Engaging Youth, For Real

Engaging Youth, For Real

There are hundreds of well-meaning but unsuccessful youth centers in America. The Spot in Denver and Elementz in Cincinnati went the extra mile to build something more authentic.


Lori Roddy

February 20, 2008

(Editor’s note: This is the last of a ten-part series produced by the All Ages Movement Project, in which the leaders of community-based youth organizations share tips and tricks of their trade. All stories are researched and written by members of organizations using independent music–punk, hip-hop, rock, noise, electronic and more–as a vehicle for social change.)

A Critical Time

In Denver, Colorado, the summer of ’93 was referred to as the “Summer of Fear.” During that time, 74 homicides occurred and nearly half of the victims were teenagers. The random acts of violence– mostly gang-related, drive-by shootings–shook the city when a five-year-old African American boy was shot in the head, a ten-month-old child was hit while visiting the Denver Zoo and another young boy was shot in the arm while playing on his aunt’s porch.

While the city responded by establishing unforgiving life sentences without parole for juveniles, one man took another approach. Dave Deforest-Stalls, an ex-NFL football player, founded The Spot in 1994 to address the urgent need for a safe space in downtown Denver, one located in a neutral gang territory.

The summer of 2001 in Cincinnati, Ohio, is also known for violence; that was the year of its infamous race riots. In April of 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a police officer. Thomas’ death led to explosive riots by the African American community during the ensuing days. In a community called Over-the-Rhine–a largely marginalized, poverty-stricken neighborhood–several leaders including Life Allah, Islord Allah, Dureka Bonds, and Gavin Leonard decided to take what had been their regular discussions in a barbershop about housing, drugs and police issues and turn them into a community organizing effort.

That summer, a mix of community folks who cared about police accountability founded CopWatch, a neighborhood organization charged to monitor police-citizen interactions. In 2003, volunteer-driven CopWatch became a nonprofit called Citizens Organizing Neighborhoods to Regain Our Liberation (CONTROL). CONTROL decided to found Elementz, a hip-hop youth center, as a way to ensure the young people in Over-the-Rhine were provided with the necessary resources to gather, build community, and promote change.

If You Build it Together, Leaders Emerge

In Denver, Dave Deforest-Stalls’ leadership approach from the beginning was centered around listening. He recalled one of his most important meetings with a young person, who goes by the street name Fienz. The young man told Dave to buy a large piece of carpet and linoleum, and later returned with his friends and a dual cassette player to create what would become one of the finest breakdancing places in the city. Fienz then asked Dave to buy some cans of Krylon spray paint for graffiti painting. The dual cassette player turned into the need for deejaying turntables, and then before long there was a need to record the rhymes. The activities built on each other, based on youth interests.

Similarly, Islord Allah had an idea to start a hip-hop-based center in Cincinnati. Born and raised in Over-the-Rhine, Islord brought the idea up at an early CONTROL meeting, and then Gavin and the rest of the group went to work on bringing it to fruition. As a co-owner of a neighborhood barbershop, Islord had a deep understanding of the community, and especially its young people. Enter Gavin, who had a knack for details and organizing, and together–along with the other cofounders and a long list of volunteers–they could make the idea possible.

If You Build it Together, Community Resources Come

Garnering knowledge of best practices, identifying community needs, and sharing it with those who can provide financial backing is critical. Gavin Leonard began where most of us would–an Internet search for hip-hop youth centers. He found The Spot, one of the earliest established adolescent youth centers with the infrastructure to respond to requests. In fact, Dave deliberately designed The Spot’s web page to assure that people who searched for words like ‘youth,’ ‘teen,’ or ‘gang violence,’ would find the site.

Dave–who had been receiving countless emails and phone calls from a range of activists, parents, teens, and youth programs–initiated a weekend training in Denver on how to start a youth center. Gavin and Dureka Bonds, cofounder and current board president of Elementz, spent a weekend in the training to connect, network, and begin to explore the opportunity of building an urban youth center. Dave provided a 300-page manual of critical information, from how to start a nonprofit organization to building a business plan.

The training also included safety tips on how to recognize the red flags and use strategies to diffuse potentially violent situations. Youth from The Spot also participated in panel discussions and shared their perspectives on how to develop a strong youth center.

Returning home to Cincinnati, the CONTROL team worked with other community leaders to assess the needs of residents in Over-the-Rhine and the West End–what young people refer to as “downtown.” Through a survey of over 1,000 young people, the first goal was to ensure that there was awareness, feedback, and support from the youth of their targeted population, those who lived in the disinvested areas of the urban core.

In an unconventional style, from getting on buses to talking to people on street corners, community organizers ensured that those who are traditionally silenced were a part of the driving voice for what Elementz would become. These surveys were the key information in the lobbying campaign for a space that resonates with a hard-to-reach youth population.

In addition to the surveys, CONTROL sought out other support from key leaders, the city council, and anyone who would potentially come forward as financial backers and board members. “Find supporters who are willing to take risks,” Dave says. He explains that he was always upfront with potential donors, saying, “Your investment is a risk worth taking, but there are no promises.”

