Gavin Leonard

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.”

It can be easily argued that the Neutral Zone practices the concept of “youth leadership” more than any teen center or music organization in the country. While there are organizations that develop leaders and respect the power of young people in a variety of ways, at the Neutral Zone, young people are active in the highest decision making levels. As Emma Tolman, a 15-year-old, who is on the executive committee of the board of directors, told me, “It’s the teens with the ideas, the plan and the vision.”

As an outsider, learning about the Neutral Zone and boiling down its notable and replicable practices presents a problem. Their long history, their voluminous documentation, their academic tendencies and their broad programming make it hard to simplify, articulate and imagine it being easily replicable elsewhere. And while I’ll point out the questions and concerns, and the red flags and noteworthy absences, that I stumbled along in my research, we all have something to learn from what’s going on in Ann Arbor.

Making rules, ruling the game

It has been said that, “S/he who makes the rules, rules the game.” At the Neutral Zone, young people play a significant role in writing the rules, and they play a significant role in ruling the game. Stated in the organization bylaws, up to 50 percent of the board of directors are made up of young people. The Teen Advisory Council (TAC), made up completely of youth, is second in command–so the top two areas of leadership have major youth input. These leadership bodies oversee the main outreach and engagement tools at NZ–primarily the programs–that serve to attract a wide array of youth interested in different things. In this way, the Neutral Zone provides a full spectrum of involvement, from dropping in after school and playing pool to interest-specific weekly programs, to real leadership opportunities and organizational oversight. And it’s all deliberate.

The Neutral Zone’s program offerings are almost overwhelming. Its programming information for 2006-2007 is laid out in a two-page, foldout flyer that is packed. Offering over 20 programs, this is an organization that has something for just about everyone. Core program areas include: (1) education and mentoring, (2) literary arts, (3) visual arts, (4) community leadership, and (5) music performance and technology–and vary from individual programs that happen every day after school to during a single week in the summer.

By providing artistic opportunities–from a youth-owned recording studio to a digital arts lab–the Neutral Zone draws a large portion of its young people. Saturday night concerts in the B-side venue, which are booked, promoted and hosted by teens, and a drop-in space after school draw large youth crowds. There are also specific programs that split folks into caucuses and provide space for internal and focused dialogue. There is a group for young men of color, young women, LGBTQ youth, and more. And then they have programming that pulls everyone together. This year, the Neutral Zone hosted a weekend retreat with 42 youth representing nearly every program at their space. As Emma Tolman put it, “I’ve never met a more motivated group of teens; it’s out of this world.”

And youth are more than just participants in programs; they’re also the facilitators and the ones who evaluate the work. Emma told me she started running meetings at the age of 14; she was part of multiple trainings led by Executive Director John Weiss, and that there are a couple dozen others who also have the same skill sets.

The teen advisory council

Obviously, high-level youth leadership is the cornerstone of high youth involvement at the Neutral Zone. This is best illustrated by the Teen Advisory Council (TAC). Composed of about 15-20 teens each year, this group provides for, contributes to, and approves programs. They fund-raise for programs and grant their funds to special projects. As part of TAC, teens participate in retreats, leadership training and community action projects.

TAC representatives form teams that serve as advocates to each of the programs. Their goal is to develop a relationship with each program to provide support and a link to the board of directors. As part of their role, they work with the program director to evaluate each program. Asking questions about what has worked and what hasn’t, what TAC and the board might be able to provide to increase opportunities for success, and figuring out how to connect the programs in new ways–all of these responsibilities are taken on by a group of young people who facilitate meetings, set agendas and review program documentation. It’s really something.

But they don’t stop there. TAC presents the entire evaluation to the board of directors each spring with recommendations for future actions. In their 40-page annual program evaluation from 2006, information ranging from relationships in the community to demographics of the youth who come to the Neutral Zone (52 percent are female, 47 percent are male, and 1 percent is transgender; and 40 percent are African-American, 36 percent are Caucasian, and 24 percent is Asian and Latino) is available. Every program is broken down, with survey results and samples, as well as qualitative and quantitative results in every area. Flat out–I’m jealous. As the executive director of a growing youth-driven center in Cincinnati, the bar has been clearly set. Knowing that this information is an internal tool, as much or more so than an external document serving as “proof” of sensational work, makes it even that much more impressive.

Staff as teen advisors

NZ’s organizational chart shows 16 staff members, but there are undoubtedly a large number of volunteers and young people that put in countless hours to make all these programs work. Staff are considered program advisors who support young people as facilitators in each of their programs. Staff support meetings with teen facilitators, help develop agendas before meetings, encourage reflection, and provide additional support when necessary.

