Youth organization Teen Empowerment Rochester’s new $4.3 million headquarters, designed to expand and upgrade programming, will be named after Michelle and Barack Obama.
Typically, naming rights are big-donation draws for building projects. However, Andy Nahas, president and founder of the Prospect Fund and primary donor for this development, wanted the name to go to something that would be more impactful to those engaged with Teen Empowerment’s youth organizing.
“Just like (a) song or a book, the title matters,” says Nahas. “I think Teen Empowerment is a very impactful organization. Having a new building will take that impact to an even higher level, but what you name the building will take it to the highest level. It has the power to determine how inspired people are going to feel.”
“I think this name is going to be great because of the accomplishments and community service to society from both Barack and Michelle,” he adds.
While Teen Empowerment has had additional donations from others, including Empire State Development, close to $2 million is still needed for this project.
Based in Boston, the Center for Teen Empowerment brought its Teen Empowerment model to Rochester in 2003 and Somerville, Mass., the following year. According to financial statements, as of 2021, the organization here operated with a budget of about $730,000.
Ideas for the headquarters project began a number of years ago when Teen Empowerment simultaneously examined expansion and asked youth their impressions of urban decay.
“When I walk around, I just feel like they abandoned us as a whole community,” one teen activist said in a video produced in 2016.
“I have an abandoned house next to me. Probably about five abandoned houses on my street. That’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t be that way,” another said.
Data from the 2020 U.S. Census showed that the rate of vacancy in the city of Rochester was 8.6 percent, nearly 3 percentage points higher than Monroe County’s average of 5.7 percent.
Seeing evidence of this in their own lives, they decided the new building should be close by. In fact, the planned site is right across from Teen Empowerment’s current Genesee Street location.
“One by one, these plots were abandoned, burned out, knocked down,” says Doug Ackley, director at Teen Empowerment Rochester, pointing at the empty lot on Genesee Street directly visible from his office. “So, we started to really see this as destructive to the psyche of young people who value this community and how they feel about themselves. We started to envision with young people and ask them, what would they want to see instead?”
Aside from being a transformative piece of the neighborhood, the new facility will expand Teen Empowerment’s offerings. Ackley calls the current capacity “tightly packed” when fitting in big crowds for events. While the organization first considered simply growing the current facilities, a new building offers a chance for greater resources and features.
Included in the plans are accessibility lifts and elevators, expanded outdoor space for events like Teen Empowerment barbecues as well as music and poetry performances, a library specially curated for the history of activism, a kitchen and cafe space, a recording and multimedia studio, a study room, public art space, and a meditation area. Teen Empowerment’s current timeline is to break ground on the project this summer.
In addition, the new development aligns with efforts by the organization to expand programming citywide. According to ACT Rochester, from 2017 to 2021, nearly half of all children in Rochester under 18 fell below the poverty line, much higher than the average for the country, state, and surrounding areas of Monroe County. Those rates of poverty were also focused particularly among children of color.
“Children raised in impoverished environments are at higher risk for a wide variety of health and social problems, including poor performance in school,” ACT Rochester notes. “The challenges they face in childhood can diminish their chances for successful adult lives.”
Teen Empowerment aims to have three sites in the west, east, and northwestern areas of the city with a larger number of youth organizers this year. These are young people who work with Teen Empowerment to identify the most pressing issues in their communities and to develop a strategy to address those issues.
A significant project is Clarissa Uprooted, which seeks to honor and educate about the historic Black Rochester neighborhood.
“I think people say many times, ‘Youth are our future,’ but what they forget is that actually, ‘Youth is our now.’ We need them involved and engaged in decisions now,” says Ackley.
“Young people, and particularly young people of color, have been left out of decisions constantly,” he adds. “They have little to no opportunity to weigh in on what they want, and little to no resources to act upon what that vision is. At Teen Empowerment, we can give them those resources, to not only pay them as community organizers, but have the resources to actually impact those issues too.”
Nahas concludes: “That’s why I’m glad to be a part of this project, because Teen Empowerment allows for youth to have control over their community.”