The teen challenge: What Lansing offers, and what it lacks


Last month I shared that child care tied for second place among issues of concern to 67 eastside Lansing neighbors. Sharing second place on the list of Unmet Community Needs was “Youth Center or Clubhouse.”  The community design event where these issues surfaced was hosted by Allen Neighborhood Center (in part to determine potential uses of available space in their Allen Place complex on East Kalamazoo Street.  Clearly the needs of younger neighbors were front of mind for participants.

Around the time of the charrette, I talked with my friend Bill Castanier, historian, preservationist and City Pulse writer.  Bill and I both spent our teen years in Bay City, and he called to share a recent article about a landmark hangout we frequented back in the ‘60s: the Band Canyon, where kids not only danced their hearts out but also hung out in the Gossip Room, catching up with friends from around the city. We also spent at least one evening each week “at the Ins,” that is, burning up about 86 cents’ worth of gas (according to Bill), slowly circling in and out of White’s Drive In, Burger King and McDonald’s on Euclid Avenue, occasionally stopping to chat with friends.  It all seems pretty innocent now, and a much different world than that inhabited by teens today.

Perhaps the people attending the ANC charrette have read the same grim statistics that you and I have seen lately.  In 2020, an analysis by health-policy research group KFF found that 16% of U.S. kids ages 12 to 17 have anxiety, depression or both, a roughly 33% increase since 2016. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2021, 42% of U.S. high school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless, and another 29% reported experiencing poor mental health. Even more concerning, 22% had seriously considered suicide, and 10% had attempted suicide. 

Addressing these mental health challenges will require a comprehensive approach, with parents, teachers and social workers working on multiple fronts.  My interest, as usual, is the role that neighborhoods and the city might play in helping to craft solutions. 

The community role is crucial and potentially transformative. In a December article on Strong Towns’ website entitled “Kids These Days…Deserve Better,” Tiffany Owens Reed discusses the need for city spaces where kids can explore safely and “flex their independence.”  She notes that “cities that foster exploration are those with attractive public spaces, plenty of small businesses to patronize, public transit that connects to the wider area, and human-scaled streets conducive to wandering.”

In Lansing, there are many youth initiatives already in place by the city and the community. These programs offer models for expansion as well as ideas for even more that can be done.

Currently the city is invested in its anti-gun violence initiative, called   Advance Peace, which focuses on young people who are at greatest risk of being pulled into dangerous activities. The Parks and Recreation Department offers a slew of after-school programming at all city centers, including those explicitly for teens. Weekly Teen Nights allow young people to roam from electronic video games to basketball and other activities. Director Brett Kaschinske notes that he would welcome additional ideas from teens. 

In addition to city programs, Lansing has unique community-based programs. One of the busiest teen gathering spots is The Fledge, founded by Jerry Norris, whose official title is Primus Inter Pares (“one among equals”). The Fledge, 1300  Eureka St., draws 200(!) teens each week, who come to hang out with friends in the music studio, the coding club, the gardening group, or the Youth Entrepreneurial Program. They might also make use of the Fledge’s cache of art supplies to try their hand at painting or screen-printing.

But it’s not just these activities that draw so many young folks. It is also (maybe primarily) the core beliefs and feelings shared by members that define the Fledge experience and make it such an attractive hangout. Top of the list is “values, not rules.” “Rules are lazy,” Norris noted, as he described the communal learning that goes on as regular attendees and staff convey values via “respectful explaining, mentoring, and the very occasional sign.” “Radical Inclusion” and “trust first” also serve to create space that “moves young people in a safer, healthier, more prosperous direction,” Norris added. Significantly, the Fledge has been visited recently by people from Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles and Berlin who are interested in the model.

Another approach for community-based youth programming is ANC’s Youth Service Corps, a job and life skills training program coordinated by Kelsi Brianna. In YSC, teens learn skills (e.g., gardening, cooking, simple patch and repair, rake and runs, tea-making, and farmers market retailing) in service to their neighborhood

YSC encourages youth to pay attention to local people and places and to take pride in work that improves their communities and the lives of their neighbors. Teens exploring and learning about their neighborhood embrace the spirit of community care and stewardship; this bodes well for neighborhoods and cities. This approach also provides teens a sense of propriety and belonging that eases at least some of the current day challenges they face.

So what next steps are suggested from the variety of existing programs? All of us need to play a role in thinking about and implementing additional community-based solutions. But the critical key to success is teen input and teen agency. Other cities have created youth commissions. Perhaps a similar initiative for Lansing could expand and amplify youth offerings to make Lansing a truly nurturing environment for young people.

(Joan Nelson is the retired founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center. Her column appears the first issue of the month.)


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us