Teens working to bring hangouts to hometowns; Activism reflects spirit of ‘millennial’ generation

January 28, 2002 | By Corissa Jansen

When the New Berlin Youth Advisory Board first met, the ink was barely dry on the name tags before the teenagers had zeroed in on the primary project they wanted to tackle.

In a suburban community some teens dub “New Boring” for its lack of activities geared toward young people, the youth board lobbied the Common Council for $3,500 to investigate a location for a new teen center and to test the waters for interest in a new place to hang out.

“It’s a huge project, but things are starting to come together,” said youth board member Greg Bybee, 17, a junior at New Berlin Eisenhower High School.

Not content to cruise the same old strip or spend weekend nights at home renting movies, teens in New Berlin and all over the Milwaukee area are taking matters into their own hands, lobbying for everything from teen centers to skate parks to youth-oriented programming at their local YMCAs. It’s a surge in activism among young people that scholars say is becoming the signature of a young generation that’s both strong in numbers and its emerging sense of community spirit.

“This is a generation that’s filling a societal void for civic achievement and team play and really for heroism, in the sense of people being selfless, good deed-doers for the benefit of a larger community,” said William Strauss, a historian and author who, with Neil Howe, co-wrote “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.”

At 70.2 million strong—the U.S. Census Bureau figure for the number of Americans under the age of 18—there are more so-called “millennials” than there were baby boomers at their peak. And Strauss says the optimistic generation is only beginning to stretch its muscle.

“They’re into project creation that can really startle adults when they see how well it can work,” he said. “These kids are capable of doing so many things.”

The ideas brimming from young people on the YMCA councils impress Kristin Williams, senior program director at the downtown Milwaukee branch, who works with Teen Action Councils at all the area YMCA branches.

Teenagers are coming up with a laundry list of ideas—from talent nights to establishing teen tents at Milwaukee lakefront festivals.

“Their enthusiasm to get involved with the meat of things is amazing,” Williams said. “They want to do something; they want to be able to put their hands around something and follow through and make things happen.”

Shakeda Lyons, a Teen Action Council member and Milwaukee Madison High School sophomore, says the adults are listening.

“Everything I say really goes,” said Lyons, 15.

In some cases, persistent teens get much more than lip service from local officials. Thanks to lobbying from Brookfield teens, officials adopted a 2002 budget that includes $250,000 for a skate park.

Similar proposals that have been floated in recent years for facilities elsewhere in Waukesha County never panned out.

Lyons and other teens on the YMCA’s action council are starting a little smaller, working to establish a discussion group for teens to talk about their problems, a tutoring program and talent nights for young people to showcase their vocals or stage a play.

“We need more to do,” Lyons said.

It’s the same story in Waterford, says 16-year-old Ashley Kodet, a member of the library’s Teen Advisory Board. Meeting since June, the board is working with the Waterford Public Library to create activities for teens. The board has organized a karaoke party, and other projects are under way.

Kodet said teens there hope to persuade local officials to establish a teen center.

In the largely rural Racine County community, Kodet said, teenagers are just looking for a place to gather, where they won’t be hassled for loitering.

“Just having the space would help,” she said. “There’d be somewhere to go where you could just hang out with your friends and it wouldn’t be a school environment.”

Ideas are also plentiful in Muskego, where local teens say there are few activities for youths.

Members of a Teen Advisory Board established last month to advise Muskego’s Common Council say some of their top priorities are to get more paved recreational paths for walking, biking and in-line skating, and creating a safe and lawful place for teens to skateboard.

“We would help to keep people occupied with other things than drugs, alcohol and other temptations that young teenagers are pressured with daily,” says 14-year-old Krystal Baez, an alternate member of Muskego’s teen board.

Strauss, of McLean, Va., shuns the term Generation Y to describe young people born after 1982 because the term puts them in the shadow of the much less optimistic and civic-minded Generation X, largely viewed as those born between 1961 and 1981.

“Millennials have a much more positive view of their own generation, and a feeling of specialness that they really can accomplish something,” Strauss said. “Today’s kids surprise adults because they assume they’re going to be like Generation X. When they’re not, it disarms people and catches them by surprise.”

As an example of that mind-set, members of New Berlin’s youth board are doing the footwork to make a teen center happen—surveying fellow students, studying possible locations and trying to figure out financing and how to persuade city officials to back such a facility. The youth board advises the New Berlin Common Council on youth issues and has been working to establish a teen center since the group’s inception in 2000.

“Maybe Friday and Saturday nights we could have dances or have a band come in or something—there’s a lot of ideas,” Bybee said. “Basically, we just want some space where people can have something to do.”

Bybee says Teen Advisory Board members realize that getting a teen center is a big project that will take time and effort. “The people on the board right now will probably never benefit from it by the time we’d actually get a teen center,” he said. “But we’re looking down the road.

“There has to be a mind-set that you’re helping other people, that you’re working for future generations of kids.”

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