A runty Slayer T-shirt is adrift in a lake of beige, blue and gray suits. It floats down through clumps of swollen shoulder pads, finally settling into a bank of black tops.
The Slayer shirt is attached to the torso of skinny, long-haired Etienne. (His friends call him ET.) The 16-year-old West Mesa student usually spends his free time skateboarding and drumming, but today he's meeting some friends at the Taylor Ranch Community Center.
There are about 20 teenagers clustered at the back of the long hall he's entered. In the front, the city's Committee of the Whole meeting is about to commence—an event whose agenda promises such exciting items as public transit policy and solid waste management.
But ET and his buddies didn't wander into this meeting by mistake. This is their last chance to speak directly to the City Council during a public comment period. They've come to urge the councilors to support a proposed youth-run arts space, to be housed in the old Ice House building Downtown. If approved, the project would be modeled after Santa Fe's successful Warehouse 21 program. It's unclear if the teens in the room are aware that the project is unpopular with some of the Council members, or if they know its funding has been threatened—but there's urgency in the mere fact of their unusual presence. They can sense that time is running out.
It's late afternoon and many of the councilors seem sluggish from large lunches and a rush hour commute. The kids, however, are surprisingly attentive, quietly soaking in the spectacle, gnawing on cookies and fruit from a snack table. They wait for the meeting to begin, their turn to speak.
Behind ET is a hedge of oversized T-shirts and jerseys, filled by John, Matthew and Sidney from West Mesa High School and John Adams Middle School. They're into hip-hop and basketball. Sidney says he's been to the city's "Dance, Dance, Dance, It's a Teen Thing" night a few times but it wasn't for him. Too many fights, too much drama. Sidney and Matthew are here to tell the Council that the "Warehouse 21 project" is a good idea.
Further up front, there's Andre, age 14 (15 by the end of the month, he’s quick to add). He's neat as a pin, wearing a green-
Andre says traditional community centers don't cut it. The way he sees it, they're designed by adults—without input from younger members of the community—and subsequently lack the resources young people really want.
He gives the example of playgrounds: In his experience, they're not common fixtures at community centers, and when he does find one, it's "basically one big exercise machine." The playgrounds go unused.
"I also noticed that, in many of those [community centers], the youth activities were frequently being cut and switched out for senior projects," he tells me. A type A personality, he's first on the list to speak to the committee.
Not far behind him is Josh, 17, an athletic redhead from West Mesa. He first heard about the idea for the teen-run arts center while working for the state in a summer youth program. He likes the idea because "anything to keep the youth off the streets and out of gangs would be better than not having anything."
When asked if he's been pressured to join gangs or to use drugs and alcohol, he shakes his head. "Me in particular? No. I'm too big," he laughs. "But my brothers ...,” he motions to a row of teenagers sitting behind him, all of different ages and ethnicities. He's worried about his friends.
A few other kids mention what they'd like to see at the proposed center. They talk about music, dance classes, theater, sports, a computer lab ... programs their own schools used to provide as part of their curricula, but have cut.
Kasey, 14, just wants to have fun outside of school without the party element. When she's called to the podium, the St. Pius X student says, "I hear all the time coming from kids and friends, 'What are you gonna do tonight?' And, yeah, there are parties all over, but what if you want to go to a safe place and just be involved with your friends? If you don't want to go to parties and you want to be safe and have fun, you want to have activities that are things you want to do."
Keefe Ricks, executive director of the nonprofit youth group Prime Time for Kids, heads to the podium to speak.
"I can't stress enough what it would be like for kids to have a place they could feel a part of," he says, "that they can have input on, and also be a part of the planning piece of this."
A UNM student from Lubbock, Texas, says he's "living proof" that youth-run arts centers work. Other "Warehouse 21" testimonies follow. They come from a wide spectrum of young people who, under normal circumstances, might think they have nothing in common. But today, they're all on the same page. They need the adults to listen. They need this space to happen.