When the Mayor is Twelve Years Old

By Nicole Fogarty

If “all politics is local,” then Henry Street’s Boys & Girls Republic (BGR) self-government model is a prime example. Once students enter BGR, they are “citizens” of the “republic,” and can run for office. Legislation is voted on at council meetings, and citizens who break the rules are prosecuted at court trials with a jury of their peers.

Self-government enables young people to take an active role in shaping their after-school “society,” and builds confidence. That was in evidence recently when Henry Street’s Executive Director David Garza paid a visit to the elected officials of BGR, which is located on Avenue D on the Lower East Side.

Officials in attendance at the meeting included Mayor Nate Pizarro, City Clerk Emani Wilson, Prosecuting Attorney Amber Brennan, Comptroller Adrianna Fernandez, and Council Members Jayden Aybar, Tristan Flowers, Tyla Nelson, Tyia Nelson and Arianna Santos, along with Sports & Recreation Coordinator (and former BGR Mayor Luis Checa, who serves as the self-government advisor, and Henry Street’s Director of Education Services Brian McCollum.

The packed agenda of this weekly meeting included the need to collect taxes at the Settlement’s Cornerstone Community Center, which participates in self-government with BGR. Taxes are $4 per year, and any citizen who fails to pay gets prosecuted for tax evasion (after a few friendly reminders, of course).

After discussing activities for citizens during the upcoming spring break, one member said, “We should have a Town Hall meeting with all the citizens, so we can hear what everyone wants to do, and then figure it out.

Other topics in the meeting included possible improvements to the game room and how to make gym time more equitable for everyone, with each official carefully weighing options and approaching issues from points of view that differed from their own, an admirable and important trait in any elected official.

The officials then turned their attention to Garza, their special guest. They had prepared questions, and had a chance to pose them directly to the Executive Director. The questions centered on broad themes: Garza’s biggest professional struggles, his career trajectory and influences, and the history of BGR within Henry Street Settlement.

In his answers, Garza drew parallels between running a settlement house and governing the citizens of BGR, stating, “A lot of the work that you’re doing here at BGR is just like the work we’re doing. We each have to balance emotion, knowledge, money, and more in the decisions that we make, all while making sure everyone’s voices are heard.”

Additionally, Mayor Pizarro asked who had helped Garza the most along his professional journey, to which Garza shared that the people he’s worked with and served over the years, particularly his supervisors, were instrumental in getting him to where he is today.

The tables then turned, with Garza asking each official to share how BGR makes them better students and better friends.

“BGR makes me a better student because it helps me to think on a higher level. I’ve learned to figure things out in more creative ways,” said Pizarro.

Added council member Tyla Nelson, “It teaches me that I have to take responsibility for my actions in school, and pay more attention to what I have to do to succeed.”

Council member Flowers focused on how his involvement in self-government has impacted his friendships within the program, explaining, “BGR has made me a better friend because I’m learning how to know what my friends want out of the program, and how to help them get it.”

As the meeting closed, Garza thanked the officials for their time and insight, and gifted them each a Henry Street pin, so they could continue to represent the organization in all that they do.

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