Teen Summit Sets Its Sights on Social Justice

Members of the Teen Arts & Culture Council, seen here, at their Aug. 3 event on the High Line. Photo by Rowa Lee, courtesy Friends of the High Line.

BY REBECCA FIORE | With sweeping views of their neighborhood below and the open horizon before them, Chelsea’s elevated park proved a fitting venue for a Teen Summit dedicated to sharpening leadership skills, fostering social justice, and having fun.

Hosted by the Teen Arts & Culture Council (TACC; part of Friends of the High Line’s teen program), the theme of the Aug. 3 event was “A Different World” — as in trying to “envision the world you want,” said Naomi Estevez, a 17-year-old from Chelsea who attends high school on the Upper East Side. “We tried to come up with certain ideals that we really wanted to broadcast,” she said of the event, which welcomed “anybody; it doesn’t matter their race or their gender or how they express themselves. We just wanted to create a safe space where they can learn and also have a great time.”

There was one caveat: no adults allowed. The summit, which took place on Aug. 3 from 5 to 9 p.m. near the W. 14th St. entrance on the High Line, attracted about 500 teens between the ages 14 to 19. The only adults permitted were the ones who worked for TACC or volunteers from organizations in coordination with the night.

Estevez, who helped organize the event, said she became involved with TACC in part because her teachers skip talking about some of the things that weigh on the minds of teenagers, such as, racial and gender inequality.

“At school the teachers in subjects like social studies and history, they don’t take enough time to really focus on those issues because they are so focused on the curriculum that they are assigned to do,” she said.

Estevez took matters into her own hands and joined an all-teenage space in her community where she could discuss social justice issues and what it means to “stay woke” with her peers. Three years ago she applied to the council. “It’s a really friendly environment where I feel really accepted,” she said of TACC. “I’m not afraid to fail.”

The Door – A Center of Alternatives led a dance workshop. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

Teenagers between the ages of 14-19 living or attending school in Chelsea are eligible to apply for this paid position. The Green Council is the other group of teenagers focusing on issues pertaining to the environment, horticulture, and food justice. This is Estevez’s first year as a leader.

“The leaders, who are in the second and third years of the programs, they are the ones who conduct the interviews,” Becky Alemán, the adult leader of the council, said. “We usually get a few hundred applications.”

The Aug. 3 Teen Summit was Estevez’s sixth time organizing a teen event. This year, she was on the food committee. Every year since 2013, TACC has organized two summer gatherings — Teen Night, in July, and a Teen Summit, in August. From February to the end of August, the council meets a few times a week. Leaders, however, meet throughout the fall too, according to Alemán.

“The teens who coordinate this event, we had a lot of adults come in the last event, and they are really passionate. They want to keep it a teen event,” Myrna Cabán Lezcano, the associate director of education and cultural organizing, said.

“This is an opportunity to deepen awareness and message. We want to celebrate artists as activists. We are really interested in honing in on equitable space,” she said gesturing to the High Line, “as it’s not just for tourists.”

Between the pizza, ice cream sundae bar, screen-printing table, candle-making, and a photo booth, the council planned every detail of their end-of-summer event. The deck was even lined with well-known quotes from civil rights activists Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The council booked the talent for the night as well, which included local DJ Mursi Layne; The Door – A Center of Alternatives, who led a dance workshop; producer/musician B Breezy; and poets Gabriel Ramirez and Aaya Perez.

“We wanted to showcase up-and-coming performers and friends of friends,” Estevez said.

Booking the talent was Imani Hinnant’s favorite part of planning the evening. Hinnant, 16, is a first-year member of TACC who lives in the nearby Fulton Houses.

“We started thinking about what we wanted as a theme,” she said. “We see all this injustice all over the world. … I wanted to see teens in the area, around New York City, dancing, being happy, and enjoying each other’s company so we can build a better community together.”

Teen practice screen-printing a T-shirt. “Stay Woke” is its message. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

Various organizations, with a focus on youth culture, held tables with social justice themed projects. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (brotherhood-sistersol.org) a nonprofit focusing on developing youths into critical thinkers and community leaders, had a “Design Your Own Planet” activity, where “What does your perfect utopia look like?” was the question posed to teens.

The Whitney Museum of American Art (whitney.org) had a table where teens had a chance to learn about the museum’s “An Incomplete History of Protest” exhibition while making their own protest banners.

At a bracelet-making table, teens were encouraged to “use colors to symbolize multiple parts of your identity.”

A dance workshop held by youth development services organization The Door – A Center of Alternatives (thedoor.org) gathered a large crowd to the stage. Teenagers volunteered to lead the workshop, kicking and jumping on the stage before their applauding and encouraging peers.

Lezcano said in the past, each event has brought in anywhere between 600 to 800 teenagers citywide.

Tiara Williams, 15, has been on the council for five months. While Estevez said her team focuses on putting flyers up at the Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses, some teens discover them through social media. Williams found out through Facebook, and said that TACC has given her many opportunities so far.

“I’m learning more about our community,” she said, “and what are good ways to connect with the community. We also learn about [preparing for] colleges, resume building, and writing a cover letter.”

As for Estevez, she isn’t sure what she wants to be when she gets older, she said she plans “on majoring in psychology or sociology. I definitely want to continue bringing people together.”

For more info on TACC, visit thehighline.org/blog/tagged/teen-arts-council.

Teens illustrate and answer the question, “What does your perfect utopia look like?” at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol table. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.
Naomi Estevez, 17, was on the food committee for the event, handing out pizza. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.