Dozens of children gathered at the Peabody Museum on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to think about the future of their city. Through pictures and words, they responded to the prompt, “Dear Mayor Toni Harp, This is what I want for New Haven…” The posters they created varied widely in message and accuracy of spelling: “I want a happy home and a great place to grow up in.” “Don’t waste water, dudes and dudets.” “No more school!” “No guns.” “I want people being nice to each other.”
But the last one stood out most, the blunt intensity of the message mismatching its messy execution: “Stop kling everoen.”
This letter also stood out to the fifteen-year-old standing by me, Alex Marks: “There are little babies that know what’s going on.”
The museum organizers of the event invited New Elm City Dream, a youth group that addresses issues often considered too difficult for children to confront: unemployment, gun violence, incarceration, poverty. Founded in September 2011 by members of the Young Communists League (YCL), it asks children to be their own advocates. Though most of the group’s twenty or so members are in their mid-to-late teens, elementary school students also join the discussions. Many need parents or volunteers to drive them to the weekly meetings at the New Haven People’s Center, but as they waited for the chair of the group to present this week’s topics, they formed a convincing picture of serious grown-ups at work.
At a meeting in early January, pizza and ginger ale sat on the tables and a whiteboard displayed the agenda. In the community building on Howe Street, in the room where New Haven’s first interracial basketball team was formed, the members of the New Elm City Dream were ready to begin. All eyes were on a skinny middle-schooler with bright brown eyes, a bouncy ponytail, and an air of coltish exuberance: Alex Marks’s sister Jackie, age thirteen and current chair of the group. Then Jackie began to giggle.
The New Elm City Dream’s meeting rules state that no one is supposed to talk without first being acknowledged by the chair, but with the chair suddenly incapacitated by fits of laughter, anarchy prevailed. Soon lots of people were giggling. Jackie began pacing around the room, arms over her mouth, staring up at the ceiling in an attempt to defeat the giggles.
“You didn’t say anything about this before we left the house,” a newcomer, high school senior Tyrone Wiggins, whispered to his friend, who rolled her eyes, crossed her arms, and waited for the other younger members to settle down.
Jackie’s giggles were not nervous as much as they were self-conscious. She seemed suddenly aware that the idea of a young teenager leading a other teenagers in a structured discussion could be seen as ridiculous. The awareness, however, didn’t diminish her desire to lead; the group’s members are constantly preparing to take the stage before audiences that don’t expect children to speak out.
Once Jackie settled down, it was clear she could command a crowd. She announced that it was time for a game of “Dance Telephone,” in which people around a circle imitate each other’s moves. Despite some reluctance, everyone—from nine-year-old Zioney McCoy to twenty-eight-year-old David White—got up from their chairs, stood in the middle of the room, and began to dance.
When the New Elm City Dream was founded in 2011, the FBI considered New Haven the fourth most dangerous city in America. By the end of the year, the homicide count was thirty-four, making it one of the most violent years in over a decade. According to Lisa Bergmann, an organizer for the YCL and adult coordinator of the New Elm City Dream, she and the program’s other founders, David White and Nollysha Canteen, started to bring people together in a youth group in part because of such devastating violence. Fifteen of 2011’s victims were under twenty-five. The youngest was eight.
“People, especially younger people, were really scared,” Bergmann said. “They’re sixteen, seventeen, and their lives are being destroyed before they even get to start them.”
Canteen was a senior at James Hillhouse High School, and her friends were disappearing. “They were getting locked up or having kids at a young age or their parents were moving them to another state because of the violence,” she explained. “And I wanted to change that.”
The two recruited other young adults from their neighborhoods, schools, and extended families. Jackie, Alex, and their sisters Areliz, fourteen, and Capria, eighteen, have attended meetings ever since, as have Montell Wright, eighteen, and his cousin, Kelsha Sailor, fifteen.
These New Havenites spoke of violence, but also of the issues that spiral around it: there is a lack of after-school opportunities for young people. Latery, they struggle to find jobs, leaving them hard-pressed for cash and without ways to fill their time. The New Elm City Dream’s first big event drew attention to these intertwined issues. On November 2, 2011, the group held a candlelight vigil at the Center Church on the Green in remembrance of the city’s young people lost to violence that year, and then joined a march for jobs alongside members of Occupy New Haven who were camped out on the Green. For the first time, Bergmann said, group members felt that they were making a difference—and that people in the community were noticing.
“Everybody remembers that march,” Bergmann said. “After that, we sort of set the goals of bringing the neighborhoods together, ending the violence, and creating more job opportunities for youth.”
Explicitly linking violence to lack of economic opportunity gives the New Elm City Dream both a cohesive agenda and freedom to undertake varied projects. Members spent much of 2012 surveying 570 New Haven residents ages ten to twenty-five about their neighborhoods, and used the results to show demand for facilities such as the Q House, a beloved community center on Dixwell Avenue that closed in 2003 after almost eighty years. in operation Canteen served on the Jobs Pipeline Committee that created New Haven Works, a program that connects New Haven residents with jobs at partner employers such as Yale and IKEA. The New Elm City Dream was also active in the 2011 and 2013 aldermanic campaigns.
