Leading through the arts: Teens across the state are transforming Michigan’s creative landscape

One by one, students file into a room that blurs the distinctions between classroom and hangout pad. Egypt Kyles is the first to arrive. With a semi-crown of black flowers perched atop her raven hair, the 16-year-old artist enjoys sketching, making music and cosplay. Her charisma is as contagious as her confidence. The same goes for Antonio Jaimes, an exceptional dancer and already savvy public speaker who carries himself as though he were a sophomore in college, not high school. In fact, charisma and confidence are the two common denominators uniting the distinctive array of young creatives now mingling and joking at the Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities’ (GAAH) Teen Leaders in the Arts program on this unusually warm autumn afternoon in Grand Rapids.

Steffanie Rosalez, a program director at GAAH, begins passing out copies of the teen leaders initiative’s first agenda since the kids’ return to school. It’s a biggie. Not only does the group need to finalize details of the space remodel already in progress, it has to set up project committees for field trips, recruitment, and community engagement. As her peers draw closer to the brown couch anchoring the center of the room, Kyles turns and says, "If you like getting your hands dirty and working on art, then this is the program for you."

Launched in 2014 by GAAH, the Teen Leaders in the Arts program came about as a solution to the organization’s inability to attract adolescents to its Cook Arts Center in Roosevelt Park (one of Grand Rapids’ most culturally diverse neighborhoods). Where elementary school kids flocked to the classes offered them, teens rarely expressed interest in traditional art instruction. So, GAAH tried something new: a youth-driven space model in which teens are put in the driver’s seat. They shape the program’s vision. They set the agenda. They oversee the projects.

Once the non-profit implemented a program offering a genuine voice, attracting teenagers no longer was a problem.
Teen Leaders in the Arts, which currently hovers around 15 members, is one of a growing number of youth-driven space programs popping up around Michigan. In addition to GAAH’s, there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s Teen Council, Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, and many more.

According to Rosalez, they are in part a response to the contraction of arts education in the state. (The city of Lansing, to cite but one of many distressing examples, laid off every one of its elementary art teachers in 2013.) Yet the youth-driven spaces model is far more than a replacement for what has disappeared. Representing a novel approach that speaks to the times in which teens are growing up, it uses the arts as a platform for helping them cultivate 21st-century skills (not just leadership, but also critical thinking and collaboration) in a safe and nurturing setting.

A prime illustration is the group’s recently completed public mural. Covering the side of a building down the street from the Cook Arts Center, “Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz” (“Our History, Our Voice”) serves as a stunning showcase for the precocious design and painting talents of the group, who helped craft a kaleidoscopic tribute to the Latinx heritage that defines the neighborhood. But that’s just part of the story. The group also assisted in project management that entailed coordination with a trio of local artists and roughly 30 students, as well as several rounds of conceptualization and, most important, rigorous neighborhood outreach.

"Initially, the kids didn’t want to depict national flags in the mural because we didn’t have the space for every [Latin American] country," explains Rosalez. At a forum held to gather input from the community about the mural, however, "residents told them the flags were central to their cultural identities," Rosalez says. "They quickly realized that they would have made a massive mistake if they hadn’t sought input from the community. The experience taught them about the pitfalls of making assumptions and the importance of listening to the perspectives of others."

The mural received key funding from the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, also in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood. For Rosalez, herself an artist, one of the chief advantages of starting up a youth-driven space in Grand Rapids is its tradition of arts philanthropy. "There is a lot of giving back to the community," she says. "The idea that everyone in your community matters is embedded in the city." This unique quality has helped establish a robust cultural infrastructure that counts the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, and Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park among its institutions.
There’s also the internationally renowned ArtPrize competition. This year’s installment, running from Sept. 21 through Oct. 9, features works from the Cultura Collective, a group of local creatives that counts among its ranks Alejandro Ruiz and Noemi Gonzalez, who developed their respective voices while coming up through the Teen Leaders in the Arts program.

At the same time, the city is undergoing sweeping growth, which in turn has triggered intense and oftentimes contentious dialogue about the ramifications of urban development and its troubling tendency to stoke economic racism. As Rosalez points out, "I think Grand Rapids is using the arts as a way to talk about change, equality and identity, and it’s our kids who are going to be effecting this change through a mix of art and activism."

