the Intergenerational Change Initiative, we really value collaborations between young people and their adult allies. So when we start working, when we go to collect the data, it’s not, there’s not a power imbalance. We’re viewed as coworkers and co-researchers, which is really, really beneficial.
[00:20:38] Jon M: The Intergenerational Change Initiative is related to CUNY. Am I correct?
[00:20:44] Alexandra R: Yes. It’s housed at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.
[00:20:48] Jon M: And what about the other organizations?
[00:20:52] Eugenia B: So at Youth Action, I can say the same. We work with people from CCC and there is no power imbalance. We are treated as equals, and they kind of also serve as mentors and help us to really achieve what we want to do, whether it is conducting the survey or planning the policy breakfast, or just creating our transition plan for the Voicing Our Future project. It’s across everything that we do, we are always supported and never treated as less than just because we are youth.
[00:21:30] Mukilan M: Yeah. And reiterating those ideas for YVote, I think in the planning of the youth policy breakfast and picking the focus recommendations we were going to do, these are the recommendations that youth want and it was youth led, but there was incredible support from adult allies that we worked with.
[00:21:50] Amy H-L: So aside from what you’ve already mentioned, what are some of the policies that you’d particularly like to see in schools?
[00:22:00] Eugenia B: Well, for me, I would definitely like a requirement that each school have a COSA, which is a Coordinator of Student Activities, who actively compiles and shares opportunities with all students. As I said before, a huge problem we found with the leadership and civic engagement recommendation is that many students aren’t aware of the many opportunities that exist for them in New York City. So if all schools were to have this resource, a COSA, more students would be aware of these opportunities and would be able to take advantage of what these youth organizations have to offer such as social development, personal development, career development, and an array of many other things.
[00:22:49] Jon M: So you’ve mentioned some of the access that you’ve had to elected officials and agencies. Could you describe that, sort of in one piece, what the policy breakfast was and who have you been able to meet with in the city government?
[00:23:05] Mukilan M: The policy breakfast was basically us presenting, both as a large group and in stations, these topics to a bunch of leaders and an array of people that are important, both in the Mayor’s office and in terms of youth leaders and youth groups. And we compiled all of this, we presented all of this, and we basically handed out commitment sheets to see how these leaders wanted to work with us to advance the Youth Agenda and get these policies passed. And since then we have planned several meetings with Councilmember Rita Joseph. I think the Chancellor was very supportive at the actual event and we have a planned meeting with him as well as the Comptroller, who’s also very supportive, specifically on the issue of housing. That’s where he wants to focus.
[00:23:51] Amy H-L: And how do you plan to follow up with these elected officials?
[00:23:56] Mukilan M: I think in the meetings, the focus should be on how we can work with them to use their power to get all of these policies passed since they know what we want. And we were very clear at the Youth Agenda that we want actual commitment and actual accountability this time. And we need them to actually take action. We want to see how we can meet with all these people who have shown interest and see how we can move forward.
[00:24:25] Alexandra R: I know that the young people really just want to establish a meaningful partnership with stakeholders, with these policy makers, and with adult allies, because oftentimes youth are not given a seat at the table and we’re not given a chance to express our views and wants, and needs and experiences in terms of issues that are directly impacting us. So we would really just like to uplift a meaningful partnership so young people can give their input and create a better city for everyone.
[00:24:53] Eugenia B: And we also want to make sure that when we do meet with these elected officials, it isn’t just a meeting that goes nowhere. It’s not just a meeting and then there’s no change that comes afterwards. Oftentimes when you do meet with these elected officials, they will claim that they have heard us and that they will take what we have told them into account when they are making policy. But that rarely happens. Usually they hear us and they congratulate us and commend us for being, you know, so active and being so young. And that’s the main focus as being so young, but not really what we have to say. So we just hope that when we speak to these elected officials, that they will hear us and actually take what we have said into account and be transparent about what they have done when they have heard us and what they have used from what we said to help.
[00:25:50] Jon M: I’m intrigued that a couple of the things you’ve mentioned in terms of the Youth Agenda and things that you’ve found, I guess, are unique to students, such as the fact of students not necessarily trusting that they have a trusted adult that they can go to in the school. And the fact that so many youth just don’t know about the programs that are out there, that they’re supposed to help them. Were there other things that struck you in particular where what students are saying is different from what some of the adult groups in the city advocacy groups say? Having the student voice, adding to what you know, around issues like housing and so forth is absolutely critical, but I’m also interested in where there are things that have just gotten totally overlooked because people haven’t been asking or listening to the students.
