'City girl' from Miami sees activism as reason to stay in New London

Yanitza Cubilette, right, an activist with Hearing Youth Voices in New London, laughs while Sarana Beik of Hartford struggles to decide which piece to move while they play the game Jenga at Cubilette's holiday party held for her activist friends at her apartment in New London on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. Beik works for the Grow Hartford Youth program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Yanitza Cubilette, right, an activist with Hearing Youth Voices in New London, laughs while Sarana Beik of Hartford struggles to decide which piece to move while they play the game Jenga at Cubilette's holiday party held for her activist friends at her apartment in New London on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017. Beik works for the Grow Hartford Youth program. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Millennials — those between 20 and 36 as of this year — represent the largest population group in Connecticut, at more than 927,000. But the group is shrinking. From 2010 to 2016, Connecticut lost 0.6 percent of its millennial population, a migration rate higher than all but 13 states, according to the U.S. Census.

In 2014, more than 17,000, or 7 percent, of young adults in the 20-24 age group moved out of Connecticut, according to the Census.

A lack of a hip urban center and the social life it offers, and a dearth of good-paying jobs, particularly in technology, are often cited as the reasons. Some just don't like snow and cold.

Others, though, have decided to stay in Connecticut or relocate here. This week, The Day will profile seven millennials who are drawn by the area's diversity, small-town feel, activism, creative energy and noncorporate job opportunities.

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Yanitza Cubilette has been talking about leaving New London ever since she got here.

The snow didn’t help.

“It was cool for two days, but I didn’t know how to actually walk in it,” said the Miami native, who moved to New London with her mom just before her senior year in high school. “You're telling me I have to be there at 7:25? In the winter? In the snow? I had never been in snow before.”

Cubilette would wait for her mother to give her a ride to school, which often meant she got there late. She started to risk losing credit for her first class of the day because of the tardiness, even though she said she maintained good grades. She didn’t even want to be in Connecticut in the first place. She was a year behind her age group at New London High School, because credits she earned in school in the Dominican Republic didn’t transfer into the American school system.

“I was pissed my entire senior year. It was a hard transition, and that’s why I wanted to get out,” she said.

But Cubilette, now 24, got used to New England’s weather. And, in part because of the school district’s policy that caused her to lose credits for tardiness, she got acclimated to New London, too, finding a community of people in the city’s small but sturdy circle of activists.

Looking for places to serve her school-required community service hours, Cubilette met Laura Burfoot, then an employee of the city’s Youth Services Bureau. When Burfoot, inspired by a research project about the experience of New London’s public school students, left to help start the activist organization Hearing Youth Voices, she brought Cubilette with her.

Newly graduated from high school and still ambivalent about her future in Connecticut, Cubilette blossomed among her coworkers at Hearing Youth Voices.

The organization — described on its website as “a youth-led organization that trains young people of color to organize, fight, and deconstruct systems of oppression in our community” — was where she started thinking of herself as part of a community and a society that she wanted to change.

Hearing Youth Voices organizers took on their first major policy project in 2015, successfully pushing for changes to the school district’s attendance rules, which they said created an obstacle to graduation for some students.

Within a few years, Cubilette had dropped out of college classes at Three Rivers Community College and was working full time at Hearing Youth Voices.

“I’ve been a part of going to the Board of Ed meetings, and the walkouts, the City Council meetings,” she said. “There is no part of Hearing Youth Voices that I haven't been a part of. It’s wild.”

Learning the 'isms'

Cubilette’s activism as a high school senior and after graduation is not something her younger self would have recognized.

Saying "no" to rules, though — that was familiar.

“I went to Catholic schools for seven years, and they got a lot of rules that I did not abide by,” she said. “We could name them — we could go down the list — the principal knew me by first and last name, and my parents."

“If I feel like what you're telling me to do isn't right, I’m not going to do it,” she said.

But it was only once she started working with the organizers at Hearing Youth Voices that she could focus her energy into activism.

