Putting Down Roots: The Youth Space Project Comes to Fruition

floor plan

Imagine a large, bright, two-story building. The walls are painted bright colors and there are teenagers everywhere. Downstairs youth are sprawled on the floor, in chairs and at tables, reading, doing homework, playing games and listening to music. In the small snack area in the far corner kids are clutching drinks and snacks, and they are being served by their peers and friends. In a large space through double doors there is a small game of soccer taking place.

Upstairs there are several rooms filled with the hum of computers. In each room teens are learning programs like PhotoShop and PageMaker, reading materials on the web, and doing research for homework and for fun. Down the hall a tutorial session is in progress, on how to use the Internet to find national community organizing resources. The group is discussing the best way to reach members of their government and they are writing letters in support of new legislation loosening current laws against skateboarding in the city.

In the room next door a dozen or so teens are organizing for a rally against curfews. They are spread around the room, printing posters from the computers, faxing information to local business and government leaders, and painting Anti-Curfew posters and signs. In a small room across the hall a group of adults are reading, talking, and watching the small television in the corner. They are all waiting for their children to finish so they can take them home.

The whole space buzzes with activity, and with youth. They are everywhere. They are playing learning, organizing, working and relaxing. This is their world and they use it, run it and leave it at their discretion. A youth-topia, where parents wait for kids, resources are available to everyone regardless of their age or whether they're in school, and adults advise them, but don't necessarily tell them what to do.

This kind of space is a dream for many communities, where more and more teens are being discriminated against and looked down upon simply for being young. But if the folks planning Youth Space of San Francisco have their way, by 2003, it will be much more than a dream.

The idea came about five years ago, when SF teens decided that what they really needed was a place of their own. "[The idea] went from kind of a general chill space to, okay, let's really offer some growth resources so that young people can start solving problems," said Julia Sabori, the president of the youth board.

According to Javon Cogmon, its new Executive Director, Youth Space will have three major components. The first is leadership development. This will include the tools and support to learn job skills, training skills and organizing skills. Secondly, the space will be made available for entertainment and event like concerts, dances and parties. "The third component is just youth chill space," says Cogmon. "There will always be a place for teens who really just need a place to hang out," and it will include a youth-run snack bar. Youth Space will be there to assist with the basic elements of grass roots organizing. Many programs don't ever get off the ground because of a lack of space and resources. Youth there will have access to fax machines and computers and places where they can post ads, as well as to experts who will provide technical assistance with things like do grant writing.

This is their world and they use it, run it and leave it at their discretion. A youth-topia, where parents wait for kids, resources are available to everyone regardless of their age or whether they're in school, and adults advise them, but don't necessarily tell them what to do.

Grassroots organizing is nothing new for the kids behind Youth Space. In fact, it's the reason the project has gotten so far. "[The youth] followed the ideal sort of civic process of community organizing and getting something created for the neighborhood," said Sabori. "They had an idea that came from the young people themselves and then they lobbied their community allies and adult allies and then [they] lobbied the local officials... And the idea was well received because it was needed."

Youth-specific spaces are necessary because the 'adult nation' increasingly sees youth as a problem that needs to be remedied. Many stores, such as large chains like Rite Aid, have rules as to how many teenagers can enter at once and some restaurants are closed to teenagers completely. Malls are cracking down on gang activity and are in turn kicking out large groups of 'suspicious' teens. A recent study linking youth and race draws attention to the fact that youth, especially youth of color, tend to experience discrimination in public spaces.

According to the 2001 report titled, "Criminalized: Youth and Race in the United States," in Albuquerque, New Mexico there is a policy against the loitering of teenagers in their shopping malls "in groups in excess of five persons without the supervision of a parent or guardian over 21 years of age," and on the weekend youth cannot be in groups larger than three. Many streets and shops, especially in Downtown districts, frown on loitering and tell teenagers who are hanging out to "move along."

Taj James, the former YMAC director and continuing supporter of the Youth Space project agreed. "Youth are facing increasing criminalization, which means that things that [they] do as part of their normal development are putting more [of them] in jail. Things that would get you sent to the principle office now get you a felony."

