Winter Fund Drive 2016

Tales of a Neutral Zone Fanatic

by Illyana Balde, Skyline High School, 2016

It looked like an old office building. I walked past it without a care for what was going on inside. I was still in eighth grade when I had that first encounter with the Neutral Zone. Some friends and I were walking past the B-Side. The building still hadn’t been painted, nor did it have e B-Side neon sign.

My mother had been pushing me to go check out the Neutral Zone, but I would blow her off and tell myself that I was ‘too cool’ for a bland place like that. It wasn’t until my brother dragged me to a concert at the B-Side that I finally took my first step to the rest of my life.

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By that time, it was the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year in high school. Most of the people there were my older brother’s age, so I felt a little left out. Everyone was so welcoming, but I was too shy to even introduce myself, so my brother did it for me. The only conversation I had with anyone was when I donated some money for the band. The rest of the show was a blur, but I vividly remember leaving with a smile on my face, as my mom drove my naive, younger self home.


Illyana at a Neutral Zone Art Show

A few weeks later, my friend Evan invited me to go to a Riot Youth meeting with him. Earlier that year, I had come out as queer. It was super cool and new to me to join an LGBTQA+ group. I had never been upstairs at NZ, so it was very exciting and scary at the same time.

The upstairs seemed so different from the B-Side. It was more like an office space than a venue, but nicer. The giant bean bags, or ‘foofs’, would become the best seats in the entire Neutral Zone.  That was four years ago. I’ve been on the foofs ever since.

My younger self had no idea of what was in store for me. I continued to be in Riot Youth. Most of the time I kept to myself and stayed out of the conversation, until one day — the day to elect new facilitators for the next school year. Something deep inside me led me to put myself on the ballot. My internal voice was like a fire igniting my soul. I was so ready. And I won.

That next year, I had to actually become a facilitator, and boy, was it tough. I had no experience. I was unaware of how to lead the group. But as the year went on, I took to the role like I had done it my entire life.

Illyana’s graduation cap demonstrates her love for Neutral Zone

I also joined the B-Side concert promotion team, and was loving the vibe of the group. Everyone was so chill, and seemed really glad to have me on their team. Next, I joined the Visual Arts Council. I got to learn about other mediums of art besides what I already knew: drawing anime and cartoons.

By sophomore year, most of my friends had graduated. I began to feel very alone in the space and didn’t have many people to talk to.

Another fire began to burn inside me. That voice led me to talk to people I had never talked to before. And so, I burned down another part of my shell. I began to lead more and get out of my comfort zone. Things still weren’t easy for me; but life overall became easier. I became less afraid of leading Riot Youth, I put together my first show for the B-Side, and had an art installation at Live On Washington.

Junior year, I started as a member of the Neutral Zone Board of Directors. Leadership took on a whole new meaning. I was awash in new responsibilities. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. I had so many new adult role models in my life to help guide me.

Illyana, right, with her friend Evan Murphy, representing the NZ Board of Directors at a fundraising event.

I learned about donors and how to get them to help support the Neutral Zone. I also learned about the importance of having teens on the board of a place made for teens. I felt so powerful and important to the entire place. That power gave my life new meaning.

I earned an internship under John Weiss as part of the Youth Driven Spaces initiative. I got direct experience in training others to create spaces like Neutral Zone’s, where teens and adults work together to build a better community. I now know what it takes to make a survey, along with having the knowledge of how to ask a question, and how to be an active listener.

At the end of my senior year, I was one of the lead facilitators of Riot Youth and a co-lead facilitator of the B-Side. I was still a YDS intern, as well as being a SCORE intern. And I was serving as a member of the Board of Directors.

When someone asks, “What do you do at the Neutral Zone?” I get to give one of the longest answers I’ve ever had to give. It is also one of the greatest answers I have the privilege of giving.

I’ve seen myself come such a long way from four years ago. I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without the Neutral Zone. Before coming to the Zone, I was a shy kid with not many friends or opportunities for the future. Because of the Neutral Zone I have been able to become a leader, and a role model not only for others, but for myself as well.

I’ll get to keep the memories of the Neutral Zone with me for the rest of my life:

  • my first to my last Creal concert
  • the time I went to New York for the first time for a music conference
  • all four Queer Prom events I went to in high school (and when I cried because the electricity
    came back on just in time for one of them)
  • all the B-Side concerts I’ve worked, along with every meeting I’ve gone to for the past four years
  • Riot Youth’s trips to Lansing
  • when Amy gave me one of her nice pens with my name on it
  • learning how to screen print fabric
  • when “The Boogie Woogie Embassador” showed up to the YOR pancake breakfast
  • dancing in the rain at Live On Washington
  • having my art in the Potential Art Show
  • becoming master of the button maker
  • helping out at Lucky’s Market when they donated to the Neutral Zone
  • all the donor events I helped at to get money for the Zone

I could go on forever about all these memories, and more. It has been the best part of my life and I can’t believe it’s only been four years.

The Neutral Zone has given me a life worth living. They’ve given me so much and I want to thank all the people who helped me get to where I am today— that includes a lot of staff, friends, and everyone else who helps keep the Neutral Zone up and running.

Thank you so much for giving me my amazing life. I am forever grateful.  I hope you will join me in making a donation today!

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