Council Of Teens Advises Menino

Reporter's Notebook

BOSTON--Last Tuesday evening, Boston Chief of Health and Human Services Juanita Wade poked her head into a meeting in City Hall and found they weren't speaking the language she is accustomed to hearing in the mayor's sixth-floor offices.

Sitting around a conference table in the den of the city's top brass, 17 teenagers were yakking about sneakers, CK perfume and how they were going to straighten out Boston's inner-city neighborhoods.

The Boston Mayor's Youth Council--a group of 36 high school students selected to represent each of Boston's 15 neighborhoods--was having one of its bi-monthly meetings.

Wade had come to inform the group of a newly appointed drug "czarina"--the latest development in the city's war on drugs.

And while Wade had her lines polished after a day of spinning the media, it was this group of youngsters that was about to ask her the toughest questions.

The kids cut straight to the chase. They wanted to know what the new city employee would actually be doing.

"What is the official role of the czarina?" asked a skeptical council member.

Although it was an innocent question, it revealed the considerable gap between those who spend their days in the city's schools and those who spend their days in City Hall.

"We think differently than they do because we're coming from the youth's perspective," said Lanita Tolentino, one of the council's two Roxbury representatives.

It was just that perspective that Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino wanted to understand when he established the council in the spring of 1994.

The gum-chewing adolescents provide the mayor's office with a window on the problems that face inner-city youths.

"Its a real honest way of figuring out what's important to them," said Patty McMahon, a member of the mayor's staff who is responsible for coordinating the Youth Council.

But the partnership, which according to McMahon is the only one of its kind in the nation, is not all about talk.

Over the past four years, Menino and his Youth Council have set up a series of programs aimed at creating a more positive attitude among Boston's youths.

Council members say they have been very successful in creating jobs and after-school activities for young people.

In addition, the group has established the "Youthline," a telephone number kids can call each afternoon. Callers can speak to a council member about problems and concerns, or to find out about activities going on in the city.

This April the group will be holding its second annual Mayor's Youth Summit, a day-long meeting bringing together more than 1,500 city school children to listen to speakers, participate in workshops and learn about activities in the Boston area.

While students are encouraged to bring their own opinions to the meetings, as representatives, they are also responsible for gauging the feelings of peers in their neighborhoods and voicing those concerns as well.

Most Boston neighborhoods are represented by two students on the council. Each delegation plans small community meetings, allowing their constituents to be heard.

And last Tuesday in City Hall, many of the youth representatives reported the feedback they got from peers at local sessions.

The ideas ranged from an under-18 dance club and a skate boarding rink to basketball leagues and animal-rights discussion groups.

And while city-wide initiatives do not necessarily come out each of these ideas, McMahon says, it is good for the mayor's office to know that they are issues on the minds of city youth.

But the mayor seems to have gotten more than a new perspective from the council.

In fact, to some it may seem like he has 36 new grandchildren.

Menino has taken the kids under his wing and made a serious effort to establish personal relations with the group.

"Even if he's got 200 people in the room he'll sit there with these kids and chit-chat with them," McMahon said.

Earlier this winter, when the New England Patriots beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game, Menino held the victory barbecue that was promised to him by Jacksonville's mayor.

The mayor seized the opportunity and had a feast with the Youth Council.

Last week, the group was still comparing notes on bread sticks the mayor gave them at another recent banquet.

Although members of the council have a very high-profile extra-curricular life, they're still a bunch of high school kids.

At the last meeting, when McMahon asked Tolentino to tell the group about her experience on a panel with President Clinton, the youngster was curt.

"What do you want me to say, I sat at the round-table with President Clinton," she said.

And for Tolentino, the biggest problem seems to be that fellow council members are now calling her "Miss I-Met-The-President.