Neighbors shut their doors to avoid confrontation as a pack of teenage bikers set upon Newhallville—armed with pamphlets about going green and saving money.
The brigade of city high-school kids and young-adult supervisors hit the streets this week as part of the city’s new Youth Conservation Corps. Students get paid $8.70 per hour to go door-to-door trying to convince tenants, small business owners and homeowners to change light bulbs and sign up for energy audits.
United Illuminating (UI), through the Energize Connecticut initiative, paid the city $25,000 to fund the effort through the city’s Youth@Work program, which finds teens summer jobs. The move comes as UI draws neighborhood outrage for a plan to chop down thousands of street trees, including 35 in East Rock.
In a recent expedition to Newhallville, the mission offered a lesson in how to navigate streets, lock up bicycles, and keep on walking after lots of “no, thank yous.”
The mission began at 3:30 p.m. in the gated bike rack at the Hall of Records, where students picked up helmets, locks and Alite hybrid bicycles.
Elena Rivera (pictured) a sophomore at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, is one of eleven high-school students participating in the program. They head out for four hours, four days a week to canvass neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, their destination was a turf surrounding Lincoln-Bassett School.
Devin Clarke (at right in photo), a sophomore at Clark University in Massachusetts who is home for the summer at his family’s house in Westville, led the way down Church Street, up Grove, and onto Ashmun Street. Devin is one of three young adults supervising other students in the program.
Before hitting the streets, students got a lesson last week on bike repair from city parks department staffer and bicycle enthusiast Martin Torresquintero, and a lesson on urban cycling from the volunteer bike advocacy group Elm City Cycling. Devin deployed hand signals as he led students through traffic.
“Get over to the right side!” called out Devin from the front of the line as the group headed onto Shelton Avenue.
Everyone arrived at the school at Bassett Street and Shelton Avenue in one piece. Then they circled around the building in search of a bike rack. There were none at the school. So they decided to lock their bikes to a fence along a playground.
Student received maps outlining different “turfs” with houses they would target for that day. The turf maps looked a lot like those that are distributed during political campaigns. That’s no coincidence: The program coordinator, Nick Gauthier, worked as the field director for Justin Elicker when he ran against Toni Harp for mayor. Before that, he worked on Dick Blumenthal’s U.S. Senate run. He printed out maps showing the number of apartments per building. He directed students to target one, two and three-family homes as well as small businesses. Students split up into pairs and headed out for a three-hour walking route.
Elena paired up with Asia Patton (at left in photo), a junior at Fisher College in Boston who is supervising younger teens in the program. They hit the streets wearing white collared shirts bearing the logo for Energize Connecticut. That’s a joint effort by UI and gas companies to redirect some money from people’s utility bills to promote energy efficiency. Elena and Asia each carried 55 packets of pamphlets produced by Energize CT. The pamphlets describe how people can save money by switching to CFL or LED light bulbs, or signing up for home energy audits, which are free to low-income households.
After some trouble locating Brewster Street, the pair pulled out an iPhone and tracked down the turf for the evening. They set about knocking on doors.
At about 4 p.m., most people weren’t home. Or they pretended they weren’t. As the pair strolled down Brewster, they came across a young boy turning cartwheels on the sidewalk. Elena asked the boy if his mom or dad was home. The boy dashed into the house. He returned several minutes later to announce that his dad—who had been in the driveway just moments earlier—was “asleep.”
The door-knockers suspected that wasn’t true. They shrugged, left a pamphlet and walked on to the next door.
On Shelton Avenue, a woman answered the door, but didn’t open it.
“I’m here to help you save money,” Elena cheerfully announced.
“Oh, no, thank you. No, thank you,” the woman replied. “Thank you, but no, thank you.”
Elena said that’s a common reply: The vast majority of people they’ve encountered in the past week and a half said they are not interested. One abruptly closed the door in her face.
Asia said when she knocked on doors in her own neighborhood, in the Orchard Street area, more people would talk to her because they knew who she was. But they still weren’t interested in going “green.”
“One person thought it was a scam,” Asia recalled. She said she often encounters an “I don’t care attitude.”
So far, the duo has encountered only two people eager to sign up for the program. One woman was a tenant who said she would call right away. Another was a small business owner who actually signed a paper applying for a small business energy audit.
“Everybody else was just like, ‘No,’” Elena said.
Asia, an aspiring social worker, and Elena, an aspiring choreographer, said the job has been good practice in interacting with different types of people, as well as dealing with rejection—two skills they’ll likely need later in life.
Gauthier (at right in photo), who used to do door-to-door sales for Comcast, said the rampant rejection is par for the course. In sales, a 7 to 10-percent “yes” rate is pretty good, he said. And the experience canvassing—navigating new streets, staying organized, developing a stamina for door-to-door schlepping—is a skill they can transfer elsewhere. UI, for instance, is hiring workers to canvass houses door-to-door, he said.
Students are also learning bike safety skills they can use for the rest of their lives. Gauthier pointed out that a couple of the bikes, which he watched over Wednesday as students went door-to-door, were locked incorrectly—a fact that would make for a good lesson later that evening.
The program lasts six weeks, with 20 hours of work per week. On Fridays, students take a break from canvassing to learn about other environmental initiatives around town, such as New Haven Farms, Gauthier said. If they complete the program, they’ll have some environmental knowledge to take with them—as well as a free bicycle. The 20 bikes, which cost $4,500, were paid for in part by a $3,500 grant from the Healthy Planet Partners, Gauthier said. He said he’s seeking another donation to pay for the remaining $1,000.
Elena and Asia continued at the doors for about three hours. They said they handed out 110 pamphlets. About eight people actually talked to them. Only one sounded interested, they said.
Elena said when she started out, “I wasn’t used to getting the door shut in my face, or people cutting me off and telling me, ‘I’m not interested at all.’” Now she just accepts it and keeps on rolling.