Teens Shape Their Future at the Neutral Zone

    It seems like everyone is changing the world these days. Everyone has a story about how they are recycling, composting, going vegan, driving electric cars, reducing greenhouse gases, or sending free-range chickens to college so they can feed starving children who are building houses for the homeless.
    So, if you were told that a teen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan was working hard to make a difference in kids' lives, you may be tempted to overlook its significance.
    Because when you hear what the Neutral Zone is doing to shape the future of teenagers, you may molt that cynical husk. You might even be moved. Because the Neutral Zone is doing it right.
    The idea began in 1998 when a group of Ann Arbor teens realized there was a strong need for an after-school center where young people could acquire new skills, express themselves freely, and gather to learn about each other. From this simple premise, the Neutral Zone has grown from a handful of teens to a hub of creative activity that boasts 25,000 visits a year.
    Many of those visits are by Alice Held, a high-school student that enriches the daily activities at the Neutral Zone as much as she benefits from them. In her third year of involvement, Alice has done everything from assisting in the writing of grants to improve the music facilities at the center, to giving tours to interested patrons that visit, to contributing to her attended programs, to setting out snacks for hungry teens.
    “That's what I like about the Neutral Zone so much: there are opportunities for every person that comes in due to our diversity in program areas.”
    The Neutral Zone offers several different programs in music, writing, and the visual arts. Teens at the Neutral Zone learn how to hone their creative efforts in settings like the DJ Workshop and Beatmaking class; the Short Story Workshop and VOLUME Youth Poetry Project; and the NZ Visual Arts Council's multitude of workshops including painting, sculpture, and photography, to name but a few.
    One such program is run by Alvin Hill. Alvin is a cross-medium performer, composer, DJ, and educator. Currently a Lecturer and Media Support Specialist at the University of Michigan’s Residential College and an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, Alvin’s “jit.NZ” program explores multimedia performance using Max from Cycling ’74.
    Firmly nestled at the nexus of art, music, and engineering, Max is a software mainstay taught at universities including UC Berkeley (CNMAT), Columbia, and NYU. A suite of multimedia programming tools packaged in a graphical interface, Max is used by everyone from artist/engineer Daito Manabe, to avant-electronica musicians like Autechre, to rock band Radiohead.
    Max is praised for its quick customization, extensive interconnectivity, and superior adaptability. It is no wonder it has found a home at the Neutral Zone. Alvin thinks Max and the teen center are an obvious fit.
    “Ever since I started using Max I have wanted to pair it with teenagers because they are both boundless. Teens have boundless imagination and Max has boundless possibilities. It is up to me to help them find the connection -- that perfect patch cord to connect the two.”
    Alvin’s program, “jit.NZ”, provided live visual accompaniment for several acts at the teen center’s “Breakin’ Curfew” concerts. Several acts performed at a 1300-seat venue called the Power Center, where a live camera feed of the performances was fed into Max during the show. Some of the visuals were then affected and influenced by the audio from the groups performing. The pairing of Max’s open-ended nature with the teeming imaginations of the teens at the Neutral Zone has paid off.
    “The biggest advantage [of using Max] is that Max is flexible and adaptive and allowed the teens to perform visuals and create types of interactivity in realtime that no other software would,” Alvin reported.

    The Jitter Project at the Neutral Zone

    Video: Geoff Morris
    But the Neutral Zone doesn't just foster teens' love of creative endeavors by helping them refine their skills in a particular art form. The NZ works hard to educate teens in the ancillary areas that orbit their craft. Classes are offered in music business, sound engineering, computer music, and promotion. There is an onsite recording studio, a youth-operated record label, publishing house for writing, regular art shows to display the teens' work, and a full stage equipped to handle elaborate performances. There is even mentorship in navigating the college application process, and programs that provide work opportunities.
    “The Neutral Zone has a teen internship for seniors, where they work several hours a week and also volunteer. I think it is a great opportunity for seniors to gain work and volunteer experience before they head off to college,” said Alice.
    Yet, the development of self and creativity cannot thrive unless a young artist has an environment within which they feel safe to explore. The Neutral Zone is well aware of this, and offers several different leadership programs to give teens a safe place to discuss the issues they face as artists, and as people. There are programs like North Star, an open discussion group for young women; Riot Youth, a space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals to network and socialize; and SEED, a community designed to further teens’ understanding of diversity.
    “The first day I went [to the center], I immediately felt accepted and included,” Alice explained. “The Neutral Zone provides a base for teen artists and leaders to really progress, not only as students, artists, musicians, and writers, but also to develop as young adults. The Neutral Zone community has always helped me through my tough times, and it’s basically my second home. A lot of teenagers feel the same way.”
    Alvin agrees that the Neutral Zone’s open invitation to all who want to become involved is a major contributor to the center’s success.
    “The Zone is an inclusive space. Many organizations have to recruit to make their spaces diverse. The Zone is diverse because it is welcoming to all,” he said.
    And here's the real kicker -- a majority of the board of directors at the Neutral Zone is comprised of teens who lead the charge in how the NZ operates. Talking about a project is fine, but it must be cleared by the youth-driven leadership before it becomes a reality. This isn't merely an afterthought. It's the core belief behind the Neutral Zone's operation, and it is no doubt a major reason why the NZ is so successful.
    “The Neutral Zone is all youth-led and youth-run,” Alice explained, “which is very rare to find anywhere else. We have adult advisors that oversee the program meetings, but the teen facilitator is in charge and every teen in their program has a say in how to run the program. All the teens here get a chance to share their voice on how we could improve the Neutral Zone, which is something I don't think you could find anywhere else.”
    Alvin agrees that the Neutral Zone’s operating procedures are quite rare.
    “I have spent many years working and volunteering at several teen centers in the Detroit area and it is clear that the character and atmosphere of the Zone would not be what it is without teen involvement at all levels,” Alvin explained.
    This ability of the center’s teens to steer not only their own trajectories, but the path of the Neutral Zone itself, is a key component in the center’s overwhelming success, according to Alice.
    “If we had a teen center that was developed only for specific people and we [just] had formal programs, it wouldn't be as inclusive. We are allowed to customize our programs and make them our own.”
    This customization makes the Neutral Zone’s inherent mode of operation as unique as the very people who attend its myriad programs and shape its future. “The Neutral Zone is not for a specific person, it is for a diverse group of people, you can customize it to make it your own individual experience,” Alice continued.
    One of the reasons the Neutral Zone works so well, Alice explained, is because young people are given the respect they deserve by allowing them room to grow in their own way.
    “[The staff] expects you to be honest and responsible, and when you have that trust you feel good. The staff treats us like the young adults we are, not like children.”
    Those that are lucky enough to be involved at the Neutral Zone find themselves fostering a life-long affinity for the organization. It is the type of place people do not want to leave.
    Says Alvin, “As long as the teens let me, I will continue to offer this program. The Neutral Zone teens inspire me and keep my own ideas fresh as a performer.”
    And even though college is just around the corner for Alice Held, she still plans to maintain her connection to the center that gave her the structure she needed to develop, and gave her the community she loves.
    “It is a great feeling to know that I participated in something that is changing so many teens' lives. When I graduate high school, I know I will be visiting to see the progression we have made.”
    With education in their areas of interest, access to the means of creation, the ability to present their work to a wide audience, and the opportunity to be themselves among their peers, the Neutral Zone is everything a young creative person could hope for. It’s the whole package.
    The Neutral Zone actually is changing the world, one teen at a time.
    For more information, visit http://www.neutral-zone.org.