Amid a Push to Get More Young Voters to the Polls, Will NYC’s Mayoral Wannabes Listen to the Priorities of New York’s Students?
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A grueling year and a half of remote learning has indelibly marked the 17-year-old senior: He temporarily became the family breadwinner — like several of his friends in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — when his parents lost their jobs and didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.
For months, Sanchez struggled with a schedule that could break an adult, working a 40-hour week at McDonald’s while taking classes full time.
This past year helped cement in him what he hopes will be priorities for New York City’s next leaders.
“We’re going to put kids back into school, [and then] what will they have? Will their sports be back? Will the clubs that they love and enjoy be back?” Sanchez asked. “Will there be easier access [to] food for the students?”
Many of his fellow young New Yorkers feel the same way.
A new survey released June 6 by the nonprofit Citizens’ Committee for Children asked 1,400 New Yorkers ages 14 to 24, starting in February, about their thoughts on politics and agenda for the next mayor and other elected officials.
Those results, along with additional interviews of young people by THE CITY, show the biggest areas of focus are on improving schools, paying more attention to student wellness and healing the planet.
Nearly 90% of respondents felt that elected officials must move the needle on climate change, while just over 80% said that public schools need more resources.
Mental Health Is Top of Mind
The CCC survey found that young people are seeking help at schools: Some 35% of respondents said they wanted or needed mental health resources, with youth from The Bronx (50%) and Manhattan (44%) reporting the highest rates.
Citywide, only 42% of those who said they needed help found it, according to the researchers.
“I think what really was sobering from the youth survey is the concerns around behavioral health needs, and acknowledging they had behavioral health needs and lacked access to supports to address them,” said Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens Committee for Children, which enlisted about 200 young people to work on the survey.
Milena Veliz, 18, of Woodside, is ready to cast her vote for “someone who will really think about the hardships youth are facing and how they could actually resolve those issues.”
“Being stuck on Zoom all day…really brings down your mental health and brings a lot of stress,” she said. “There’s not a lot of resources for me to talk to someone about it.”
New Voters, Newly Engaged
From the pandemic to social-justice protests and police violence, “the combination of everything that happened over the last year, really has focused the thinking about local politics,” said Olivia Brady, the youth engagement coordinator for NYC Votes, the city Campaign Finance Board’s get-out-the-vote initiative.
“A lot of young people are thinking about their lived experiences in the city, their experiences with the education system, with the pandemic, with policing, and they’re really understanding the way that all of our local elected officials impact their day-to-day quality of life,” she added.
Election officials are hoping to mobilize that heightened political engagement. NYC Votes is pushing for almost double the turnout of registered voters 18 to 29, from 13.5% in 2017 to 25% this year.
Tuli Hannan, 19, will be one of many new mayoral voters.
She is outspoken about her own struggle to access mental health services, frustration with safety agents and lack of resources in her public high school. Still, Hannan said the energy boost she got organizing and leading Black Lives Matter protests last summer drives her hope for change.
The Queens teen keeps a list of the mayoral candidates beside her in her Sunnyside bedroom. She hasn’t settled on who she’ll vote for, but she said she wants a mayor who is “really a New Yorker” and knows the city like she does.
“We need someone that can invest their time in the youth and in New York City residents and people my age,” Hannan explained. “[To] be able to open their minds to our thoughts and our perspectives of the world because — we have a lot to say.”
Taking a World View
Almost 87% of the CCC’s respondents agreed with the statement “government must take more serious action against climate change.” Interviews and written survey responses showed young people believe that the time to act is running out.
“I want to see a candidate in office that’s going to… actually take steps in New York to work against the impending, essentially, doom that young people are going to have to face as we grow up,” said Kenisha Mahajan, 15, who lives in Middle Village.
Like Hannan and Veliz, 18-year-old Griffin Must, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan, will also be voting for the first time.
He considers this election to be especially important because it will determine, as he put it, “How are we going to, not only bounce back from [coronavirus], but also then improve?”
Walking through his Upper West Side neighborhood, Must said he’s struck by the empty storefronts and wants a mayor to prioritize promoting local businesses. And as he looks ahead to attending college at William and Mary in Virginia in a few months, he also looks back on his own top-notch public school education with an eye to increasing access for others.
Like nearly 82% of the survey respondents, Must says public schools need more resources. He wants city leaders to explore “getting rid of the specialized [admissions] tests, or at least finding a way to be able to diversify specialized high schools,” and making sure the next mayor develops a good relationship with the chancellor.
One thing that not all respondents agree on, however, is school policing. Nearly 45% of young people surveyed said that school police officers make them feel safer, while 30% said the opposite.
Hannan said that her relationships with school safety officers were good when she attended well-funded elementary and middle schools. In high school, her perspective changed drastically: “It’s like we’re treated like animals.”
She believes schools should staff up with guidance counselors and social workers, instead of cops.
“It gets really brutal sometimes,” said Hannan. “And it affects your mental health, your mental state, how you feel, how you’re seen in society.”
Time to Listen Up
March, of the Citizens’ Committee, said the priorities of youth represent a clear call to action for city leaders.
“Ultimately, the success of their future will be the success of our city,” March added.
While the survey found that only 35% of the young New Yorkers felt they have no say in government, 40% believed that they do. The remaining were largely undecided.
Enough seem to understand that whether or not they’re part of the electorate, they’re part of their elected officials’ constituency and are poised to make their voices loud and clear.
Students involved with civic engagement group Y Vote have created tools to help their peers distinguish among the candidates and navigate the races.
In Our Hands, a coalition of more than a dozen local youth activist groups, released a policy platform with top priorities that more than 20 candidates have signed onto so far.
The group is set to soon hold a mock election, where young would-be voters can cast ballots that will mirror the official one — with ranked choice voting and all.
Pharell Kendall, who at 17 is too young to vote in the June 22 citywide primary, said that for years kids have had to “just deal with it” when it came to city policies that affected their lives. He thinks that’s changing.
After working for over a year on the CCC youth survey, Kendall hopes to hold candidates’ feet to the fire at an upcoming youth mayoral forum on June 9. It wasn’t immediately clear how many candidates would participate.
“Hopefully,” said the Harlem teen, “someone will hear me, what I have to say, and will make a change about it.”
Sanchez is biding his time while he prepares to take matters into his own hands:
“If I have to do it myself, I’ll do it myself. And that means running for mayor,” he said — noting he’d wait until at least the 2037 race.
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