310 E. Washington
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104
John Weiss was fortunate enough to discover his passion for working with youth early in his career. In his current position as executive director at the Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor, he channels this passion by ensuring that youth are involved and engaged at every level of the organization.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
The Neutral Zone Executive Director John Weiss
: Being a leader revolves around empowering others. You have to constantly ask the questions, “Who am I serving,” and “Are their voices being represented?” At the Neutral Zone, that means the teens have a lot of autonomy to take ownership of what’s meaningful to them.
Part of my job as leader is reminding our staff to stay focused on our mission of being diverse and youth-driven. But as long as the teen investment is there, the staff can participate in shaping programs too; we’re very collaborative and flexible, and
Instead of spending time memorizing facts for tests, it’s so much more important for students to collaborate, communicate, analyze and think critically.
our staff is encouraged and supported to carry out their ideas.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream would be to make sure that school and other opportunities are relevant to kids’ interests and that they have a voice in making it happen. Kids spend so much time in school; I’d love it if schools would strive to make that time more relevant, and that kids could feel a sense of ownership. I think many teachers would love to teach this way, but there are so many things they’re mandated to do that it’s difficult.
We need a radical restructuring of schools to meet students’ needs. We need to laser in on what kids are excited to do; the core concepts can be integrated around those points of interest. Instead of spending time memorizing facts for tests, it’s so much more important for students to collaborate, communicate, analyze and think critically. The processes are equally as important to learning as the content, and we should be testing kids’ critical thinking skills rather than memory.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
There is so much important work being done in all kinds of social sectors: education, food safety, programs for the elderly, to name a few. The State of Michigan needs to value that work and make sure it continues. If the state were to create some kind of matching program for savings, it would be a great investment, and could go a long way toward ensuring our future. The Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan did something similar with their Building the Future campaign, in which there were dollar-for-dollar matching funds provided by institutions like Kresge and Kellogg.
Another thing that could be addressed is health care. If all the nonprofits could pool together, there could be significant
I see progress when I watch teens planning a project or getting ready for an art show or concert, using the hands-on practical skills they’re learning here.
savings; the state has the “horsepower” to make that happen. We probably spend $20,000 per year on benefits, so that’s a large part of our budget.
How do you know you’re making progress?
We have a pretty rigorous evaluation system in place. We survey teens at the beginning of each year, asking them self-assessment questions regarding youth development and 21st
-century skills; they self-assess again at the end of the year. Our Teen Advisory Council also plays a big role, evaluating programs to measure teen satisfaction and providing advice to the Neutral Zone’s board of directors for program improvement.
On a more anecdotal level, I see progress when I watch teens planning a project or getting ready for an art show or concert, using the hands-on practical skills they’re learning here.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the diversity of our teens; they cut across so many different identities, and they all find a special place here. There are a lot of good programs [elsewhere] that are specifically for certain identities, such as LGBTQ, but having them exist separately can be somewhat marginalizing. I think it’s exceptional that we can give a group like Riot Youth [NZ’s LGBTQ teen group] a space within
a broader community and context. There’s automatically a mutual respect among our teens, whether their love is music, poetry, or something else. It makes me proud that so many of them find something meaningful here.
What originally drew you to your current profession?
In college, I studied cellular and molecular biology and thought of being a doctor or going into medical research. At a certain point, I took a break from school and was teaching science in West Africa through the Peace Corps. At the end of that program, we were paired with a volunteer to share our story, and she pointed out, “You love working with kids!” She was right, so in 1988, when I came back from Africa, that’s what I focused on. Since then, I’ve worked for a variety of after-school programs, workforce programs, etc.