Co-Op Grad Becomes Next Downtown Alder

Lucy Gellman | November 8th, 2023

Co-Op Grad Becomes Next Downtown Alder

Co-Op High School  |  Culture & Community  |  Downtown  |  Elections  |  Music  |  Politics  |  Arts & Culture

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Kiana Flores on Election Day, outside of the Ward 1 polling place. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Kiana Flores grew up seeing how libraries, schools, and community centers could support a whole neighborhood, from its youngest residents to newcomers who needed help getting their bearings. As downtown’s newest alder-elect, she wants to bring that spirit of connection to how she governs, with climate-forward policy, a focus on affordable housing, and weekly working groups that bridge town and gown.  

Flores, a junior at Yale and graduate of Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School who was raised in Fair Haven, ran unopposed for alder in Ward 1, which covers downtown to Howe Street and Edgewood Avenue in one direction, and Chapel and Elm Streets in the other. As she prepares to represent the area, she’s focusing on the New Haven moments that have shaped her, from years at Junta for Progressive Action to grassroots climate activism that has grown into a youth-led movement. 

When she takes office Jan. 1, she will replace Alder Alex Guzhnay, another lifelong Fair Havener and Yale student who announced over the summer that he would not be seeking reelection. During his tenure, Guzhnay sat on the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission, the term for which ends in December of this year. Flores said she does not yet know if she is interested in taking his seat. 

“When Alex said, ‘I’m not going to run for reelection this year,’ it kind of felt like a natural transition into this role, given that I had had all of these experiences in New Haven,” she said Tuesday afternoon, soaking up the sun outside the New Haven Free Public Library polling place as Ward 1 voters trickled in. “I had this experience with the New Haven Climate Movement, and this desire to move past the Yale bubble and get more involved in my city while I’m still here.”

Flores' interest in civic life—before she even had the words to call it that—started in a multifamily home off Chatham Square Park in the city's Fair Haven neighborhood. The middle child of Honduran immigrants, she got to know Fair Haven through its deep-rooted community organizations, particularly Junta for Progressive Action and the Fair Haven Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. 

At Junta, she learned to trust neighborhood adults while her mom took English classes, and she received childcare in the back room. After school or on the weekends, her family would spend hours at the neighborhood branch library, attending film screenings and checking out books. As she got older, she learned to look forward to celebrations on the Quinnipiac River and through the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association (CHNA), which held annual costume and halloween parties that became the stuff of Fair Haven legend. 

Because most of her relatives still live in the neighborhood, she's never away from it for very long. 

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New Haven Climate Movement members Alissa Boutviseth, Alia Salem, and Kiana Flores at an event in February 2020, before COVID-19 hit New Haven. Lucy Gellman File Photo.  

"I think it was really great to be able to see how the community would work together to uplift itself," she said. "There was just such a great sense of community. It was a really amazing place to grow up. There was so much emphasis on making sure that kids, like, had things to do. It was such a welcoming community."   

As Flores got older, she grew to love Fair Haven's role as a self-sustaining business district, where independent bakeries and restaurants sat shoulder-to-shoulder with healthcare clinics, social service organizations, small, well-stocked botanicas, and the perfect place to find a quinceañera dress.

On Grand Avenue, she discovered, there was nearly everything a city resident could need, from grocery stores that sold jícama, calabaza squash and bags of dried hibiscus to pharmacies that kept them up to date and informed on their vaccines.  

While Fair Haven was and is her first home, Flores became interested in downtown as a teenager, while studying the clarinet at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. During school hours, she worked diligently under band director Patrick Smith, braving the online pivot after Covid-19 hit in the spring of her junior year. In the afternoons, she took classes at the Neighborhood Music School (NMS), grateful for the exposure to other young musicians that a scholarship opportunity granted her. 

It was during that time that climate activism also caught her attention. Even then, Flores could see the effects of climate change, which appeared Tuesday afternoon as New Haven turned from wet and gray to almost balmy within hours. When she helped form a youth arm of the New Haven Climate Movement, arts seemed like a logical way in. She has since folded poster-making, drumming, music, and costumes into the group's work. 

"It was just so easy to tap into that community," she said. 

That activism is still at the front of her mind when she thinks about her new role to-be on the Board of Alders. Currently, Flores’ priorities include affordable housing, cyclist and pedestrian safety, and more climate-forward policy for building developers, whose work is directly tied to greenhouse gas emissions. In part, she sees her role as continuing the groundwork that Eli Sabin has laid, first in Ward 1 and now in Ward 7 (downtown and East Rock). 

"I think it'd be really great to really look at these issues and policies, to see where we can spark innovation and get these policies passed," she said. "That's kind of where my head is at." 

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Flores with State Sen. Martin Looney.

While she will be representing downtown, she is also thinking about how to foster the feeling of tight-knit community that she always drew from her Fair Haven neighbors and the surrounding neighborhood. As Alder, Flores intends to create a Ward 1 "policy team," a mix of Yalies and non-Yale New Haveners who can meet weekly, and talk policy, from mega-landlords to bike lanes. 

She said she's also thinking about the role that the New Haven Green can play as a shared gathering and civic space as part of her ward. 

Along the way, there have been little signs from the universe that she's very much ready. Last semester, she was taking a course taught by former Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. about political life in New Haven, and learned about several of the pro-immigrant measures he implemented during his 20-year tenure. When the class got to a video on the Elm City ID Card, Flores was amazed to see her uncle lining up outside of City Hall. 

"It made me realize the importance of local policy," she said. "I think a lot of people nowadays put such an emphasis on national and international politics. And that's all very important! [But] I think sometimes people don't value the services that a city can provide to its people, and that's something that I really took to heart." 

Strong New Haven Ties

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Adrian Benzon: "It feels important to engage with the city in this way."

Tuesday, Flores found herself already providing constituent services as voters stopped by to ask questions that ranged from ballot measures to polling locations. When a driver pulled up to the curb asking for help finding a polling place, Flores jogged over, happy to help. The driver stuck his head out the window, and gave her a name and address to check. 

Flores was ready. Pulling out her phone, she typed in a Temple Street address to the Secretary of State's website, and waited a beat as the page loaded. Then she gave directions to 200 Orange St., which is the city's Hall of Records. The car pulled away with a chorus of thanks.  

Back at her table, State Sen. and President Pro Tem Martin Looney looked over a spray of sun-dappled campaign fliers, beaming as he listened to her description of growing up in Fair Haven. Looney also grew up in the neighborhood, on Wolcott and later Woolsey Streets. On recent visits back—which he still represents in the state legislature—he too has waxed poetic about the value of the neighborhood branch library in his life.  

"I'm so pleased that we've got someone with strong New Haven ties running," he said, trading notes on Yale's residential colleges (Flores is in Pierson; Looney's son was in Saybrook) and how often Flores goes home to see her family and get a home-cooked meal. Before heading out, he made sure to give her his cell phone number, in case she needed anything. 

"Great meeting you!' he said. He added that after reading about her candidacy in the New Haven Independent, he was excited to see a Fair Havener on the ballot. 

As the sun rose overhead, Yale student Adrian Benzon stopped by to cheer Flores on and cast his vote. A senior studying education and English at the university, he said that the issues closest to his heart are public education and advocacy around homelessness. 

While Benzon is originally from Nevada, he switched his registration in 2019, to vote for Eli Sabin in a race against Republican Chris Marcisz. Tuesday, he said he was excited to vote for Flores, who has become both his peer and his friend during their time at Yale. 

"Even for someone who is like, a temporary resident of New Haven, I think it feels important to engage with the city in this way," he said. "And so now, it's like, I actually know and am friends with Kiana, and trust her."