Max Neuman

This post is part of Fusion's Teen Month series, a month-long dive into the lives, loves, and language of teenagers.

Maybe you wouldn't be able to see it if you were staring up from in front of the house, but what about from across the street? From the corner? Would an 11-foot roof deck—smaller than the owners originally wanted, the result of a compromise with the landmarks committee—disrupt the architectural integrity of the block? Does a family with a rear deck even need a roof deck? These were the questions being debated, at times heatedly, as the members of Brooklyn's Community Board 6 (CB 6) worked through the agenda at their first general board meeting after the summer hiatus last week.

The motion, as proposed, was rejected. Next up: a shop on Court Street needed a new security gate; a representative for a city council member talked about the proper disposal of household medications; the Public Advocate's Office provided an update on a suit against child services over the wait time for foster care placement.

By the time the community session started, it was almost 9:00 p.m. Kara Gurl, 17, still hadn't started her homework. Kara, along with board members Max Neuman, 16, and Akash Mehta, 17, had just finished her first day back at high school. All three are seniors, and all three joined CB 6—serving Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Gowanus, and Cobble Hill—after New York passed a law last year allowing anyone over the age of 16 to be appointed to a community board. There are 59 boards across the five boroughs, each overseeing land use permits and acting as a sounding board for their neighbors' needs and complaints. And, so far, there are around 20 teens in New York City doing exactly that.

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"I wasn’t sure when it was going to open up," Kara told me after the meeting, trying to remember how she first learned that she could join her local board. "I just wanted to get more engaged. I thought this would be, I guess, an entry level way into politics and learning about how transparent government actually is."

Max said he learned about it at a political fundraiser on the Upper West Side, and Akash was recruited by Brad Lander, a council member representing the 39th district who also stopped by the meeting. After making a few announcements—good news about a movie theater, not so good news about a hospital—he smiled at the three teens and snapped a photo. ("It's not patronizing!" he laughed.)

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That kind of thing—sincere enthusiasm that can also feel, intentionally or not, a little like a pinch on the cheek—is not exactly an uncommon response. Kara, Max, and Akash get that there's something novel about teenagers who can't legally drink issuing liquor licenses, but they are definitely there to work.

"I’m mostly interested in questions of accessibility," Max told me when I asked why he wanted to join the board. "Whether it’s accessibility to affordable housing or accessibility to good parks without a towering, dozen-story apartment building looming over them. I’m doing this mostly to ensure accessibility to people from all sorts of different backgrounds in this district."

Akash, who had already interned with Lander's office and a few political campaigns, told me he came with an interest in transportation. And since none of them are drivers yet, he's particularly focused on expanding bike lanes: "There have been studies done on bike lanes that show they actually reduce traffic time when they’re in place, like the one in Prospect Park, and that's one way I think a group like this can make real, substantial change."

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Kara, Max, and Akash offer sharp, well-crafted responses when they talk about what they want to accomplish on the board—it's pretty much what you'd expect from teenagers who actually want to be spending two hours every month arguing about landmarks and zoning laws—but were candid that part of the experience, at least in these early days, is about figuring out how everything works.

"I had no idea before coming here that so many different things had to be approved by so many people," Kara said. (Full disclosure: neither did I. After listening to the board debate regulations on windows and the height of additions, I felt genuinely relieved that I'll never be able to afford property in New York City.)

I asked them if, even in their short tenure, they'd ever found themselves in disagreement with the older members of the board. After all, concerns about bars, noise levels, and, well, things old people care about seemed to be a reoccurring theme at the meeting. Did they ever feel like the adults were out of touch?

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Akash was diplomatic, pushing back against my olds vs. youngs binary. "There’s a spectrum as to where the adults fall," he said. "You definitely have your community activists who are opposed to almost all new sources of noise, who want things to stay the same. I probably fall far closer to the end that’s more accepting of things like new bars."

"But," he shrugged. "I also have a lot to learn."

It was getting late. We rode the elevator together and talked about Parks and Recreation. Everyone's a fan, but Max said that it's an exaggeration of what really goes down at meetings. (There haven't been any Star Wars filibusters or roller skating elected officials… yet.)

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I asked if they ever worried that serving on the board would interfere with the basic stuff of being a teenager—spending time with their families, doing school work, hanging out with friends.

"I think we can all make it work," Kara told me. "I mean, I know right now I have to go home and do my homework, but I feel like this kind of takes priority sometimes. Not that I’d put school aside, but this is the entire community at stake."