I have some news that might shock you.
The Neutral Zone teens will soon be running your world.
Yes, we’re thinking of the same people. Those weirdo, goofball, braniac, fresh-dressed, artsy, loud-mouthed, free-thinking teens that hang out at and lead the Neutral Zone every day. Very soon, they will be:
the city council members designing affordable housing policies;
the community organizers leading protests against racism and police brutality;
the engineers and scientists fighting climate change;
the artists and writers interpreting the human experience;
the teachers guiding all of them.
How do I know? Even though I am only at the start of my career, I know that Ann Arbor and the Neutral Zone inspired me and laid the foundation for my work in advocacy and organizing. And I know that happened because of donors like you.
My name is Bennett Stein. I like to think of myself as a lifelong Neutral Zone teen, but I’m no longer a teenager. I graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy in 2012, then moved to Brooklyn, New York.
Since then, I’ve worked with the National ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project to defend, advance, and adapt civil liberties as they intersect with new technology.
Sometimes I edit Supreme Court briefs in defense of cell phone privacy. Sometimes I meet about issue messaging with my boss and his client, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (yes, the US government still has him stuck in Moscow—we meet with him via robot). And sometimes I put on my other hat as steward of our UAW shop to campaign for a fair contract or advise on workplace rights and benefits. It’s been a wild ride.
In all of these roles, it’s easy to trace my path back to the beat-up couches at the old Neutral Zone on South Main and then the nice new boardroom on Washington, where adult program leaders, older teens, and my friends asked me hard questions and genuinely wanted to hear my answers.
These challenging programs and conversations happen all the time at the Neutral Zone, but my junior year of high school was a particularly important one in my growth as an advocate, engaged citizen, and human being.
In 2007 and 2008, I was the lead producer of Breakin’ Curfew, the Neutral Zone and University Musical Society’s teen talent showcase at the Power Center. Our team of teen curators spent nine months working through all of the logistics of putting on a massive showcase of teen expression.
While I had only signed up to lead this local, defined program, I quickly understood that this work was inextricably linked to the arts community throughout Michigan and the cultural future of our state. In 2007, as the state government considered cuts and freezes to arts funding, I traveled to Lansing on multiple occasions to testify at a legislative hearing, speak at a rally in the Capitol rotunda , and address the press on the Capitol lawn.
Neutral Zone staff counseled and connected me (and gave me rides to Lansing). The Neutral Zone showed me how to put our baby, a performing arts event, in the context of larger policy issues—and then become loud and effective advocates for our interests.
I am proud to come from the Neutral Zone tradition. I am proud that Ann Arbor teens keep it going, with help from people like you, and, as a new “adult,” me. Now I have the chance to make a donation to support whatever crazy, brilliant idea the teens come up with today.
I’m making a donation to the Neutral Zone teens who will soon be my colleagues, comrades and co-conspirators – or maybe they’ll be the chumps sitting across from me at the bargaining table, all the better.
I’m sending some money to Ann Arbor and I am asking you to join me. Make a gift so the Neutral Zone can keep giving teens the necessary resources and support as they figure out their roles in making this screwy world a better place. How much you give is up to you. I know that $35 will make sure that snacks are there today for teens when they come in after school, $55 will pay for a facilitation workshop for program leaders, and $175 will pay the annual program fee for one teen who can’t afford it. Click the donate button to make a gift now:
Neutral Zone, 2004-2008
University of Michigan 2008-2012