Neutral Zone hosts On the Table discussions

Gen Z and baby boomers engage in dialogue

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By Suni Jo Roberts
Deputy Editor

In order to build community we need to talk to each other: across generations and sometimes, about difficult topics. This was the opening sentiment delivered by Lori Roddy, Executive Director of the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, to a group of youth and adults who were at the Neutral Zone for an “On the Table” event.

This event, while continuing on conversations that happened in early October across southeast Michigan as part of a series supported by the community foundation for SE Michigan, shares many values with the Neutral Zone itself. Those are to provide spaces for youth to allow for personal growth and create communities where young people can grow and thrive.

To work toward these goals, people spanning generations gathered at the Neutral Zone on Thursday Nov. 7 to discuss topics chosen by youth members of the Neutral Zone. These included timely topics such as police interaction with young people, which sought to address recent events in Ann Arbor that occurred at the Blake Transit Center in which an Ann Arbor teen was arrested. Other topics included sexual assault, rape culture and dating violence, school safety for LGBT youth and anxiety, depression and suicide. Attendees were encouraged to share topics they thought were important to discuss.

A Neutral Zone staff member explained the special focus of the conversations at the Neutral Zone and the results she expects to see.

A driving point for the night was “creating a space where adults are here to listen to the youth perspective, the youth voice and what they have to say,” said Kelsey Cavanagh-Strong, Youth Driven Spaces Manager at the Neutral Zone. She continued with a hope for “youth utilizing the social capital and power that adults have to get action around some of these issues that they think are really important and prevalent to them.”

In alignment with Neutral Zone’s mission to be a youth-driven teen-center dedicated to promoting personal growth, Jade Wang, teen board member, explained three ground rules for the night’s conversations. The first ground rule, “step up, step back” tells those more reserved to step up and contribute and those who tend to talk a lot in discussions to step back and give other people a chance to talk. The second ground rule, to center the most marginalized voices, encourages everyone to be cognizant of the topic at hand and which voices are most negatively impacted and least listened to and give those voices your attention. The third ground rule is to challenge the idea and not the person.

Jeff Gaynor, an Ann Arbor School Board member and retired teacher of 38 years, attended the event and spent time at the sexual assault, rape culture and dating violence table.

“This shouldn’t be an unusual situation,” said Gaynor. “But, as a former teacher I know that there are so many demands in the classroom plus various restrictions. I would love to have an environment where students and teachers could have more honest conversation on matters of real importance at whatever the age the kids are at.”

The aim to give youth a space to be listened to was realized by Olivia Miner, a Sophomore at Skyline High School and participant in poetry programs at the Neutral Zone. She said as someone who has anxiety, it can be hard to talk to a large group of people, but she found the event allowed her to open up in a way she hadn’t expected.

“I just really loved how there were adults that were willing to listen to what you said completely and not just cut you off and say, ‘Well, what about this,’” said Miner.

Staff and attendees agreed the event was a success. At the end of the event the audience appreciated the conversation that they had but also made calls for action.

“I think because of how successful this is, I can only imagine that we would want to do something like this again,” said Cavanagh-Strong.

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