PHS Students Advance Program Proposals For Positive Change in Local Community
By Donald Gilpin
Undaunted by the limitations of youth and inexperience or a seven-month pandemic lockdown, three Princeton High School students are looking to implement their original plans to make a difference in the local community — in health care, in youth engagement, and in the relationship between police and the young people of Princeton.
Participants in the Social Pioneers Program of the NJ Youth Civics Coalition (NJYCC), formerly the Princeton Youth Program for Civic Engagement — senior Alice Feng, junior Jimmy Weinstein, and sophomore Han Li — were ready to present their proposals to community and government leaders at a pitch event in April. The event was canceled because of the pandemic, however, and the students have had to find other ways to advance their ideas.
Weinstein, whose goal is to help build the relationship between the Police Department and the young people of Princeton, explained why he got involved in the Social Pioneers Program. “I have spent too many years complaining and listening to others complain, so I figured it is time to try and fix something that is terribly important in our community,” he wrote in an email. “I am opinionated, but I never act. This issue has always been important and a bit controversial, and I thought the least I could do was find a simple solution, even if it doesn’t create world peace.”
In addressing the challenges of a relationship that Weinstein described as “rocky” and at times “severely strained,” Weinstein’s proposal, originally created in late 2019 before this year’s nationwide protests over policing, calls for many events where kids and police communicate with each other “to discuss different sides and stories, for kids to learn what to do during police confrontations, for police to learn kids’ opinions on what they feel should change.”
He added, “The only way to get a solution is to discuss. If our youth and our police do not know each other, what is the point? This project looks to have everyone feel safe in their town, and this is the best way to start.”
The focus of Feng’s program is Community Health Workers (CHW), an organization that helps low-income and minority populations, facilitating access to health care systems and providing psychosocial support. She noted that Princeton’s affordable housing units and low-income neighborhoods are often overlooked.
“Moreover, the language barrier and unfamiliarity with the health care system often prevent new immigrants and vulnerable populations from seeking proper care,” she said, with CHW programs implemented only sporadically in the state. “CHWs are critical to meeting the current moment of COVID-19 in health care.”
She continued, “A local CHW initiative that addresses health education and prevention, mobilizes local talents, generates income for vulnerable populations, and promotes community ownership would undoubtedly be beneficial to the well-being of the town as a whole.”
Li’s plan is a multi-faceted one, seeking to get middle and high school students more involved in the Princeton community by helping them learn about civic engagement and find opportunities to apply what they learn.
He looks forward to working with teachers to either create a separate class or to include education on civic engagement in existing classes. “Then I want to create and advertise a website that can be used to promote different volunteer and other civic opportunities around Princeton so that people, especially teenagers, looking for places to get involved in the community, can have one site with all the different links and descriptions,” he said.
Li emphasized the importance of the health of the community rather than just the success of individuals. “A healthy, striving community is the paragon of success, even more so than personal success in any form,” he said. “That’s also where charity comes in because a successful community is one that is giving back and working together to solve its problems.”
NJYCC has been active in the past few years working with area schools to build to build civics-related curriculum and support teachers with training and resources. Partnering with the Princeton Public Library, the Princeton Farmers Market, the Princeton Battlefield Society, the YMCA and others, NJYCC “focuses on empowering the next generation of citizens to make meaningful positive change in their communities,” according to NJYCC co-founder Neena Patil.
“These three students are wonderful and amazing, and they came at this challenge for different reasons and with very different experience,” she said. “Alice already had experience working on community projects and crowdsourcing; Jimmy is a wonderful, energetic person who really wanted to learn and be a part of conversations; and Han uses his own experience to identify needs, often starting with what was impactful for him, what helped him to shape his mindset around wanting to be a member of his community and wanting to give other students that opportunity.”
The NJYCC created leadership workshops for the students, inviting community and education leaders to help the students to think about the root cause of the problems they are trying to solve and to build communication skills designed to help them to influence people through their words.
In this pandemic year of hybrid learning, when the programs of these young social pioneers seem even more important than ever before, Patil is working with PHS to find the most effective forum for Feng, Weinstein, and Li to present and then implement their ambitious programs.
“NJYCC not only provides me with information on the importance of civics, but also the opportunity to bring changes into reality,” said Feng.