There was a steep learning curve, she said.

“I was literally learning all of those basics — sexism, racism, capitalism, imperialism — all of the ‘isms,’ all of the systems of oppression that affect us and that we're tackling moving forward,” she said.

Wanting to fast-track that process for other young people interested in tackling the “isms” in their hometowns, Cubilette applied for a fellowship program funded by the Open Society Institute, an international network that was founded by investor George Soros and distributes grants.

She is one of seven people between the ages of 18 and 25 to receive a Soros Justice Youth Activist Fellowship this year. Working full time out of her apartment on Granite Street and an office in the Hearing Youth Voices headquarters, she plans to develop a statewide network connecting teenage would-be activists to training and resources that they otherwise would not learn about until they were working at a nonprofit organization.

“A lot of the young people, they just plug into organizations, or programs after school,” she said. "And that's the first step they have into social justice and organizing. You have this fresh brain and you have to give them the basics, the 101s of a political education — what is sexism, what is racism,” she said. “So a lot of time goes from these organizations to that: to getting the young person that political platform so they can move forward in the organizing.”

Connecting activist groups and organizations to each other across Connecticut, she said, will give civic-minded young people a head start.

“That's what we're trying to do, is have that entity where young people can plug into and get that platform so that, when they go into their organizations, they're ready to go,” she said.

'Everything is politics'

Cubilette has spent the past months driving around the state, meeting with activists and young people, asking them what they want to learn. She plans to launch the network, which is called the Black and Brown Student Union, in February.

She’s not aware of any other organization doing similar work specifically for young people in a state where activism can be concentrated in cities and resources are rarely shared.

“There’s so much good work happening here,” she said. “But the thing is that we work in silos, so we’re all working with the people that we know and the issues that we know and not highlighting what the intersections are.”

She has gone from being an apolitical high school student to hobnobbing with local politicians and even considering running for office herself — “my state rep is in my phone,” she says, sounding astonished. “Now I’m like, everything is politics, there is not a single thing that is not politics.”

She now sees moving to New London as an integral part of her development into an activist, and an adult. About a year after moving in to her apartment, she got the building’s GPS coordinates tattooed on her body.

She still thinks about leaving, eventually. She’s drawn to move back to Miami, or somewhere where she can continue what she sees as an inevitable career in activism.

But New London is home for now, and it’s where she sees her future.

“This is such a small-knit community that it’s possible to do things,” she said. “It’s so possible to see the changes that you want to see happen. It’s attainable.

“I still am a city girl,” she said, “but I adjusted.”

m.shanahan@theday.com

Millennials in the U.S.

- Millennials are the largest living generation by population size (79.8 million in 2016).

- Many millennials still live under their parents’ roof or are in a college dorm or some other shared living situation. As of 2016, millennials headed only 28 million households, many fewer than were headed by Generation X (ages 36 to 51) or Baby Boomers (ages 52 to 70).

- Last year, millennials headed 18.4 million of the estimated 45.9 million households that rent their home, the largest of any group.

- Millennial-run households represent the largest group of households living in poverty.

- Millennials are less likely than previous generations of young adults to be married. Only 42 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds were married and living with their spouse in 2016. By comparison, 82 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds were married and living with their spouse in 1963.

- Millennials are less likely to own a house; 56 percent of early Baby Boomer 25- to 35-year-olds lived in owner-occupied housing in 1981 but only 37 percent of millennials lived in such housing in 2016.

- In 2016, 56 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds were childless, compared to fewer than half of the two generations before them.

- Millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than the other adult generations.

- Millennial workers are just as likely to stick with their employers as their older counterparts in Generation X were when they were young adults. And among the college-educated, millennials have longer track records with their employers than Generation X workers did in 2000, when they were the same age as today’s millennials.

- In 2016, only 20 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds reported having lived at a different address one year earlier. One-year migration rates were much higher for older generations when they were the same age.

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