Neutral Zone director Lori Roddy
Connecting teens to the community
by Jenn McKee
From the October, 2016 issue
"The world is yours, dude!" a skinny teenaged boy in ripped jeans declares grandly to his pals standing in the recording studio at the Neutral Zone teen center. But the kid freezes when photographer Adrian Wylie aims a camera his way.
Executive director Lori Roddy knows what to do. "Let's see you play with the word 'roses,'" she says, inviting the boy into an improv game. He snaps into a confident monologue: "Roses. Everyone likes roses ... you see them at cemeteries." Wylie gets his shot.
The Observer's designers didn't end up using the photo, but it was a glimpse of the skills that helped Roddy rise from intern to the top job at the local teen center. John Weiss, her mentor and predecessor, says that when he stepped back to focus on sharing the NZ model with other communities, "I couldn't see anyone else but Lori" as a successor.
Roddy, forty, works in a second-floor office in the Neutral Zone's brick storefront on E. Washington, surrounded by posters promoting NZ events. She laughs easily and often, but this second week in September, she's been running ragged. New kids are pouring in, the new swipe-card system they use to sign in has a glitch, and she needs to apply for two grants within the next three weeks. NZ's nearly 500 registered members pay a onetime fee of $200 to help support the center's activities, which also include an art room and publishing arm, but approximately a third of them receive either partial or full scholarships; grants bring in half of the $800,000 annual budget.
Now that she's in charge Roddy sees less of the kids than she did in her previous jobs, but she's still excited by the palpable energy that pervades the onetime print shop. "What I love about it is it creates a space where ideas come together and opportunities emerge," she says. "There's not a lot of bureaucracy."
"We're a little United Nations here," says Roddy, referring to
the different ethnic backgrounds of teen members. Roddy herself was born in South Korea and adopted by a family in Westerville, Ohio. She's the fourth of five and one of three from Korea. (The two oldest were her parents' biological children.) "There was a unique family dynamic," Roddy says. "To us, it's very normal, but to others, our family photos look a little different."
Roddy's upbringing shaped her in profound ways. Her father was a self-employed stained-glass artist who made windows for churches and homes, and her mother was a homemaker. "It was a small family business, so we struggled a bit financially, but ... one thing my family did was they really owned their own lives. This idea that they could use their own skills and creativity to build a life for themselves made a big impact on me."
After earning a political science degree from John Carroll University, Roddy spent two years working with young students on the island of Pohnpei in Micronesia for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She then taught social science for two years at a Cleveland charter middle school. Both jobs helped point her toward a career working with young people.
Roddy met her future husband, Daniel Birchok, as an undergrad. They moved to Ann Arbor for grad school, she in social work, he in anthropology. (Birchok is now an assistant professor at U-M Flint; the couple have two young children.) Roddy connected with the Neutral Zone almost immediately and interned for two years before coming on staff.
"It was a perfect fit," she says.
When she started, the Neutral Zone was just four years old. Founded after a group of local teens organized and submitted a mission statement and grant proposal to the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, it opened in 1998 in the old South Main Market building.
"Not everyone jumped on board with the Neutral Zone when it started," Roddy says. "Lots of people said, 'It's a great idea, but can it really happen?' It's evolved so much since then, and that lets other communities know that it's possible."
Registered members make about 13,000 visits a year. NZ reaches another 500 teens through off-site, school-based programs. More than 80 percent come from Ann Arbor schools, and most of the rest from Ypsilanti, Saline, and Dexter.
The center's teen-led roots remain fundamental to its culture. NZ's board always includes several teen representatives, and the center's initiatives and programs are planned, managed, and executed by the young people it serves.
NZ moved to its current 11,000-square-foot space in 2006. Roddy was associate executive director before taking the reins from Weiss. Her growth into her current role coincided with Neutral Zone's growth as a local institution.
"For me, Neutral Zone has been an incredible learning experience," she says. She's been involved in everything from "the outgoing transition of the founding executive director to building a capital campaign to moving to a new space and buying a permanent home."
The capital campaign, completed in 2014, paid off the Washington St. building's mortgage. Now, Roddy says, NZ is "raising a three-month operating reserve to ensure that we are a sustainable organization, with a reserve in times of revenue shortfalls, or to embrace an exciting program opportunity."
Beyond her deep experience, Weiss says, Roddy "has a vision." She wants to do more outreach to kids who, for whatever reason, have not discovered the NZ. She also is seeking to strengthen the connections between the NZ and the larger community. Many kids dream about starting their own business or becoming an artist, she says, and "they want adult mentors. I think every adult in this community could contribute."
Some already have. Ann Arbor-based filmmaker Rik Cordero invited NZ teens to work with him on the production of a short film he wrote and directed called Force Touch. And a group of kids working on a mobile app featuring Ann Arbor's famed "fairy doors" have gotten advice from Ann Arbor companies Think Blue and Spellbound, as well as Detroit booster Invest Detroit.
"These aren't skills that I have, but these kids get to meet with community leaders and get expertise and advice that they wouldn't get otherwise," Roddy says. "That's so cool, and that should be happening all the time."
[Originally published in October, 2016.]
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