Grassroots groups help create young activists

Tatiyana Dorsey, 12, and her friends at A House on Beekman marched through Mott Haven on Nov. 21 calling justice for hurricane-torn Puerto Rico. Photo: Allyson Escobar

Holding a handmade sign, Tatiyana Dorsey, 12, marched down 138th St. in Mott Haven with a group of local kids, all shouting for justice for Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.

“We are not a colony! You owe us an apology!”  

“I wish that adults would understand kids better,” said Dorsey, a seventh grader at Bronx Academy of Letters. “Sometimes, they treat us like how they wouldn’t want to be treated—like we don’t know what’s going on. What if the same thing [in Puerto Rico] happened to us, we would want help too.”

Dorsey is one of many young people in the neighborhood becoming more politically aware and active in their communities, through involvement with local organizations.

According to the American Community Survey, New York City has an estimated 1.8 million kids under 18, and nearly 214,000 in Congressional District 15, which includes Mott Haven.

“If we seriously want youth to care about politics and social issues (and to vote regularly), we need to take them seriously,” wrote Adrienne Carmack for the Center for Community Change. “The most powerful tools we have for justice are our lived experiences; why should we limit these tools to adults?”

Creating a safe, engaging space for youth to talk about social justice issues empowers them to act, local organizations agree.

A House on Beekman, an afterschool program in Mott Haven, organizes local marches and events, including the Nov. 21st march for Puerto Rico, at which more than 50 elementary and middle school students participated.

Program director Oxil Febles said her responsibility is to help students understand their purpose and power, and to put into practice from a young age.

The K-8th grade program holds age-appropriate conversations about current events and issues. Children as young as 6 have marched for causes including the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“I think sometimes we underestimate the capacity of kids to critically analyze things,” said Febles. “We connect them so they feel empowered and a sense of ownership, and that they feel compelled to do something about it.”

Encouraging teens to become civically engaged is “a challenge to affirm and build” the Bronx’s future leaders, said Pamela Villa, a prevention services manager with BronxConnect—an alternative-to-incarceration center for at-risk and formerly detained youth.

“The challenging thing about activism is getting young people to care [about issues], when they’re already living it—the racism, the neglect of the system in this community. But when you’re young, the possibilities are endless,” Villa, 27, said. “We’re trying to figure out activism as a means of teaching life-skills and mentorship. It’s just a matter of starting the conversation. As soon as you start, something clicks and they realize they are destined for greatness.”

Community activist Amanda Septimo, 27, started her involvement with A.C.T.I.O.N. at The Point CDC during her high school years in Hunts Point.

“I think now, with the Trump administration, young people are now maybe more engaged and enraged—and there’s an opportunity to channel that dissatisfaction and anger.”

Septimo—who at 23 was promoted from intern to District Director for Congressman José Serrano—said that having a “healthy skepticism ignites a rising-to-the-occasion fire in you.”

“Teenagers in the Bronx are dealing with so many complex issues—I don’t blame them if voting and civic engagement isn’t a priority. It’s about giving them a reason to care,” she added. “When you have the concept of self-empowerment instilled for so long, there’s something in you saying, I can take more control.”