On Primary Day, Newhallville Youth Get, Give A Crash Course In Democracy

Lucy Gellman | August 9th, 2022

On Primary Day, Newhallville Youth Get, Give A Crash Course In Democracy

Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Politics  |  Arts & Culture  |  Newhallville  |  Voting

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Shamar Sheppard, Erin Trimble, Marlo Rose Johnson, Barbara Vereen, Alaysha Clark, Babz Rawls-Ivy, and Avery Roberson. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Nine-year-old Avery Roberson isn’t old enough to cast a vote in the state’s primary election, even though she’s learned about the candidates. Tuesday, she and her peers still got a chance to participate in the democratic process—and to teach voters a thing or two themselves—thanks to a neighborhood mentor who showed them every step of the way. 

That was the story Tuesday, as educator, organizer and Newhallville community champion Kim Harris arrived at Lincoln-Bassett School to vote with a group of neighborhood youth in tow. In what has become a primary day tradition, Harris now makes sure students from Harris and Tucker School are by her side when she enters the Ward 20 polling station, so that they understand how voting works. 

In turn, those students are teaching people about how to identify and fight the social determinants of health that often show up in their own lives, and the lives of their peers and neighbors. For Harris, it is all part of increasing access through education.  

“When I look at these kids and I think about our counterparts, our white brothers and sisters, and the experiences that they have—how they are so ready to become the next mayor, the next alderperson, the next president of the United States of America—it’s only because they’ve had the exposure,” she said as students spread out around her. “Our parents have to work so hard to just make the ends meet. And that’s why we have community leaders that are out here.”

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Marlo Rose Johnson, 7, talks to Harris and Babz Rawls-Ivy. 

Tuesday, that began in front of the school, as six students fanned out in a line, ducking into patches of shade as the temperature continued to rise. Inside, voters were casting their ballots. 

As students gathered around her, Harris primed students for the ballot they were about to see. Because she is a Democrat, she was only voting in two races—State Treasurer and Secretary of State. The first was a three-way race between lawyer Erick Russell and Elm City Communities Chief Karen DuBois-Walton—both New Haveners—and Fairfield-based financier Dita Bhargava. The second was a two-way race between New Haven Health Department Director Maritza Bond and State Rep. Stephanie Thomas. (Russell and Thomas wound up winning their respective contests.)

“Remember what we talked about earlier,” Harris said. “If there’s more than one person running, they have a primary. This is what the primary is right here. So we have to decide. Miss Kim has to come in, and look at who is running, and she’s gonna make a decision.” 


Six tiny bodies scurried over to the front of the school, waiting for Harris to declare that it was time to enter. A hush fell over the space, and it was so quiet that one could almost hear the day’s humidity bearing down. Every so often, a welcome, icy burst of air conditioning escaped from inside the building. Then in unison, the pint-sized members of the group began to move their arms and legs into the word V-O-T-E.

“Give me a V!” they ventured. 

“V!” they cheered back, answering themselves. “Give me an O!” “O!” “Give me a T!” “T!” “Give me an E!” As she walked to her place in the lineup, six-year-old Alaysha Clark giggled and shook her head just a little, so that the blue and clear beads in her hair gleamed in the sun. 

“What does that spell?!” Harris asked the group.  

“VOTE!” students cheered back, their small voices aimed at the sky. 

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Harris after voting. Kids, from left to right, are Avery Roberson, Alaysha Clark (to Harris' right), Erin Trimble (in pink shirt), Eli Bolden, Shamar Sheppard. 

All of it is about access, Harris later said. Inside the polling station, she walked the six young people through the process, talking to them about the primary election, races for Connecticut State Treasurer and Secretary of State, and how she had come to a final decision “based on my values and my views.” Back outside, students cheered Maritza Bond and Karen DuBois-Walton’s names when asked, making clear her choices at the ballot box. 

"I think it's cool," said 10-year old Eli Bolden. If he could vote, he said, he would focus most on whether kids like him had access to food, housing, and safe home environments. 

“It feels good talking to them and I get to know some people that I never knew before,” said Avery, who wants to study both singing and computer science when she’s older. “If I could vote, I would pick the person that I like the most or that I have seen before.” 

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Barbara Vereen with students. 

That interest carried over to a single table, where Ward 20 Co-Chair Barbara Vereen sat beneath a tent, surrounded by a sea of campaign materials for Russell. The organizing director of Local 34-UNITE HERE, Vereen told students that she was spending the morning making calls, hoping to bring voters to the school. As she spoke, a petition to stop the Apt Foundation from building in Newhallville rested beside her right wrist.  

It was just before 11:30 in the morning, and only 67 voters had come through. That meant that Ward 20 was trailing at least three other polling locations in votes (by the time polls closed, that number was well over 200 voters). 

“I don’t want us to be number four,” she said. “What number do I want us to be?”

“Number one!” students answered back in unison. 

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“That’s right. We wanna be number one,” Vereen said, explaining that she checks voter numbers inside the school every two hours. She motioned to a clipboard in front of her, where voters’ names and phone numbers covered almost 50 pages. “I come back here and I'm like, ‘Oh, it’s not enough people!’ and then I start calling through my list of registered voters.”

