Justin Westbrook-Lowery, a southeast Bronx native, dove into politics at an early age, and at 17 became one of the youngest community board members in his borough when he joined CB9 in 2015, while he was in high school. And although he’s not a teenager anymore, Westbrook-Lowery stays active as vice chair of the South Bronx board’s social services and housing committee while he pursues his bachelor’s in political science at Fordham University.
Yet, Westbrook-Lowery doesn’t have to be alone when it comes to service on the community board. Borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., has started a new push urging teens to follow Westbrook-Lowery’s lead and apply to their local community boards.
“The earlier young people become engaged in community affairs and interact with government officials and agencies, the better they will understand government and become active leaders in their communities,” Diaz said, in a release. “It is important to hear the voices of our youth when planning for our neighborhoods.”
The opportunity to serve on the boards has been open to teens for several years now after state legislators lowered the minimum age to serve from 18 to 16 in 2014. Still, many youngsters don’t realize they can have a direct voice on their local governing body board.
“I think that if you walked up to a young person on the street, there’s probably an 8-in-10 chance they wouldn’t know what you would be talking about when you spoke about a community board,” Westbrook-Lowery said. “I think that a smaller number would know that you as a young person could serve as a member.”
That needs to change, he said. And it starts with outreach.
“We need to get into schools and let people know that if you’re interested in politics, in student government, you should be able to consider those options open to you,” Westbrook-Lowery said.
Getting teens to join, however, hinges not just on outreach, but also on a shift in thinking — among both teens and adults — when it comes to the role of youth in politics and community affairs.
“I think we need to change the stigma that ‘young people are disengaged, why do we waste our time?’” Westbrook-Lowery said.
The election of Donald Trump, however, was a wakeup call for teenagers, and given the current political climate, “the ground is very fertile” for them to participate, Westbrook-Lowery said. “We’re in an age where people can’t sit idle, and the question is, how can they put up the fight?”
Diaz said his office is working hard to find more young people like Westbook-Lowery as the February application deadline approaches to serve on the community board. Beyond the borough president’s website and social media platform, Diaz himself has visited schools urging teens to apply.
Right now, just three of the Bronx’s 12 community boards have high school members, Diaz said, and none of them are here locally in Community Board 8. Yet, if Diaz has his way, he will start off the next fiscal year with at least one person younger than 18 appointed to each board.
That’s something CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty would very much like to see.
“It’s always wonderful to have diverse voices on a board,” she said. “Young people are certainly a piece of that, so I think the borough president is spot-on when he focuses on this and tries to get people interested.”
Shalva Gozland served on CB8 for a year while she was in high school. When she resigned in July 2016 to study abroad, Ginty emailed board members.
“We will miss her and her hard work,” Ginty wrote at the time.
“Everybody was delighted to have her,” she added. “It was a shame that she was leaving, but everyone was excited that she was going on to do something she’d wanted to do.”
Gozland is the only person younger than 18 to serve on CB8 since the age requirement was lowered, Ginty said.
As far as outreach goes, Ginty asked Lamont Parker, chair of the youth committee, to reach out to local community centers.
“If a teenager is determined enough to participate in the programs of a community center, that’s exactly the kind of person who might be interested in being a member of a community board,” Ginty said.
Whether a lot of teens are itching to dive in to community affairs, however, Ginty’s not certain.
“I think of myself when I was that age, and my friends, like anything else, some do and some could care less,” she said. “I’m sure young people are like every other slice of our society.”
Plus, teens are busy enough as it is without attending board meetings.
“They have a lot to do with their school, a lot to study, a lot to plan for their future,” Ginty said. “They’re involved in sports, they’re involved in many things. But I do think there would be a segment that would want to get involved in civic matters.
“It’s not for everybody — you wouldn’t want it to be for everybody.”
Councilman Andrew Cohen sees an infusion of youth as a way to provide some additional perspective to a board that has a lot of long-term members on it.
“The flipside of this story is there are some people who have served on the board for a very, very, very, very long time, and it might be nice to give more people from more diverse backgrounds the opportunity to serve,” he said.
Adaline Walker Santiago, chair of neighboring Community Board 7, enthusiastically supports the idea.
“The bottom line is we’re encouraging everybody to apply,” she said, adding that whenever she attends an event at a community or youth organization, she announces CB7 is accepting applications. She also reaches out to PTAs and churches.
“We’re looking for those who can make a difference, and who are interested in a political or civic career,” Santiago said, “because this is a good place to start.”