Tired of drunk loiterers plaguing their neighborhood —intimidating elderly shoppers and keeping children out of parks —students at IS 204 in Long Island City recently decided it was time to take action.
For the past three and a half months, 31 students from the middle school have worked with the nonprofit Generation Citizen to curb the drinking and loitering problem by creating petitions, writing letters to newspapers and contacting elected officials and civic leaders. Generation Citizen works with students in lower-income neighborhoods throughout the city to teach them how to become more effective citizens.
“Loitering and public drinking is a major issue, and we want that to change,” said Hanif Ahmed, 13, of Astoria. “Let’s say you have a child and you see someone public drinking, you don’t want your child to see that. If you’re going into a store and see groups of people trying to intimidate you, it could drive down business.”
Ahmed and his peers were recognized on Friday for their attempts to better western Queens, and landed the “best collaborative effort” title from a panel of judges, including elected officials and community leaders, at Generation Citizen’s “Civics Day” at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan.
After studying the problem and speaking with area business owners, the students said they believed increasing the fine from $25 to $100 for first-time offenders caught drinking in public would help to eradicate the problem. If someone is caught again, the students argued they should have to pay for themselves to attend a rehabilitation program.
“One of the biggest reasons the students chose to look at this issue is because when they try to go to the park across from their school, they can’t because people are drinking there,” said Drew Lombardi, a chapter director with Generation Citizen who has worked with the IS 204 students twice a week for the past three and a half months. “One soccer player was robbed when he tried to go to a nearby park. To them, it’s part of their day that they might get robbed or harassed. We were trying to make them realize this doesn’t have to happen.”
This is the first year that Generation Citizen has worked with IS 204, and the students who participated are in an honors social studies course and a class titled Environmental Action Through Technology.
“They now understand if there’s a problem that just complaining amongst themselves won’t make a difference,” said Melissa Diaz-Lee, who teaches their social studies course. “They know that petitions, writing letters to the editor and getting groups together can make a difference and gives them a stronger voice in their community.”
Ellen Krant, who teaches the environmental class, said the program helped to empower the students.
“They didn’t understand how the political system worked, and they didn’t see, because of their age and where they come from, that they have a voice in government,” Krant said. “This taught the students that when they speak, people do want to listen.”
The students agreed, saying the program has inspired them to take on future problems that may arise in their neighborhoods.
“We learned that no matter how young you are, you can still make a difference in your community and that you can change the world for the better,” said Mohammed Islam, 13, of Astoria.