[00:26:41] Alexandra R: I think in terms about something where maybe we’re not listening to the students. I feel like a big issue that kept coming up was financial literacy. The young people, the students really, really want financial literacy courses. I know one data point that stood out to me was only 14% of youth who took the census learn how to file taxes from schools. That is a very, very important real-world issue. So I feel like young people are really, really asking for these things, but maybe adult allies or people who are able to implement these things might not be hearing young people when they’re asking for these to learn these really, really crucial life skills. Maybe it’s like, oh, you’re only in high school. You won’t need this until way, way later. But young people are really, really demanding this education now because it’s going to impact their families and their lives into adulthood.
[00:27:28] Amy H-L: Well, all of these proposals seem extremely well thought out. Have given any thought to where the funds are to pay for them?
[00:27:38] Alexandra R: Can you elaborate on that question?
[00:27:41] Amy H-L: Sure. Clearly, affordable housing, mental health services, all these are expensive. Have you thought about, where the funds are to implement these programs. Where it’s going to come from?
[00:27:59] Eugenia B: Well, definitely the City and the DOE. They have funding. I’m not really a financial expert or I didn’t really know how those things work, but I do know that when these problems arise, the funding comes from the City or the DOE or the State. So we’re definitely hoping that the DOE or the State will make more of an effort to allocate funding to these causes.
[00:28:29] Mukilan M: Yeah. And in terms of one specific area where we want to sort of reroute funding into mental health support is for redefining safety in schools and communities. We want to reduce– instead of policing students, and reducing the number of school safety officers, investing in mental health services and implementation of behavioral supports and restorative justice to actually give these students the mental health support they need instead of just policing them.
[00:28:56] Amy H-L: That’s a really good point. I suspect with a lot of these programs, the question from elected officials is going to be, what should we cut out in order to implement new programs?
[00:29:10] Jon M: Or perhaps if they’re really brave, maybe they could even think about, you know, raising taxes on people who can afford it. So they don’t have to cut anything out, but did you get that kind of response from any of the officials, of sort of wanting to dodge the issue by making funding the question rather than the answer?
[00:29:34] Mukilan M: I think we’ll have a better sense of this after the meetings with the leaders and policy people that control the policy, especially since at our Youth Agenda, we presented these and there was general support as we’d expect. As people were talking about before, like they were supportive of how these young people are taking steps towards change, but now we need to actually meet with them and see what they’re saying about how we can get this passed and how we can fund it and work with them on budgeting these different policies, especially the Comptroller in his meetings, since he is the chief financial officer.
[00:30:15] Jon M: Do you coordinate with other youth activist groups around the city? For example, Teens Take Charge, I know of, and other groups like that. Is there general coordination or people loosely in touch?
[00:30:30] Eugenia B: Well, there were other youth organizations in attendance at the policy breakfast. I can’t name them off the top of my head, but I think Youth on the Move was at the policy breakfast. And as we’re going forward, setting up these meetings with elected officials, we do hope to collaborate with, other organizations such as Teens Take Charge, Integrate NYC , Ya Ya Network. So facilitating those collaborations are in the works. Yeah, we definitely hope to collaborate moving forward.
[00:31:06] Jon M: Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about your organizations or about the NYC Youth Agenda, ways that people can be supportive?
[00:31:15] Eugenia B: Well, in the beginning we did send out a petition for the Youth Agenda. It would be great if listeners could sign that petition to show these elected officials that the rest of the city does support these initiatives and will support them taking action to actually address these issues.
[00:31:38] Amy H-L: We’ll post that petition on our website with this interview.
[00:31:42] Mukilan M: Another thing people could do to put pressure on these leaders is reach out to them, contact them, send them emails. And just generally tell them what you want from our Youth Agenda and put community pressure on them. Since what we need to do to get them to act is show them that the youth are united.
[00:32:07] Jon M: Thank you, Eugenia, Alexandra, and Mukilan of the NY Youth Agenda.
[00:32:10] Eugenia B: Thank you for having us.
[00:32:12] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly newsletter. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York city area. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.
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