This happened earlier in the year when the visitors' bureau Experience Grand Rapids unveiled "Grand Rapids Destination Neighborhoods," the first in a proposed series of marketing videos that highlighted many of the city’s unique areas yet conspicuously excluded Roosevelt Park. This was not lost on the Teen Leaders in the Arts crew, who sprang into action, using their marginalization as fuel to write and plan a script for a rebuttal video produced by Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. The result, "Our Future Is Bright," is an endearing and perception-transforming meditation on the power of both positive self-identity and having pride in one’s community, both of which are values that speak to the very heart of the program’s mission.

From indie record label to hiring & firing, youth are in charge at The Neutral Zone
Every chance Rosalez gets she expresses her debt to The Neutral Zone, which is headquartered in downtown Ann Arbor but is open to all high school-aged youth in Washtenaw County. Founded in 1998 by a group of teenagers looking to open an all-inclusive place where they could hang out, create cool stuff, and make new friends, it is the state’s oldest youth-driven space. Over the years it has evolved into a diversity-rich nonprofit home to approximately 22 programs. There are tutoring sessions, visual arts workshops, a group founded by LGBTQQIA youth, and even an indie record label for budding musicians all housed in a space where the walls are slathered in artwork.

Additionally, The Neutral Zone uses financial grants awarded by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (specifically its New Leaders Arts Council of Michigan advisory group) to provide coaching services to organizations around the state that want to embed a youth voice in their work. GAAH’s Teen Leaders in the Arts has worked with The Neutral Zone, as have the Ludington Area Center for the Arts, the Ypsilanti District Library, and no fewer than 20 high schools.

Though The Neutral Zone has coached numerous institutions outside the arts, according to John Weiss, director of strategic initiatives, it’s in the arts organizations where the youth-driven spaces model really sticks. "Identity is central to the arts in ways that are unique," he says. "If a program shares decision-making processes in intentional ways, it really helps teenagers develop positive identity formation. They begin to see themselves as confident: ‘I can do this. I planned this whole project. I helped raise money for it. I got my peers excited about it.’ Also, by engaging them in planning, collaborating and budget making, you’re allowing them to develop the skills that will take them into adulthood."

One of the most thriving programs at The Neutral Zone is the year-round Visual Arts Council (VAC), which recently renamed itself the Visual Arts Collective, says acting visual and media arts manager Mary Thiefels. "The kids decided they like the feel of the word ‘collective’ versus ‘council’ in terms of the kind of projects and intensive community engagement they undertake."

Covering both traditional art forms, like painting and sculpture, and cutting-edge digital media, the VAC is deeply enmeshed in Ann Arbor’s rich mix of university culture and technology industry. In addition to having created installations for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the oldest experimental film festival in the United States, their impressive portfolio includes teaming up with the Ann Arbor District Library and GameStart, a locally based technical school for programming, to host Your Game From the Ground Up, a symposium on video game development. On top of all that, the VAC curates an annual, multi-media exhibition that helps raises funds necessary for The Neutral Zone’s continued success.

For each of these projects, the sheer amount of responsibility the roughly 20 individuals comprising the VAC take on is astonishing. The creative aspects certainly are critical, yet just as central is all the necessary project coordination, accounting and community outreach. Thiefels works with them every step of the way, though she doesn’t take the lead – ever.

