Community Board 3 has long been known as a hotbed of liquor licensing debates, among other things — but its new member isn’t even old enough to drink. (Or vote in local elections, for that matter.)
“It’s a little nerve-racking. They all go to the bar after the meetings and talk, and I can’t do that for the next five years,” said Leila Eliot of her fellow board members as she nursed a large chamomile tea. When we met her at one of her favorite local spots, The Bean on Second Avenue and Third Street, it was teacher development day at Bard High School Early College. That meant no classes, and she had plans to meet her friends that afternoon to see a movie.
Sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with her high school logo, Eliot seemed liked a typical Manhattan-bred 16-year-old. But ask her how she feels about her neighborhood, and the answer is earnest, unequivocal and very adult: “I love it,” she said. “The East Village is kind of a very politically and socially active place, so I’ve grown up with people who really stand up for those who can’t speak up for themselves, or who don’t understand that they can. I’ve always wanted to be part of that.”
And thanks to new legislation passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last August, she will be a part of that in a very real way as Manhattan Community Board 3’s first 16-year-old member.
It happened very naturally, Eliot said. Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, a proponent of the bill, recently held an informational meeting and recruitment event for young people interested in joining their local boards. Eliot leapt at the chance to apply t0 the board, which advises on matters of city policy, on behalf of residents of the East Village, Lower East Side, and part of Chinatown.
“Leila played a leadership role at my office’s recent community board information session for teens,” Brewer said, “and after having worked for years to open community Boards to teens, I’m excited that I’ve received a stack of applications from 16- and 17-year olds eager to follow the trail Leila has blazed.”
Eliot believes her age lends her a unique perspective on her rapidly changing neighborhood; rising rents have led to the disappearance of some of her favorite places from her childhood. “We used to go to Benny’s every Friday from the time I was two until I was 10,” she said. “I’m not sure yet how to bring it up directly with the community board, but an issue I’m passionate about is small business rent stabilization.”
Eliot will attend her first board meeting as a full-fledged board member this month. Though the board doesn’t itself have the power to change laws or city policy, it does wield a considerable degree of influence: among other things, it conveys its district’s financial needs to the City as it determines its annual budget, relays citizen complaints to the appropriate agencies, and makes recommendations regarding zoning, landmarking, and liquor licensing.
All community board members serve on a volunteer basis and are appointed to staggered two-year terms, with half selected by the Borough President and half by the City Council members representing each community board district. Brewer selected Eliot to fill the vacancy left by Joyce Ravitz, who resigned from Community Board 3 in the middle of her term.
Eliot said she wants to observe the meetings more before committing to any particular committee, but she’s interested in issues surrounding education. She’s especially passionate about keeping the arts in schools. “They’ve been cut a lot recently because of underfunding, especially in elementary schools,” she said, adding that the issue hits close to home because her 10-year-old brother is currently suffering the consequences.
Eliot is interested in pursuing medicine but said she expects politics will always play a role in her life, even if only at the local level. She’s likely no greener than many of her older peers on the board; she interned for Rosie Mendez last semester and had been regularly attending Community Board 3 meetings as a member of the public for the last year.
In fact, she’s been hanging out in public meeting rooms since she was too young to really have a choice in the matter; her father, Harvey Epstein, was a member of Community Board 3 from 1999 to 2013. “She would go to meetings with me and see what we were doing, and we’d talk about it so she understands what being on the board means. So it was unusual for a six-year-old to have that experience,” said Epstein, who is Project Director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center.
Through her father, Eliot has seen firsthand how perseverance can be a powerful force. One memory that’s stuck with her was a day last November when lawmakers were deciding the fiscal budget for the year. Epstein bailed on having lunch with his daughter to stick around City Hall and make sure a housing program got the funding it needed.
“He said, ‘I’m not leaving City Hall until I get the money,’” Eliot recalled. “The program had already been cut, but he stayed there. He got money in the end, which was great, but what I really got from it was the fact that he stayed and that idea of trying your hardest. The outcome is not as important as what you put into it.”
Eliot said joining the board was a decision she made solely for herself, despite her dad’s history on the board. “There are definitely aspects of my life where my dad has pressured me to do things, but this isn’t one of them,” she said, adding that her mother was a little apprehensive about her making such a big commitment — in a world of SAT prep and college tours, how would she ever find the time? “She didn’t want to me join because it’s long nights, and balancing that is hard, but in the end I said, ‘This is who I am, and I need to apply.’ And it all worked out well.”
Not that Eliot is immune from the pressures of her generation. “We have smart phones, Hulu, Netflix, and access to everything,” she said. “Adults say, ‘Just manage your time — put down the TV, do this,’ but I think schools are also failing to foster environments that help us manage our time. Procrastinating is a huge issue, but my assignments are online, so I have to use the computer. I’m on it because I have to be on it.”
One solution that works for Eliot is to take a deep breath and just shut off the TV and the music when she needs to get something done, a strategy that helps her to manage her responsibilities as co-president of her high school yearbook while making time for community board meetings, studying, teaching herself how to play the violin and, from time to time, just enjoying life as a teenaged kid.
Her fresh take on today’s issues could help or hinder her when it comes to interactions with board members — but Epstein said he’s not worried about protecting her from the naysayers who may say she’s too young, since adversity is just a part of life. “Hopefully she will be treated respectfully, because she has thoughtful things to add to the conversation,” he said. “Youth and human services she can speak to from a youth perspective. I was a young person a very long time ago and don’t understand what the youth are going through now, but she does.”
Eliot hopes that allowing younger members on community boards will help to foster a new generation of politicians who are in it for the benefit of the public, not their own wallets: “A lot of politicians, the first thing they think of when they get out of school is, ‘How do I make some more money? How do I be wealthy?'”
She’s hopeful that if they’re allowed to participate at a young age, members of her generation will be different. “When you start out on such a community level and hear people talking about their issues, it starts to foster a loving and caring mindset,” she said.