Edison Neighborhood

Fire: Where teens find a safe place to learn about themselves and others with poetry

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to get teens where you want them to be when you want them to be there. Timeliness is not a problem for Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative. It’s typical for teens show up there hours early, waiting for staff to open the doors.

Earlier this year, the starting time for longstanding First Friday open mics at Fire were moved from 7:30 to 6:30 p.m. to accommodate teens who were getting there two hours before the show.

Six days a week — every day but Wednesday — Fire invites teens to learn about themselves and to express what they have learned, often in spoken word poetry. Weekdays there are after-school workshops from 3:30 to 6 p.m. and Saturday youth travel to events across Kalamazoo.

Fire, a fixture in the Edison neighborhood for 12 years, has served youth as part of its mission in the past, but in the two years since Allison Kennedy has become its executive director youth have increasingly become the focus of the organization.

The former Portage Street Fire Station, Engine No. 2, built in 1903 is at the heart of the Edison neighborhood and has housed everything from a laundromat to a grocery store to a photography studio over the decades. 

It opened as a nonprofit in 2005, with a belief that cultural awareness generates social justice. Fire became an art gallery, poetry showcase, Creative Justice Press, culinary arts program, catering service, home to WFCR radio, and host of Youth Creative Productions. Under the direction of Denise Miller and Michelle Johnson, it partnered with a long list of area academics, businesses, and nonprofits. It was home to dance parties and open mics.

Today, Fire describes itself as a youth-driven space for art and justice. During the April 6 open mic, an announcement from the stage reinforced that adults were to keep their presentations to three minutes so teens could have as much time as they needed for their spoken words, songs, or even short humorous skits. 

Such touches are part of an overall effort to create a space where teens can be themselves without judgment or shame. “We don’t shame you. We don’t suspend you,” Kennedy says. 

And after a recent incident got serious, the Fire team used restorative justice — a method justice of that seeks to build relationships and repair harm rather than impose punishment — to determine what they could do to prevent such a thing from happening in the future. 

“It was a great meeting,” Kennedy says. “Young people are so wise.”

That’s in keeping with Fire’s attitude toward young people and their potential.

“We really trust that young people are building an interesting culture themselves,” Kennedy says. “And that it’s exciting. We don’t assume that they are on their phones too much or don’t have social skills or all the other things people say about kids.”

They don’t expect teens to save the world either. The focus instead is on giving young people the time and space they need to build their identities.

“They’re still trying to figure out who they are,” Kennedy says. “I think adults would be better justice leaders if we figured out who we were and what we really cared about before we got into this work. They’re (young people are) not going to do it by themselves. We shouldn’t give them the responsibility of changing our circumstances. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with telling them ‘youth is our future.’”

“I’ve also learned that a perfectly reasonable goal is to have fun,” Kennedy says.

On First Fridays of the month at Fire the open mic is where all the feelings come out. Photo by Fran Dwight.
Fire is a place youth from the neighborhood can be a part of and 60 percent of those who participate at Fire are Edison residents. Kennedy says she knows where all the Fire young people live in the neighborhood, from Stockbridge to Washington. On any given week, there could be 20 participants in workshops and another 30 who show up for an open mic. There were about 800 visits to Fire last year.

Though Fire’s influence on the neighborhood may be hard to quantify, Kennedy is proud to lead a street corner organization that literally has no barriers for people to walk across as they enter the building.

Kennedy attributes much of the popularity of Fire to its flexibility in responding to the youth who attend. “When they tell us we’ve been doing the same thing for too long, the next week we’ll switch it up, and make lavender lemonade,” she says. “We try to change and evolve our programs.” 

Other afterschool programs have curriculum mapped out for six weeks, down to the minutes, but not at Fire where young people have a role in how the day proceeds. 

“We ask them, ‘Who wants to start the icebreaker? Does anyone have a good question?’ They do it and they get the feeling of ownership,” Kennedy says. “They have opportunities to be heard, and listened to, and see what they say become real very quickly. Not every organization responds quickly to the needs of youth. They tell us they would like condoms in the restrooms. OK. They’re there.” 