"I can facilitate and advise, but I am trained to step back in order for their ideas to come forward," she points out. "I think that’s what makes the Visual Arts Collective and The Neutral Zone so unique. If no patrons show up to an exhibit and only five artists showed their art, we help them ask why the project failed. We don’t jump in to make everything succeed."
But their responsibilities don’t end at the project level. In order to instill a genuine sense of ownership in The Neutral Zone, youth are threaded into the organization’s governing structure. For instance, 13 of its 29 board members are teenagers. They review monthly financials, approve budgets, and hire and fire the executive director. In short, they perform the same tasks that any volunteer member of a nonprofit community board would undertake.
Thiefels herself, who was hired four years ago, had to go through a rigorous interview process overseen by the VAC. "The first interview was a staff member and two to three Visual Arts Collective members. They asked questions important to them," she says. "For the final interview I joined a Visual Arts Collective session. There were about 20 young people sitting in a circle and staring at me. We played a game of hot seat. Questions were fired at me, and I had to answer them honestly. So, right off the bat we did a community-building exercise. If they had said thumbs down after that, then that would’ve been the final say."
Get out of the way, adults! Teens build the arts with MOCAD council
Where Thiefels evokes the idea of stepping back, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), opts for getting out of the way, yet both refer to the same core belief: helping teenagers attain leadership skills requires a truly hands-off approach.
"They lead the meetings, and they lead with their ideas," says Borowy-Reeder, who two years ago founded the Teen Council, a leadership-focused program geared for residents of metro Detroit. "It’s an opportunity for them to bring in their ideas, work on them and see them come to fruition. Teen Council members, which are paid positions, are expected to work as a high-performing team. We put a lot of trust in them and then get out of their way. If we don’t, then they’re never going to learn problem-solving skills and teamwork."
The Teen Council isn’t based on the same youth-driven spaces model (developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality in Ypsilanti) as its counterparts in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Nevertheless, they share many similarities. All three are are firm believers in honoring the intrinsic motivation of youth, the importance of fostering civic responsibility and maintaining a safe and open environment.
Yet there also exist several differences, the most significant being setting. Where GAAH and The Neutral Zone are community-based nonprofits located in mid-size cities, MOCAD is a nationally renowned modern art museum smack dab in the middle of Michigan’s largest urban environment. Not only that, the institution has under Borowy-Reeder, a native Michigander, taken on a reputation as a place for innovative, boundary-breaking curation. Case in point: on Sept. 9 MOCAD unveiled "Subjective Cosmology," the latest show from Sanford Biggers, a world-renowned African-American artist whose interdisciplinary work delivers unflinching examinations of racism and the violent oppression under which Black America has suffered through the centuries – police brutality included.
This gutsy curation philosophy rubs off on the Teen Council’s 22 current participants, who have an up close and personal view of the modern art world that is unique to their program. "We are an edgy museum on the forefront of culture, and the artists we pick are leading the discussions in uncertainty and identity, as well as race, class, and gender," explains Borowy-Reeder. "This fits with young creatives who are asking very serious questions of themselves. It helps them to begin reflecting on issues of race, class, gender, and education. They begin thinking about their role in their community, which is really important."
A good portion of the Teen Council’s projects revolve around programming that takes place in MOCAD. Over the course of the last year the group has put together workshops covering fashion illustration, 3D design and automotive sketching, hosted open mic and poetry nights and organized a fantastic series of youth-led talks with many of the high-profile artists currently on exhibition. They’ve also tackled vital fundraising work in the form of Monster Drawing Rally: Teen Edition, a live event blurring the lines between improvised happening and art sale.
This is a win-win for the teenagers and the museum. For the former, it provides a nurturing space in which they can feel comfortable to express themselves openly. For the latter, it helps ensure future patronage. Recent studies, including the Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded "Room to Rise: The Lasting Impact of Intensive Teen Programs in Art Museums," have concluded that individuals enrolled in museum-supported youth programs often wind up visiting them, as well as maintaining a love for the arts, deep into their adult lives.
Borowy-Reeder is also mindful to point out that the program isn’t just about enabling the kids to become better artists; it’s about preparing them for their lives beyond high school.
"There just isn’t a whole lot for teens in Detroit that makes them inspired in a safe and positive way," she says. "So it’s vital to show the kids what’s out there, to get them out of their neighborhoods and expose them to what the world as to offer. Teen Council is a great way to help them prepare for college and to become 21st-century citizens. You can see the changes. They participate in school more. They’re more confident. They’re more outgoing."
Confidence is a word that pops up time and time again when talking with both Rosalez at GAAH and Weiss and Thiefels of The Neutral Zone. Each one relays similar stories of witnessing teens transform as they buy into their respective programs. Even after just a few weeks they can become more assured and trusting in both themselves and their peers.
It’s a quality that’s apparent when spending time with the Teen Leaders in the Arts in Grand Rapids. They open up about themselves and tell their stories freely and eloquently. As a group, they beam a collective sense of belonging.
When asked how the program has changed him, Antonio, the gifted dancer, replies, "Mentally, it has had a really big impact. People say I know how to put myself out there, and that I’m mature for my age."
There’s no better proof that these programs work.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Justin Farrar is a freelance writer who lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and son. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, SF Weekly, Resident Advisor and numerous other arts and culture publications. You can find him on Twitter, where he spends way too much time.

Grand Rapids photos by Adam Bird, Ann Arbor photos by Doug Coombe, and Detroit photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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