She passed a bright box of popsicles across the table like an offering and showed off a petition from New Haven Rising, asking for more local employers to prioritize hiring city residents. The students eyed the popsicles, temporarily crestfallen that they would have to re-freeze them before they were consumable. Harris kept the conversation going. 

“Miss Barbara, when you say ‘liveable wage,’ that means that our parents are able to make enough money, they can give kids all the things they need to have?” she started. “Like back to school supplies, clothing, food in the house—”

“Yep,” Vereen answered. “I have a good union job, so I was able to give my kids a better life than when I was working a regular job that was paying me minimum wage … if people make a liveable wage, then they can do better by their families.”  

“We want you guys to grow up and get good jobs too!” she said. “Because when one person does better, we all do better.”

The KIDS Are Alright

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Six-year-old Alaysha Clark and 9-year-old Avery Roberson with Babz Rawls-Ivy. 

This summer, it comes as Harris is also teaching students—and students are teaching their peers—about the social determinants of health. Like the Kids TV Academy that has become a summer trademark of the school, this new programming is intended to build access for kids who may not traditionally have had it. 

Harris, who built it with New Haveners Maritza Spell and Yolanda McIver, is calling it KIDS—shorthand for Kids Intentionally Deactivating Social Determinants of Health. They plan to hold a youth summit on their findings on Sept. 11 at the LAB at ConnCORP. 

The camp grew out of a passion project. Months ago, Harris heard the words "social determinants of health" for the first time in a community-oriented health class with the Community Alliance for Research & Engagement (CARE). While the terminology was new, the meaning was not, she said: she knew that things like address, school, education level, neighborhood and access to healthcare all affect a person's ability to live a healthy life.

She realized that her work, from early childhood education to mutual aid efforts with the Newhallville Community Management Team, dovetailed with exactly what the term meant. With Spell and Gibbs, she began to think of ways to spread the word. Her mind went to the young people she works with every day in her work at Harris and Tucker. 

“I said, let’s work with some kids,” she recalled. “Because this is not a problem that would stop overnight, but if we can really embed the concept of what social determinants of health is, we can, in a decade, maybe see some differences with the kids.” 

All summer, a group of “youth leaders” at Harris and Tucker has been doing just that, teaching their peers about what social determinants of health are—and how to push back against a system that was not built for people who look like them. The hope, Harris said, is to flip the script as they grow into young adulthood. 

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Rawls-Ivy with Eli Bolden. 

Tuesday, they split into pairs, asking voters what they knew about social determinants of health. Walking over to voter, radio host and Inner City News Editor Babz Rawls-Ivy, Avery and Alaysha peppered her with questions. Just moments before, Rawls-Ivy had high-fived the students, who promised to eat their vegetables. 

Now, they turned the questions on her: could she name all the social determinants of health? What about some of them?

“Your address, where you went to school, where you work, how much money you have, your education, how far you went in education, what neighborhood you live in … are any of those on your list?” Rawls-Ivy started. 

“Yes!” Avery said. She handed Rawls-Ivy a survey that students had put together. “Just put your name and a ‘yes’” next to the questions that apply,” she said. 

As Rawls-Ivy filled it out, Alaysha eyed the designs on her purse, a patchwork of images of Barack and Michelle Obama. Avery identified the two, the first of whom is her elementary school’s namesake. In just a few weeks, she’ll be starting fourth grade in a building named for the president’s legacy. 

“You guys are smart!” Rawls-Ivy said as she looked over questions. “I need you on my team!”

“Primaries Are Important”

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Frank Upshur, Sr.

Around them, a steady trickle of voters entered and exited the school. A longtime resident of Newhallville, to which he moved from Washington D.C. 30 years ago, Frank Upshur, Sr. said that he came out because “I am suddenly learning that primaries are important.” 

After reading about all of the candidates running, he ultimately voted for Stephanie Thomas for Secretary of State and Erick Russell for State Treasurer. He said they both struck him as seasoned (both have received formal endorsements from the state Democratic Party) “as opposed to somebody coming in that doesn’t know where the toilets are,” he said.   

“In this political environment, that’s when things start to go awry,” he said of low voter turnout for primary elections. “What I’m seeing now with this bipartisan war that’s going on—taking away the rights, voting rights, the right to an abortion, is getting ridiculous. That’s how the opposition wins, is low voter turnout.”

From beneath a wide-brimmed sun hat, Tamara Coleman (who asked not to be photographed) said that she voted for Bond and Russell because she believes their New Haven connections will serve them well (she also sees herself in Bond’s “spunk,” she said). Born and raised in New York, Coleman moved to New Haven 30 years ago. She loved it enough to make it her adopted home. Tuesday, she stopped at the polls on the way to the beach, hoping to escape the oppressive heat and humidity. 

“I like change,” she said. “I think that having someone come who is already in New Haven, [they] can look at it and say, ‘I know what changes have been made, but there could be more done.’ Voting for someone who already knows the area and knows the situation.” 

Back by the school, Harris and her flock were done for the day, and headed back to the AC of Harris and Tucker School. Among them, Harris sees future presidents, alders, mayors and state legislators every time she goes to work, she said. It’s part of what keeps her so rooted in the community. 

“I’m predicting that in 10 years, these kids are gonna be so ready to just take on the process,” Harris said. “They are going to be so ready to not only take on the process, but to create policies and procedures that determine how we live.”