The hidden power of community boards: shaping neighborhoods in Brooklyn and beyond
Disclaimer: As mandated by Chapter 68 of the New York City Charter, I must declare that the opinions presented in this article are entirely my own as an individual citizen. Any content I produce here should not be interpreted as a the formal stance of Brooklyn Community Board 7, the City of New York, or any affiliated organizations.
New York City is the best city in the world, and Brooklyn is the best borough in New York City. I’m lucky enough to call it home. The great people who have called it home for decades before me have paved the way for a strong sense of community and local engagement that still exists today. It is because of this vibrant history that community boards remain an important part of local governance in Brooklyn and beyond.
I lived in Manhattan for several years before finally making the move to Brooklyn. I’ll be honest, It was my partner (now husband), a born and bred New Yorker and Brooklyn resident who convinced me to take the leap. Definitely a wise decision. The tree-lined blocks and historic brownstones, the local businesses with their unique charm and character, and the countless community events throughout the year made me feel like I had found a true sense of home and belonging.
At the time, I had little knowledge of community boards or their importance in shaping the local areas they represent. However, having watched Brooklyn evolve over a decade and then having lived in various neighborhoods throughout the borough, I’ve come to understand just how valuable community boards are to maintaining and improving upon that sense of community. Fast forward to the summer of 2022, when an open seat in my local district became available and I realized this was an incredible opportunity to give back to the borough I call home. I applied and was thrilled to be appointed a member of Brooklyn Community Board 7, representing the neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Windsor Terrace, Greenwood Heights, and South Park Slope in District 38.
After I was sworn in, I inquired with my friends if they were curious to know more about my involvement. I found that many of them had no idea what community boards were or the power they wielded in local governance. The responses encouraged me to start a series of articles that aimed to educate others on the hidden power of community boards in shaping and improving their neighborhoods.
Let’s start with the basics…
What is a community board and what is its purpose in local governance?
A community board is a local government body made up of volunteers who represent their neighborhoods and advise on issues affecting the community. These issues can range from land use and development proposals to traffic safety and public health concerns. Community boards are responsible for assisting elected officials and government agencies in making decisions that affect their neighborhoods. In other words, community boards act as an intermediary between city agencies and the residents of a particular neighborhood. Community boards are a vital connection between local residents and government agencies and by serving on a community board, residents have the opportunity to voice their concerns and advocate for changes in their neighborhoods. As a member of the community board, I have had the privilege of working with fellow members to address issues and concerns brought forth by local residents. Some of the issues are traffic congestion and pedestrian safety, park renovations and programming, noise complaints from construction sites, addressing affordable housing plans for our district, and finding ways to support small and minority-owned businesses in the area. Additionally, community boards have the power to hold public hearings and issue advisory opinions on matters that impact their respective communities.
How are community boards formed and what is their term of service?
Each board has 50 members, half of whom are nominated by the City Council member (s) that represent the community board area and half by the Borough President. These appointments are made every two years and members serve as volunteers for a term of two years. Community board members can serve up to four consecutive two-year terms. This means that community boards have a mix of experienced veterans as well as new members, ensuring continuity while also allowing fresh perspectives to be brought to the table.
What steps did I take to become a member?
After moving to my new neighborhood in Sunset Park, I noticed a couple of different ways in which I could improve my community. Not getting much luck with 311, I decided to shift my efforts in another direction. I joined a couple of board meetings as a member of the public and as I began speaking with current community board members, I learned about the application process to become a candidate for membership. After filling out an application, a series of interviews and meetings took place to evaluate my qualifications, references, and knowledge of the neighborhood. Finally, I was sworn in at Brooklyn Borough Hall and began to serve my neighborhood in a more official capacity.
So, does a community board have any power?
Yes, community boards possess a great deal of power and influence in their respective neighborhoods. For example, community boards have a significant say in land use and zoning
decisions that occur within their jurisdictions. They also play a role in determining the allocation of municipal funds, reviewing and recommending changes to city service programs, monitoring the delivery of agency services and advocating on behalf of their communities to address issues such as public safety, transportation, education and more. In addition, community boards are empowered to issue advisory opinions on matters that impact their respective communities. Here’s where it gets interesting: while a community board do not have the final say over policies and decisions, the weight of their recommendations and advisory carries a great deal of influence and should not be underestimated. A community board recommendation almost always has the ability to sway elected officials and decision-makers at higher levels of government by representing the views and concerns of their constituents and advocating for the interests of their neighborhoods. This is why having a diverse and dedicated community board that accurately represents the needs of its residents is crucial for creating long-lasting positive change.
By serving on a community board, you have an opportunity to directly impact policy decisions and advocate for the needs of your neighborhood. Furthermore, being a community board member provides you with the opportunity to work closely with other leaders and organizations in your neighborhood, build relationships and connect with local constituents.
Next up: What are some of the roles and responsibilities of community board members?
Amel Afzal is a Product Design leader at Spotify and a community activist currently serving as a board member on Community Board 7 in Brooklyn.
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