October 25, 2007
(Editor’s Note: This is the second of the ten-part series of the “Turn the Beat Around” collection produced by the All Ages Movement Project, in which the leaders of community-based youth organizations shared 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 change on the personal, music scene and broader community levels. Be sure to catch the past feature, sign up for our weekly newsletter to read the future ones and stop by the All Ages Movement Project.)
While parents are consistently looking for ways to keep their kids engaged and active, yearning for them to become “productive citizens” as they move toward adulthood, young people are equally interested in having things to do, developing social networks and identifying interests that they can explore. When conversations began about how to meet the needs of parents and teenagers in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1998, it became clear that both young people and adults needed each other to get what they wanted. By working together, they created the Neutral Zone (NZ), a community cultural center by and for youth. “It was bizarre,” said Lisa Dengiz, a co-founder of NZ. But, it worked.
Adults brought some of the hard skills and connections–a Harvard MBA to help with finance and fund-raising or an attorney to write up the IRS paperwork to become a nonprofit–and teens brought the relationships and real-time knowledge of what young people wanted and how to spread the word. It didn’t hurt that the University of Michigan–the type of resource that is not easily accessible to most of us around the country–provides volunteers, student interns and opportunities to engage in research projects. And not all of us have networks of professionals willing to share their time, money and insights to see the ideas of young people materialize. So it’s impossible to separate what is intriguing and noteworthy about the Neutral Zone from the hard fact that they have unique access to an adult community that is talented and giving.
But what’s beautiful about the Neutral Zone is not so much that parents and teens were able to connect, but how much of a commitment everyone made to ensuring that young people would be at the center of the work. They recognized from the start that building youth power was essential to build a sustainable and successful project that would stand the test of time. In fact, Lisa Dengiz related that very early on they brought Steve Levine in from Building Bridges in Madison, Wis., to learn from him–their successful programming had been going for nearly 20 years. “He got adults and teens together, and he trained them on how to deal with one another.”