M elissa Waldron of the local environmental group Sweet Green Things had a youth-oriented urban farming project she wanted to get off the ground. She brought it to the Citywide Youth Coalition, she says, because CWYC Executive Director Rachel Heerema is “an amazing networker. She touches nerves throughout the city. She has her finger on the pulse of everything. She’s a trusted resource. She works tirelessly for kids. It’s people like her that make New Haven a place you want to live in.”
Hashim Allah of Hallah Edutainment also approached CWYC with a project still in its formative stages. He’s starting a youth-run internet radio station he describes as “a student version of NPR.”
“Rachel’s a centerpiece for all that’s going on,” Allah says. “The first meeting I was at, I ended up joining the coalition. There must have been 17 youth organizations at that meeting. It’s a place where we can help parents, students, educators, administrators… Rachel’s done the work of getting them together already.”
“‘What can we do to help?’ seems to be her power,” Allah continues. “Rachel’s our bridge over troubled waters.”
Every month, the Citywide Youth Coalition hosts a meeting at Workforce Alliance. The theme of the next gathering, March 21, is “Preparing Adults and Young
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People to Partner Effectively.”
The coalition also holds “Come Together Breakfasts,” is planning a Youth Summit, and has helped the city of New Haven create an online “youth map” highlighting many of CWYC’s community partners.
But events are not what the Citywide Youth Coalition wants to be primarily known for. It wants to be known for being a coalition. The CWYC doesn’t sponsor many programs itself. Its job is to help organizations which do, by spreading the word and by connecting those sponsors with groups doing similar things.
“We’re conveners,” Executive Director Rachel Heerema explains. The Citywide Youth Coalition creates dialogues among its 40-plus member organizations. It makes regular postings to the 500 followers of its Google group and the 1000 members of its email list.
And it wraps up that assistance in a positive message. As Heerema puts it, “All youth in New Haven could be successful, if we work together.”
Heerema defines success in a number of different ways. Some young people may be
more successful than they realize, and just need to feel encouraged. “They’re currently poets. They’re currently in bands. They’re currently active. They’re there now, having a huge impact on the life of the community now.”
“The deeper work is shifting the framework of the conversation toward youth success, and finding those who need to be more engaged in that conversation. There’s a role for everyone in shifting our community so that we support young people.”
In some cases, the good works of those organizations which the CWYC promotes bounce right back to help the coalition. Hashim Allah sees his proposed student news operation as a way to add audio and video elements to the outreach the CWYC already does with email and social networks.
“We have plenty of service organizations in the city already,” Heerema says, but some of those resources aren’t widely enough known or being used to their fullest potential. “You need to create supports and opportunities.” Member organizations in the coalition include New Haven Family Alliance, Empower New Haven, New Haven Ecology Projects, Music Haven, Squash Haven and New Haven Reads.
The CWYC was born in New Haven City Hall back when Frank Logue was mayor, and was involved in one of the country’s first pre-school lunch programs. In 1989 the coalition was reorganized as a freestanding non-profit organization. The city pays dues as a member, but no longer oversees the CWYC; Heerema does, out of a small office at The Grove co-working space in Ninth Square. The staff consists of herself and communications specialist Sheila McCreven.
“How can we support young people and help them be successful?,” Hereema asks. “Let’s talk about success, positive youth development, finding solutions to the problems. It’s very grass roots, with a new focus on our mission that all youth can succeed.”