What he meant is that The Spot and Elementz work with hard-to-reach youth who are unlikely to engage in more traditional programs. Along with the issues of potential violence, there are no guarantees that the space will always produce shining, happy poster kids, good PR, as it could if donors were supporting kids living in stable homes and attending more affluent schools. Gavin wholeheartedly agrees that donors who are willing to take risks are critical in creating a program that reaches youth, meeting them where they are at instead of where we expect them to be.

The support did trickle in. Then the Greater Cincinnati Foundation provided a $30,000 matching grant, and Elementz was realized.

Engaging Youth, for Real: Predictable Space, Relationships, and Activities

There are many well-meaning adults who create unsuccessful youth projects. However, both The Spot and Elementz are thriving because youth engage in the opportunities and leadership of the organizations. When I asked Dave what the necessary components are to building a successful youth space, he mentioned three: predictable space, relationships, and activities.

Predictable Space

The Spot, located in downtown Denver, is a simple building that was an old theater transformed into a youth space. Its vibe reflects hip-hop culture, with graffiti-decorated walls winding down to the various spaces, including a breakdancing room with a fenced-in DJ booth, a myriad of bold-colored recording rooms, and a community room filled with couches, TV, a pool table and a kitchen. It’s a space to hang, own, and engage.

Elementz considered over 100 buildings before they settled on the right spot. Large graffiti murals welcome young people as they enter, and most of the other walls are covered with upcoming album release posters or the artwork of the youth. The computer lab and front lobby overflow with young people hanging out waiting for studio time and the popular audio production classes. In addition, there is a large outdoor wall built for graffiti practice.

The place is loud; sounds compete from various places, as youth wander the halls spitting rhymes in preparation for a recording or the next opportunity for an impromptu battle.


The Spot and Elementz recognize the importance of building successful youth and adult relationships. Starting during the “Summer of Fear,” Dave emphasizes the foundation of The Spot, “Respect–this is the only rule at The Spot. It is of the highest expectation.”

This fundamental rule keeps the space safe, but it also supports building meaningful relationships. On all levels, the adults involved in The Spot–board members, donors, or program volunteers–understand that the youth give respect and deserve to have it in return. One of the key ways of demonstrating respect is through listening. Dave emphasized how the staff are trained to listen, and even hired a staff member whose only job was to listen; a person trained to find opportunities to listen to young people. As a result, youth identify and drive the programs.

Gavin also talks about one example of this, the large sheets of paper that go up on the wall at Elementz asking youth questions about their needs. Respectful relationships are the fundamental principal interwoven through all aspects of both organizations. Youth are valuable members of the community, and their voices matter.

Activities and Community Engagement

Both Elementz and The Spot are responsive to youth culture, grounding their adolescent-focused youth centers in hip-hop programming, featuring b-boying and b-girling, deejaying, beat-boxing, and graffiti. Both organizations have embraced hip-hop as a tool to connect and build relationships with young people. However, the long-term vision of each has a different focus.

Elementz, a much newer organization, is still grounded in its founding philosophy to build a strong community of young people who are invested in creating positive change in their hometown. Hip-hop creates a community of young people and draws youth together to talk, build relationships, voice their ideas, and learn new leadership skills.

The focus of their leadership training includes four main components — personal empowerment, political education, critical thinking, and community organizing. The long-term vision of Elementz is to increase the input of young people through weighing in on community concerns, working on issue-based campaigns, and continuing the process of developing new leaders themselves. Getting young folks involved in their hip-hop programs is just the beginning of giving them a voice and ultimately getting them civically engaged.

The Spot has a different focus. After eight years, Dave resigned from his role as executive director, but not before supporting a merger between The Spot and Urban Peak. Urban Peak is a social service agency that helps runaway youth exit street life through a shelter, meal program, case management, and job training. Merging the two organizations together has provided a larger continuum of services for youth at The Spot.

The Spot is now one program within Urban Peak. Its purpose is to draw youth to a safe space in the community and then connect them with the resources of the larger agency. It is no longer merely a safe community space, but instead focuses on providing services to support youth personal development, so they can become mature and productive adults in their community. According to Wendy Talley, the current program director, “The Spot has become an array of services focused on healing wounded youth through a positive youth development focus, building on the youth assets of self-determination.”

Building Positive Youth Spaces for the Long Haul

While each center has their own experiences and unique challenges, they recognize the value of their work and want to share it with others. Those who work to initiate and direct places like The Spot or Elementz have lessons to share. There are best practices including leadership, gaining support, and working with youth. But there is also a larger lessoned learned–we do not have to do it alone. Through sharing the experiences of starting an urban hip-hop youth space, a powerful support and community network builds the case to others that youth spaces are possible, are meaningful and have impact.

Lori Roddy is the program director of the Neutral Zone, an Ann Arbor-based youth-driven teen center providing afterschool space with programming in education, literary and visual arts, music, leadership, and weekend concerts. Prior to Neutral Zone, Lori worked as a social studies teacher in Cleveland, Ohio and a consultant for the Youth and Community Project at the University of Michigan.

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