Jeannette Morrison, the alder for Ward 22, which includes four Yale residential colleges and the Dixwell neighborhood, said the New Elm City Dream members are some of her favorite people to work with. She admires their energy, their consistency, their boldness in speaking to powerful adults.
“They’re young, but they tackle big issues,” she says. “Not just issues that mean something for young people, but issues for all people.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of these fledgling activists is that work and play are all part of the same big picture. Back at the Peabody Museum booth, I spoke with McCoy and Shanya Houston during their lunch break. The girls were holding hands, each eating a Subway sandwich with her free hand. I asked them whether they felt affected by violence in New Haven. Still munching, they said they did because their parents are afraid they might get hurt—or worse.
“I sometimes wish I could go outside,” McCoy said. But Houston doesn’t like the cold anyway, and is happy to obey the instructions of their parents. Inside they can play makeup, tag, dress-up, and school.
They told me about the difficulty of standing up for the causes of the New Elm City Dream. Last summer, the group members took a trip to Washington, D.C. for the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech. They left New Haven at midnight, arrived in D.C. to march in the morning, and came home that evening. McCoy said her feet were hurting, the weather was hot, and she’s not sure the experience was worth all the suffering. Bergmann, however, thinks it was worthwhile. Along with thousands of other Americans, members of the New Elm City Dream and the YCL marched in Washington to carry the torch lit by an earlier generation of civil rights leaders. Jim Crow is gone, but full equality of opportunity remains a dream—and that can make recruitment challenging for groups like Bergmann’s.
“The conditions that people have to live in because of extreme racism and extreme inequality slow down organizing sometimes,” Bergmann said, “because people are trying to get through the day.”
More light-hearted stories wove their way into this talk of street shootings and freedom marches. Houston told me about a time when they went outside McCoy’s house to play for a few minutes. When it started to thunder, McCoy got scared and ran back inside. They laughed at the memory, and then got up to go watch the breakdancing troupe performing on the other side of the massive dinosaur skeleton.
If the younger members seem to not always know what’s going on, perhaps it’s because to them, the threat of violence seems as ubiquitous and commonplace as a cloud cover. It’s part of the problem they have to grow up with, along with bad sandwiches and tired feet.
At the People’s Center, Jackie eventually got almost everyone into a circle. I was the second person to dance in Dance Telephone—a blessing because I only had to do two dance moves instead of more than ten. Everyone laughed at me, at each other, and at themselves.
When we sat down again, Jackie announced the day’s main goal: to invite adults to a special meeting intended to showcase the group’s work and recruit new supporters. Though the members are proud of their own resourcefulness, adults can bring new faces to meetings, help with fundraising, and offer guidance.
Soon, giggles broke out again. Kelsha Sailor made fun of Jennifer Graham, sixteen, for covering her mouth all the time. McCoy hid her face in the crook of her elbow on the table’s surface. Areliz Marks slouched in her chair and folded her arms over her chest.
“We would have better discipline if we had more adults here,” Jackie said.
“I’m thinking about it less as them disciplining you and more as your sharing your awesome work with them,” Bergmann responded. She wants this organization to be a forum for young people to practice leadership and find their own venues for community involvement, not another space for adults to call the shots.
The organizers of the meeting talked about their marches, their survey findings, the committees that members have sat on, and their goals for the future, including a march for Nelson Mandela’s birthday in June. Canteen and White demonstrated how to encourage an adult to attend the event over the phone. Then the New Elm City Dream members pulled out their phones to start calling.
Sailor complained that she invited her sister to the meeting and her sister didn’t come. “That means you keep inviting her,” Alex said.
Jackie wanted to get the mayor’s number. At last week’s meeting, when they first began discussing the February event, Jackie almost seemed to be joking when she suggested inviting the mayor. But Bergmann said she didn’t see any reason not to, and this week Jackie was adamant. “I need to call Toni Harp.”
A year ago, she spoke at the New Elm City Dream’s Peace, Love & Jobs march, at which she and about seventy-five others chanted: “Jobs for youth, jobs for all.” They called on the city to offer better careers and more youth community centers. After the march, they headed up Whalley Avenue to the home of Tramire Miller, who had been a year old when he was struck by a bullet in the stomach in October 2012. He survived, but in Jackie’s speech, she offered her condolences for everything he had suffered.
“And I told him when our meetings are,” she told me, so when he gets older he’ll know to come to the People’s Center at 5:30 every Thursday evening. “But I sounded like a baby, which was embarrassing.”
“You did not sound like a baby,” Bergmann protested.
Jackie shrugged and said she doesn’t get nervous in front of crowds, whether or not she sounds like a baby. “I don’t want to be in the background not talking. This is what it’s here for, to have your voice heard.”