Meanwhile, adults are finding that one of the best ways to help young people organize is to give them the to be themselves and learn from each other, spaces they will not be told to leave after their meal is over or because they will scare the other customers.

The organizers behind Youth Space hope it will act to unify the youth in a city known for its progressive, but often divided, political and social organizing. "San Francisco has a strange dynamic," said Sabori. "It's so small, but people don't want to travel to another neighborhood that has totally different resources. So we wanted to build just one center that doesn't have to be neighborhood-based."

Youth centers around the country usually aim to meet the needs of one very specific group, be it residents of a neighborhood or youth who all fall into an easy-to-record category like 'youth at risk' or youth from low-income families.

Taj James believes that division is key to keeping youth from organizing.

"For youth from marginalized communities to build power in San Francisco," he says, "they must overcome the ways the system keeps them divided." In light of this, Youth Space will be open to everyone.

But the lines that divide young people run deep. And, like the rest of what's gone into developing Youth Space, it won't happen overnight.

Cogmon hopes that having a variety of different youth involved in the organizing will keep the space from attracting only one type of young person. When people look at the teens on the Youth Board he hopes they will be able to find someone like themselves.

In the case of youth who have already struggled to pull their lives together, this is especially important. "If someone used to be a gang member or used to rob cars, and they're trying to turn their life around, we recognize the valuable skills that they may have," said Cogmon. "Our task is to get them to re-funnel that in a way that will suit them and that eventually suits their community."

"Youth are facing increasing criminalization, which means that things that [they] do as part of their normal development are putting more [of them] in jail. Things that would get you sent to the principle office now get you a felony." - Taj James

He also hopes that teens will be able to look to the youth who have 're-funneled' their energy, "and recognize that not only can you get your act together, you can actually lead things."

Because it is youth-led, Youth Space is a project with room for many different levels of involvement. The group with the most decision-making power is the Youth Board. The board is comprised of youth between the ages of 14-26 and the youth over the age of 18 are asked to see themselves as mentors. This youth board makes all of the major decisions for Youth Space, including defining its mission, deciding who will use it, and making decisions based on what costs are involved. The Adult Advisory Board gives feedback and input but has no real decision-making power.

Cogmon, Sabori and the rest of the Youth Space team have big goals for their project, but they also have a good role model right across the bay. "We are seeing Youth Space-like projects spring up around the country," said James. "In Alameda the HOME project has many aspects that are similar to Youth Space."

HOME is in fact a very large and very successful project dedicated to giving teens their own space. Since it's inception in 1996, originally as a Boys and Girls Club, HOME has grown immensely. They have a space at a former Navy Base, and have built a skate-park and a sound studio. The group of youth and adult leaders have also recently opened a charter High School. HOME is a comprehensive youth development program, providing a service not only to the youth involved, but also to their community, making it a wonderful picture of what Youth Space can become.

Before it can become a youth mecca, however, there are a number of decisions yet to be made about the exact shape of Youth Space. Because the process involves so many levels of participants, decisions can take a long time. Things like age limits, fees, and specific uses for much of the space are still up in the air.

Another dilemma facing the organizers of Youth Space is the Youth Board. They have left many important decisions up to this powerful group of young people, but are hesitant to form a permanent board until the rest of the project solidifies for fear that members will age out and move on to college and the working world. Already, according to Sabori, many of the young people who originated the idea of Youth Space are leaving the area to go to college.

But despite these bumps in the road, all involved seem certain that Youth Space will succeed and continue. Part of this success can be attributed to the ripple effect involved in youth leadership. Sabori herself went from youth organizer to youth leader. And Cogmon takes pride in recruiting help from those in his past.

Cogmon believes that if youth are truly connected to their community, given the proper tools and leadership training, "they can go back and put [what they've learned] back into the community." Space for youth is an integral part of youth leadership and community. Sabori agrees, saying, "As long as there's young people who want to make a change, and need more than what they're having, then there'll be some youth space involved."

Elizabeth Zipper is the Editorial Intern at WireTap.
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