Indie Awards: ‘It’s like my second home’

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Winner: Community Care

Sponsored by: People’s Food Cooperative
& Café Verde

The Neutral Zone

  • Year nonprofit founded: 1998
  • Full-time employees: 13
  • Website: neutral-zone.org
John Weiss, kneeling right, and several kids at the Neutral Zone | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

John Weiss, kneeling right, and several kids at the Neutral Zone | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

It’s not a stretch to say that one of the places that makes Ann Arbor special is The Neutral Zone. That’s because there’s no place like it in the country.

The teen center on East Washington Street doesn’t just claim to be “youth-driven,” it is: out of 29 Neutral Zone board members, 14 are teens. They help make decisions about activities, policies, how money is spent, even staff hiring. Then they get to experience the impact of those decisions.

And there are lots of decisions to be made at The Neutral Zone. The 11,000-square-foot facility hosts about 20 programs each week and live music or some type of event every weekend. There are two or three art exhibits each year; a literary arts program which includes visiting writers, poetry readings and even a publishing arm, Red Beard Press, which the teens run themselves; Youth Owned Records, which includes a state-of-the-art recording studio and is one of the country’s only teen-operated record labels; “B-Side”, a 400-person performance space; and a lot more.

“All of these experiences occur in partnership with supportive adults,” said John Weiss, executive director, “which research finds to be one of the most important components of successful youth programs and mentorship.”

He said 504 teens visited The Neutral Zone one or more times weekly during the 2012-13 program year. Almost all of them are high school age and about 45 percent of them come from from marginalized identities or disadvantaged backgrounds and are considered “at risk.”

“There’s no place in the country that has the breadth of programming and serves the diverse group of teens that we do,” says Weiss.

Mary Moffett, community relations director, said, “We serve all kinds of youth, teens from all walks of life.”

Cost to attend The Neutral Zone is $175 per school year, if the parents can afford it. Only 98 out of the more than 500 who attended last year paid.

The Neutral Zone’s finances are literally an open book. The board practices the same “open book management” that Zingerman’s employs. It’s based on the concept that it’s best to have employees —or program participants and backers —who act and think like owners.

Axel Daniels, who attends Skyline High School, says she likes The Neutral Zone because its arts program gives “a broader idea of what art is. The environment is a lot more inspiring than at school. We actually do stuff here. We take field trips and stuff.”

Sam Watson, who goes to Huron High, spends a lot of time in the music studio. Sam, who’s interesting in all aspects of music —writing, singing, producing —said he’d “never been in a recording studio before. Now it’s like my second home.

“Music is about expressing myself. I was the shy type until I met Jonah (Thompson, the studio manager) in ninth grade. From that point on, I really wasn’t scared of performing in front of people.”

Stories of transformation are nothing new to Sharonda Simmons, program coordinator. “The best thing is to see how you get every kind of teen —shy, reserved —and see them come in and get involved in all sorts of programs,” she said. “Pretty soon they’re leading meetings and taking over the space. Which is cool, because it’s their space.”

Weiss adds, “In school, teens don’t often have meaningful choices for self-expression. At Neutral Zone, they can act on their artistic passions. At the same time, they get the opportunity to think critically, solve problems and work collaboratively —all essential to developing 21st century skills. Through our brand of youth engagement, we see teens become confident leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, writers and engaged citizens.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.