Keeping it Real by Letting Teens Really Lead

Below is an excerpt from an upcoming book about Neutral Zone entitled “Not your high school cafeteria” published by teens at Red Beard Press.  Available here in March.

Chapter 2:  For Teens By Teens: Keeping it Real by Letting Teens Really LeadWeapons of Musical Diversity Poster-1

“Charlie wasn’t the shy kid in the corner, but he wasn’t the coolest either. He got plugged in to our music programs and dove in head first by forming an afro-beat band. The next year he organized four concerts under a name he came up with – ‘Weapons of Musical Diversity.’ The concerts featured Michigan artists from different cultural backgrounds. Your average teenager isn’t out trying to promote an Indian classical music concert. But Charlie grabbed onto the idea of being an advocate for diverse forms of art, and at Neutral Zone he found a place that let him take his interest in directions none of us could have predicted.”                                                          – Ingrid Racine, Music Coordinator (2005-13)

Youth programs across the country are having a difficult time attracting teens. Research shows that teens’ interest in those programs declines during the years in which they need it most. So what brings them into Neutral Zone week after week? It’s not because of the programs and events that adults think are good ideas. It’s because of the programs that the teens not only want, but help to inspire and create. Teens know that Neutral Zone is a place where their ideas can become real. Adult staff members provide nurturing and guidance, but the teens decide which programs they want us to offer and support. The programs, projects, and events grow based solely on what teens want. Exciting programs that are created and owned by teens are what really keeps them coming back.

Neutral Zone offers an ever-changing menu of program options for teens, each of which is based on an idea that started with or was endorsed by a teen. Running the show is our Teen Advisory Council (TAC). Composed of some 20 teens, TAC makes the final decisions about which programs to offer teens meetingand whether they deserve funding from Neutral Zone. TAC is an official Board Committee and its leaders are voting members of the Board of Directors. TAC also raises its own funds and directly supports five to eight teen-led projects a year, such as paying the stipend for a visiting Red Beard Press 13 poet, funding a camping retreat for the North Star young women’s program, or purchasing a new piece of equipment for the recording studio. The process usually begins something like this. A teen comes to Neutral Zone with an idea. Staff members are available to help teens develop their ideas, but the teens do the planning. Then, they have to pitch it to the teens in TAC. Programs that get to this point have teen support, and they either grow or fail based on the interest and involvement of other teens. Staff work with the youth to determine which programs stick. We aren’t afraid to walk away from programs that aren’t popular, but we do get wildly enthusiastic about the programs that are truly exciting for teens.

Here are a few examples, Allison, an up-and-coming photographer, curated an exhibit with the University of Michigan Depression Center to showcase teen art. Sterling brought a plant to Neutral Zone every day until he got others interested in forming the Green Group. Sarah, moved by the plight of the people of Darfur, started a successful chapter of STAND (a student-led movement to end mass atrocities). Sander started a breakdancing program. Yoni, who was bullied and harassed at school, initiated a citywide climate study about the experiences of LGBTQ teens. Sonya and Emma launched a culinary arts program because they wanted to learn how to cook. Each of these ideas germinated and grew into a successful program or event, several of which continue today.


Bennett sewing diaper bag for Nicaraguan Women’s project

We’ve learned that adults can and should provide the scaffolding and support, but it is teens who are best equipped to decide what programs are offered at Neutral Zone. Sometimes we are surprised about what resonates with them. That’s why allowing them to chose is so important. About six years ago, Charlie, one of our teens, was hanging out in our Program Director’s office when an email arrived from a local community member who was looking for volunteers to make diaper bags for women in Nicaragua as an incentive for them to visit health clinics. Within a few days, Charlie came back with a list of 10 guys who wanted to sew the bags. The adult staff were very skeptical that there would be enough sustained interest to make it happen. The group met, learned how to sew, and completed the project within a couple of weeks. They had so much fun that they decided to start a “gender-bending” program that they named Homeboyz. Over the next two years Homeboyz met weekly, discussing gender stereotypes and engaging in other gender-bending projects. They baked 14 Red Beard Press apple pies for a women’s shelter, hosted a shower to stock the new kitchen at Neutral Zone, and baked muffins for a prominent Neutral Zone donor who had surgery. We had no idea that such a wonderfully unique program would be so successful. If adults had intervened, it never would have happened.

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