Let Them Run the Store – No decision too big, no decision too small

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 Four: Let Them Run the Store – No decision too big, no decision too small

“At school you’re told what to do. The Zone gives teens a say in what they can do and then helps make their ideas real.”

– Greg, former teen participant and teen Board member

Adults who get involved in teen programs usually have altruistic intentions. Most have a genuine desire to support and help teens, whether as a staff member, volunteer, or supporter. But we’ve visited many centers where adults are reluctant to share the major decision- making with young people. They are afraid to let them run the store.

Part of being a teen-driven center is having the courage to let teens run the show. You have to give them important jobs, challenge them to make big decisions, and help them to learn from mistakes. Not only does research show that this attracts and keeps older teens engaged in programs (after-school and school-based), it helps them develop 21st century skills and prepares them for participation in a democratic society. If we don’t provide youth opportunities to make authentic decisions and take on meaningful roles, how do we expect them to be active citizens in our democracy?

At Neutral Zone, half of the members of our Board of Directors are teens nominated by their peers. They are full voting members of the Board and sit on every Board committee, from human resources and finance to fund development. They help cultivate major donors and plan programs. They do things that adults might normally be reluctant to let teens do. These include hiring the leader of the organization, approving a budget, or discussing sensitive staffing issues. And you know what? It works remarkably well.

Teen representation on the Board of Directors is written into the bylaws that govern our center. A Teen Cabinet makes these Board nominations and votes on which members become directors.

None of our meetings exclude teens, including our closed Board executive sessions, or meetings that involve personnel and staffing issues. Teens even played an important role on the search committee that hired our past two executive directors.

Our all-teen Teen Advisory Council (TAC) decides what programs are offered at the center. TAC is a standing Board committee; its teen leaders sit on the Board. TAC runs its own annual fundraiser to raise money for program needs. At the end of each year, teens in vacthe TAC teens conduct a program evaluation and present their findings to the Board. Often, these findings have a big influence on our strategic planning.

We train teens to serve as facilitators for all of our programs, with adult staffers serving as advisors. Teen facilitators are trained to develop a meeting agenda, to run a successful meeting, ask guiding questions, and use active strategies to keep a meeting interesting.

Also, teens and adults team up on fundraising for Neutral Zone. A teen leader is picked each fall to write our annual fundraising appeal letter. Teens attend all of our adult-focused fundraising events. Teens are an important part of our donor asks – in fact, hearing how Neutral Zone has impacted an individual teen’s life is often what initially persuades a donor to support us. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Sometimes the teens take a chance on a wildly creative idea and it doesn’t work out as imagined. When we started our Visual Arts Council in 2007, teens had the idea to create a themed art show called “Blue, ” where all the artwork would be – you guessed it – blue. As a service to the community, the group decided it would collect blue jeans to donate to a local homeless shelter. Most of the previous art shows had been adult-led; this was the first time our adult staff made a focused effort on getting more youth involvement. Trevor, our adult staff art advisor at the time, reported that teens consistently didn’t come to meetings; when they were present, they were largely unfocused and assumed Trevor would coordinate the details. When the show came, teens arrived to set it up, but with little to no promotion it only attracted about 15 people – most of them staff and parents. The teens were deflated. In reflection afterwards, the teens recognized where they needed to strengthen their event-planning skills. The group specifically focused on developing their marketing and outreach techniques. Five months later, the student-led Neutral Zone Visual Arts Council hosted “Royal Hullabaloo,” which exhibited nearly 200 pieces of artwork to a packed audience. The event was truly impressive and the teens were proud!

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