How a new Rochester youth center came to be named for the Obamas
What’s in a name?
Particularly when that name is on a street, a stadium or a building meant for young people?
“It's just like a song, or a book title,” said Andy Nahas.
The 63-year-old local financial analyst and philanthropist had reason to consider this question recently when answering Rochester Teen Empowerment’s call for a naming rights-level donor.
The local nonprofit is expanding and plans to break ground on a new youth center and headquarters later this year.
Teen Empowerment hires city kids as youth organizers to work in the neighborhoods where they live.
"You know, Teen Empowerment is impactful,” Nahas said. “Having the new building will be impactful. But if you give it the right title, it becomes even more impactful.”
Nahas’ philanthropy has run the gambit, from the homeless to refugees, foster kids to the elderly: “What I look for is helping folks who can't help themselves,” he said, “or who have trouble helping themselves.”
Typically, naming rights go to the donor. But The Andy Nahas Youth Center?
“I mean, I like a lot of things I do,” Nahas said. “I think I'm doing a lot of good things. I feel very lucky in my life. But nobody knows who I am.”
Especially not a group of teenagers in southwest Rochester.
‘Hope can be powerful’
On a recent weeknight, raucous laughter and a heavy bass beat filled the Teen Empowerment center on Genesee Street.
The group of about a dozen kids included mostly newcomers, but also some veterans like Shawniah Ruth, who got hooked on Teen Empowerment in high school.
At first it was just a job, she said, “and then, I don't know, like, my first year, my first month, I fell in love with it. And I've been feeling it ever since.”
Ruth is in college now, studying law. But she was home for the holidays, and that led her here.
On this night, the group was playing a team-building tag game, which also served to demonstrate how more can be accomplished working together than as one. The space was tight, though so there was a lot of bumping into one another, and into walls.
Teen Empowerment has rented this former drapery and fabric shop for more than a decade.
The new space will be three times larger, with flexible meeting and event space, a study area and recording studio. And it will be built across the street, on a pair of vacant lots.
Teen Empowerment director Doug Ackley sees something symbolic in that.
“We watched this divestment take place right where young people walked by every day, houses being abandoned, and then burned out, and then vacant lots emerged,” he said. “And they speak very passionately about what that does to their psyche, their mental state, their hope.
"You see what economic kind of disparity produces, and oftentimes it's hopelessness and that can take hold and be very powerful. On the other side of that, hope can be very powerful.”
Making a difference
The price tag on the new building is $4.3 million, all told. That’s a lot of money to raise for a relatively small, low-budget organization that operates on just more than $1 million a year.
“We've never done a capital project,” Ackley said. “We have never built a building that is kind of designed by youth, and our staff for youth and our staff. We've never entered this world. We have rented buildings and tried to make them fit what we do.”
Nahas’ donation helped push Teen Empowerment to the midway point of their fundraising. But it came with conditions.
Turns out he had thought quite a bit about the naming rights. He had made a list, of people he thought might inspire the teens and the community; predominate people of color, minus those like Martin Luther King Jr. whose honorariums already dot community landscapes.
Atop the list was Barack and Michelle Obama. Why?
Nahas points to their history of community organizing and service, their professional achievements. He says both are good models. And the “both” part is key, too. To have a man and a woman, who are known and still visible, not relegated to the history books.
His request was not just that their names be on the building, but that a day be set aside each year to educate the kids about the people, and the stories, behind the names.
Getting the Obamas’ signoff took some work. Because there is yet no formal process through the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama. The most comprehensive list of what has been named after one, or the other – or both – can be found on a Wikipedia page. And it’s mainly schools, streets, a library in Florida, a rest area in Ireland, a mountain in Antigua, and an assortment of bugs and other animals.
No youth centers.
Ultimately, Teen Empowerment got an official letter, granting approval, while making clear the OK did not come with a donation or other commitments. And it should not be used for further fundraising.
'A transformative moment’
Ackley says all this fits with what the organization is trying to achieve; a community focus, one grounded in history but setting a path forward.
Organizers recently started a group in the northeast, have plans for the northwest, and an ultimate goal of operating citywide.
“As we expand as an organization and have multiple sites, which we hope to in the next couple of years ... this will be the convening spot for all those TE sites, where they can come together and gain power from each other, and then take greater citywide action,” he said. “So I think for us, it is really a transformative moment.
"And I think young people are going to be so excited.”
Ackley says the Nahas donation gave the project credibility as they seek further community support.
And it’s that community investment, with more gathering space as Teen Empowerment expands citywide, with study areas and a recording studio, that has Shawniah Ruth and others excited. Afterall, Ruth was 12 years old when the Obamas left the White House. She knows them, and their story. Told their names would be on the building, her main concern was that the name Teen Empowerment would be, too.
“Me personally ... the people that inspire me is my parents,” she said. “And you know, TE and you just being here, this is this inspires me."
Construction on the Barack and Michelle Obama Youth Center could begin later this year.