At the same time, Kennedy is quick to point out that offering such flexibility does not mean the teens are allowed to do anything they want. Teens learn they are to be accountable for their words and actions. They are asked to think and speak well of one another. They keep confidentiality and ask questions rather than making assumptions. 

Teens are also asked to be open to creating. Kennedy says workshops are very structured to allow teens to be creative. And a writing prompt is just as likely to result in a drawing or painting as it is in a new poem.

Her work and that of her four part-time employees is trauma-informed, meaning it proceeds with the understanding the most of the young people have experienced some kind of trauma and any acting out they may do is the result of those experiences.

All the youth know two or three people who have died. They are still at the point where the grief is their’s rather than recognizing it as a more global experience, she says.

In addition to after-school creative writing workshop and open mics, Fire features lock-ins, retreats, its Summer of Healing program, participation in slam poetry workshops and Queer Prom. Young people also get a chance to learn many new skills on the Teen Advisory Council.

The youth-centered nature of Fire grew out of the formation of the Teen Advisory Council in Kennedy’s first year as executive director. The eight-member council planned its first event — an open mic for youth only. Next came a lock-in. “It was sooo good,” Kennedy says. 
“This space just feels really right in the hands of youth,” she goes on to say. Youth always cleaned up after themselves after they used it. The young people also wanted the building cleaned out and made that happen. They cleaned six tons of garbage out of the building to open up more space. “They just did the work,” she says.

The evolution in Fire has mirrored an evolution in Kennedy, who never knew how good she would be working with teens. In fact, when she was hired she told the Fire board of directors she would do anything but work with young people.

Then the first two people to contact her after she was hired — two teens. “They liked every one of my profile pictures. They were checking me out,” Kennedy says.  

Ultimately, her high school experience in a teen center called the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor where she was part of a very competitive slam poetry program allowed her to envision the youth-centered space that Fire has become.

She has been able to spread the gospel of slam over the past two years, too. This year there have been local competitions that led to the formation of two teams who will travel to Michigan Louder Than a Bomb, where they will compete against 20 other teams from across the state. The two Fire hosted competitions were recruiting tools for a six-week program where Kennedy says they will learn “to love each other.” 

Fire is the only organization to prepare students for the competition.

Executive Director Allison Kennedy in the circle at Fire. Photo by Fran Dwight Respected organizations such as the Wallace Foundation say afterschool programs can provide measurable benefits to youth and families. Such programs can improve academic outcomes especially if youth attend regularly and the program is of high quality. 

Kennedy has the data that shows Fire is offering that kind of programming and many of those who to come to Fire are devoted attendees. She affectionately refers to them as Fireflies on social media.

Youth also have told Fire how much it has meant to them.  One said: “I’m learning how to be more trusting here.” 

Another reported: “I was feeling suicidal for a few months but now have a much better sense of my own self-worth.” 

And one more said: “I have learned how to be shameless about my challenge.”

Parents, in turn, are equally supportive. When Kennedy put out a call for a paper cutter on Facebook, a parent had it covered within the day. Others talk about how much their teens have opened up since they started Fire programs.

Suicide came up more than once in the poems of teens at a recent open mic. Kennedy says she and her staff are in regular communication with local mental health experts. The advice and speed with which it is given via text make Gryphon Place a resource she recommends. 

During workshops, teens are praised for lines that show resilience. “We give warm affirming attention to youth who are not being intense. Sometimes the only way they have gotten attention in the past is through crisis. We want them to learn that is not the only way to get attention.”

Work in the community continues to evolve, too. Fire works closely with the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival and this week has been asked to collaborate with OutFront Kalamazoo.

“Afterschool programs are not about keeping young people occupied till their parents get home from work,” Kennedy says. “They’re really, really, really about getting young people ready for the world and ready to love themselves and ready to love their neighborhood.

“The way we talk about youth development is — we are tenacious about getting youth into our program. I do ‘friend’ youth on Facebook, I do holler at them on the street, I do say things to them at the bus stop because I think we need to be tenacious about investing in youth.”

If someone knows a young person who might be interested in the type of programming Fire offers, Kennedy encourages them to be tenacious in getting them there.  

“And they can draw on the walls,” Kennedy says.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor. 

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here

The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.

After the teens have gone home for the day at Fire. Photo by Fran Dwight
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