When asked about how staff are indoctrinated into the NZ’s youth-led ideology, Program Director Lori Roddy explained, “We take professionals who want to share their work [in core program areas] with youth and then train them in youth development practices. We evaluate our staff through peer observations once or twice a year…based on youth and adult partnerships….”

Space: A collective decision

I was awed by the sheer amount of square footage available in NZ. Wide open, with couches and a piano tucked in the corner as you enter, and the stage, speakers and lighting on the back wall, there must be at least 3,500 square feet of space for youth to gather. There’s a developing green room and storage space off the stage as well. A pool table and more seating off to my left led into the café, all of which is adjacent to the recording studio space.

Lori walks with me, along with Music Director Ingrid Racine, as they tell me about every square inch of the space–from what has already been built to what they envision happening in the future. Albert Berriz, the CEO of McKinley, a large development firm, co-chaired their capital campaign efforts to support buying and renovating a new downtown space with widespread community support. “Teen Board members hosted a community forum to discuss the goals for the new space, its structure, and what it would look like,” Lori explained. “In addition, there were two teens who were part of the building committee to check out other youth spaces, meet with the architects and ensure the space was a reflection of the teen interests.”

Ann Arbor vs. the rest of the world

The Neutral Zone has crossed and dotted enough T’s and I’s for me to say confidently that it is a top-notch organization. What they have done is truly impressive, and after talking to young people who make it happen, I’m sure most folks would agree. But because I know some University of Michigan grad student is just waiting for a new thesis topic about the Neutral Zone, I’ll throw out the questions left in my mind.

How much time does the Neutral Zone spend thinking bigger? Yes, bigger. When digging into their philosophy on leadership development, it seems pretty clear that this concept is related primarily to the skills and abilities of individuals. It’s true that they have participated in some community organizing–for example, they are currently working to build a coalition of Gay Straight Alliances in their area to implement a school climate survey. This climate survey will be a tool for change as youth meet with school officials and teachers to implement new practices for LGBTQ youth. But I was left wondering about things like: Do people get involved in local, state, or national politics? Are youth encouraged or supported to do community organizing or civic engagement work that has a power analysis? Is there an end goal? For example, eradication of the Ann Arbor dropout rate, improved economic opportunities for the city’s poor, providing a support network for inner-city Detroit organizations that are dealing with the aftermath of white flight?

At the organization I direct in Cincinnati, we want to develop individuals, but we also want to address systemic problems that can improve the lives of the youth we work with in the long term. And while it’s clear that Ann Arbor’s systemic problems are different from those of the third poorest city in the United States, does the Neutral Zone have a long-term vision and comprehensive understanding of its place in the world?

Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion it is a major accomplishment to get to the point where these kinds of big-picture questions are even worth thinking about. And I’d trade my long-term vision for their annual program evaluations any day, because they don’t appear to have gotten ahead of themselves. But with such a short yet storied history, and such a bright and promising future, I think they’re up to the challenge of seeing if they can take the next steps toward greatness.

I talk to people all the time who are dying for good models to replicate and reasons to hope and believe that this generation of youth can indeed change the world. The Neutral Zone is one such model and one such reason to believe.

Gavin Leonard, 26, serves as director of Elementz: The Hip-Hop Youth Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a board member of the League of Young Voters and LYV Education Fund, and is on the advisory committees of Wiretap and the All-Ages Movement Project. He believes that building power to make change starts with strong community-based relationships.

The Neutral Zone Vitals:

Located:

Ann Arbor, MI

Founded:

1998

Organization Type:

Youth-driven teen center

Music Genre of Focus: Rock, Hip-Hop, Indie, Experimental, Hardcore, Metal, Funk

Goings On:

22 programs in education, literary arts, music performance, technology, visual arts, and community leadership. Drop-in community space after school and weekend concerts.

Fees:

$100 yearly registration fees with opportunities for scholarships. Weekend concerts are $5 with a high school ID and $7 for the general public.

Where the money comes from:

Of the $750,000 budget, approximately one-third comes from grants, one-third comes from individual gifts, and one-third comes from rentals, program revenues and special events.

Claims to Fame:

A youth-driven leadership structure including a board of directors composed of up to 50 percent teens. Award-winning national slam poetry team, first youth-owned record label company, weekend concerts, and a youth-curated production Breakin’ Curfew.