Two years ago, while a freshman at CUNY, Austin Ochoa skipped class to fine-tune his résumé and fill out a thick application. Most students cut school to sleep off a hangover or head to the beach, but Ochoa had other things on his mind. It was the last day to apply for Manhattan community board membership, and at eighteen, he was just old enough to qualify. With dreams of becoming a district attorney and fighting for the disenfranchised, Ochoa figured he might as well jumpstart his political career.
Several months later, the California native and Chelsea resident became the youngest member on Community Board 4. Though still a college student, his version of a late night became less about studying and dorm room shenanigans and more about lengthy board and committee meetings. His friends didn’t really get it. Now a twenty-year-old sophomore, Ochoa won’t be an anomaly for much longer. Thanks to legislation passed in Albany last year allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to qualify for local community board service, a whole new class of young members will now be able to enter city politics at an early age.
“We’re holding ourselves to represent our neighborhood and members of our communities,” said Ochoa. “You’ve really got to hold yourself to a high standard 365 days a year.”
Earlier this month, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer announced this year’s new community board appointments, effective May 1. Across the borough’s twelve community boards, 316 appointments were made, including six teenagers.
“As a former community board member, I know community board service is a serious commitment,” Brewer tells the Voice in an email. “Through a long career in public service I’ve met so many young people who are absolutely up to the task of community board service.”
Manhattan is the first borough to announce its 2015 community board members. Brewer has made it a point this year to encourage local teenagers to apply, resulting in more than two dozen younger applicants. Other borough presidents are hoping for similar youth engagement, but not all have been so successful. In February at P.S.48, Staten Island Borough President James Oddo held a town-hall-style talk with high school seniors to candidly discuss local issues and drum up interest in local government.
“Everything I have done since taking office has centered on the goal of increasing civic engagement,” says Oddo. “This includes young people, which is why I focus so much time on talking with our young people and encouraging them to get involved in their community.”
Staten Island accepts community board applications year-round, and has filled its three open spots for 2015. As of now, the youngest member is 27 years old, but Oddo continues to hope that more teens will apply. Meanwhile, Brooklyn received more than 500 applicants and is currently in the process of selecting new members. According to a spokesman for Borough President Eric Adams, nine applicants under eighteen have thrown their hats in the ring. The Bronx received a dozen applications from teens, said John DeSio, press spokesman for Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office. Appointments are typically announced in early June. Though the submission date has passed, DeSio said teens are still eligible to apply.
Sarah Andes, site director for Generation Citizen, a New York–based youth nonprofit, says the rising number of teen applicants is promising. Generation Citizen, along with other community organizations and leaders, spearheaded a grassroots campaign supporting a bill reducing the community board age limit from eighteen to sixteen years old.
The bill, which also allots up to two seats on each community board for the younger set, only just passed last summer. Andes said it’s gratifying to see any applications come in, but she hopes that eventually two teenagers will sit on each of New York City’s 59 community boards.
It’s a change years in the making. Manhattan assemblyman Brian Kavanagh first proposed a bill lowering the age for community board eligibility in 2008. As it has weaved its way through Albany in the years since, the bill has had many backers, including Brewer and New York State assemblywoman Nily Rozic, a Democrat from Queens.
The 29-year-old Rozic knows firsthand the importance of early civic engagement. At 24, she joined her local community board in Queens, serving for two years before stepping down upon her 2012 election to the state assembly. Now she’s the state legislature’s youngest woman to serve.
“Lowering the age to sixteen allows us to empower youth and give them the chance to offer their perspective on a variety of issues in their communities,” Rozic writes in an email. “This way, they have experience both in and outside of the classroom that prepares them for a lifetime of civic participation.”
Not all share this view. Generation Citizen’s Andes says there has been pushback from longtime board members who wonder if teens are up to the challenge of serving their community given their age and time constraints related to school and extracurricular activities. But inexperience aside, teens are active members of civic life and can make valuable contributions, said Andes.
“They have a perspective that isn’t already at the table,” says Andes. “They have an enthusiasm and a creativity for thinking about solutions that I think can be really energizing for boards.”
A 2013 report by Circle, another youth nonprofit, shared data showing that 16-year-olds are as politically informed as 21-year-olds. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Tufts University–based group, says there’s no single day when the light switches on and young people suddenly turn knowledgeable.
“Do you need to be 30 or 35 years old to be informed?” she says. “The young people themselves are really the closest witness of what’s happening in the neighborhood. So when you think about the things that are happening that need to be fixed in the neighborhood, those are often from the viewpoint of the kids.”
Older members could also seize the opportunity to mentor the teenagers, who might end up city leaders in the future, Kawashima-Ginsberg adds. Community boards served as springboards for both Rozic and Brewer. They join a legacy of civic-minded individuals, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who at age sixteen received a special appointment to join Manhattan’s CB 12.
Ochoa hopes his community board experience will help him forge a political career. In high school, he interned for a local district attorney, an experience he says had a significant impact on his life. Now he wants to give a voice to those struggling to get by.
“I will never forget the stories from the people who have inspired me to want to stand in the spotlight,” he says.
Being a community board member is a significant commitment, but Ochoa — who serves on the board’s housing and health and human services committees — says he’s met many civic-minded teens who seem up to the task. Does he have any words of wisdom for the up-and-coming young community board members who may be joining the ranks? “My advice would be to not forget who they are, the reasons they are serving, and who they are serving to advocate for.”