Interviews

By Teens, For Teens: In Conversation with Morgan Leake and J.J. Thompson of the MOCAD Teen Council

How did you both come to be involved in the MOCAD Teen Council?

M: I started MOCAD in November of 2018 after my best friend referred me. I had come to a meeting with her back in 2017 and was sharing ideas and adding myself into the conversation and I really enjoyed it. It was just a really good impression that they made on me and I made on them and they invited me to join the Teen Council and I’ve been with them ever since.

What of the conversation that day drew you in?

M: So that specific day they were doing the Pretty Ugly exhibition and were looking at pieces and deciding as a council what would be showcased, and I really enjoyed how it was actually at the time by teens, for teens. I thought it was so cool that there was this sense of independence and camaraderie in the council. I hadn’t seen that a lot, I had only been in groups where adults were always in charge.

J: I joined in 2018 and have been with it ever since. I joined because my brother joined when he was in eighth grade, around 2014. I’ve been to almost every event MOCAD has had in the time since. I just really liked the positivity and the idea of a museum allowing teenagers to take part or even controlling an event that was so big that we could impact other teenagers. I joined my sophomore year of high school, and I’m a senior now.

You mentioned originally it felt like it was by teens and for teens, and my understanding based on the statement released by the Teen Council is that it no longer feels that way. Could you talk about the history of that?

J: Like I said I’ve been to almost every event since my brother joined, and when I first was introduced to it I was like, ‘this is great’, it gave teenagers an opportunity to speak up and speak to who they are through their artwork. The facilitator at the time, Ty (Tylonn Sawyer), became kind of like a father figure for my brother. When I first knew about MOCAD that was how I saw it and it was really great. But after a few years I lost connection with MOCAD, other stuff was going on and I was becoming a teenager. When I came back and joined myself as a sophomore in high school and to me everything had completely changed. The atmosphere was more tense than before.

What made it feel tense?

J: At the beginning of the year we sit down and talk about events we want to have throughout the year for teenagers. And we would have to go to the board for approval, but for some of the things that we would like to do we could tell they didn’t want to do and would shut it down. It felt like it wasn’t controlled by us, because there were a lot of opportunities where we could have had an impact but there was so much debacle and arguing against what we wanted to do from the board. There were times where we would talk about something we wanted to do over multiple meetings and then Erin (Martinez) would go tell the board and she would come back and tell us that we can’t do that. I was really confused, and Erin was getting frustrated because it was her first year and she was getting really anxious. There was just so much tension and confusion and I got to a point where I was like “maybe I want to leave.”

What is the purpose of the Teen Council?

M: The purpose of the Teen Council is to bridge the art community with the teenagers of Detroit, but I want to emphasize that our mission was Metro Detroit. Everybody wants to help inner-city kids, they want to have that saving grace and help the poor kids, but everybody needs art and Michigan has defunded so many art programs in school, so our thing was to introduce different modes of art to kids in Metro Detroit. That’s the mission, to bridge the art community with teenagers and give them something to do, to keep them inspired and engaged, but we were not able to do that because of the board and limits that were set onto us. It was so evident for our group because we had members who have been on the board since they were freshmen, and they’re saying stuff like “last year we could have done this”.

The board would say you have all the freedom in the world, but really they only gave us five feet and we never got any reasons why. That’s the biggest thing that built up the tension. We’re taking out two hours a night during the middle of our week and we’re not even being valued. 

What do you suspect was the reason the Board was turning down ideas?

M: Money. They valued their image more than the people in the building, they would exploit us and say how the Teen Council was by teens and for teens but they would shove us off to the back of the homestead that didn’t have heat often. If we were in the museum the director would complain but it’s like if you have value us so much why does it bother you that we’re here. They would use us for grants. 

Did Erin step down?

J: She was being put into two walls where she wanted to help us make our visions become a reality, but on the other side was the board giving her feedback that were defusing her inner flames so she stepped down and we understood her frustration. She was on the bridge between the board and us. She was tired of the back and forth and it wasn’t fair to her. 

M: We would invite Elysia (Borowy-Reeder) to the meetings just to understand why we weren’t getting what we were working for, but she would never come to our meetings. She isolated us and made it clear we were not welcome to speak with her. 

How did the letter written on behalf of the Teen Council that rebuked the museum come to happen?

J: We wondered why our pay was being reduced, and we wanted to be told face to face why Erin was constantly being told ‘no’ to all of our ideas. That was the main thing, we wanted an explanation. 

Is the Teen Council defunct now?

M: In a way it’s brought us closer together, and I’ve learned about a lot of new strengths in people that I didn’t know they had. The Teen Council is functioning as a family right now, but there are no events and no funding.

So are the plans for the future just a matter of demands being met.

J: Yes.

M: Yes.

How are the negotiations going?

J: We’ve received a letter 

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