By Haley Donwerth, This article first appeared in the Federal Way Mirror on Thursday, November 21, 2019.
For Evan Cook, this has been a long time coming.
He started out helping youth from his car, and now, after joining the Federal Way Youth Action Team, they’ve worked together to create a place to help guide and support youth around the city.
Before joining FWYAT, Cook founded his own mentorship program called Restoring Mindz to connect with youth in the community, particularly youth of color, to help them recognize other opportunities for themselves.
He is happy now to be part of a team that is helping make this a real opportunity for so many students in Federal Way.
“…The beautiful thing about this is this is direct feedback from our youth,” Cook said. “Our youth have identified that they want somewhere where they can come and they can hang out with people who look like them.”
He said it’s important to have a space where youth in the community can come to be themselves and not worry about being judged for who they are.
“So to be able to provide that space,” he said. “That’s really knocking down some of the goals that we’ve as the [Federal Way] Youth Action Team had for a long time.”
Cook is now the outreach coordinator for Federal Way Youth Action Team.
At the official grand opening of Think Lab at 29500 Pacific Highway S., Suite N, members of the community packed into the space to celebrate this advancement on Nov. 14.
While the space in the strip mall is small, Cook and the board members are positive it will bring a healthy experience to the youth who utilize it.
When you first walk into Think Lab, you are greeted with a white table and chairs to the right, a similar table and chair set up in the middle of the room with a flat screen TV attached to the wall, and a mini courtroom in the back.
Federal Way Council member Jesse Johnson was also at the grand opening and has been an instrumental part of making this lab a possibility.
Johnson believes this program will help reduce the amount of youth involved in violent and criminal activity in the city, and will give them the support they need to succeed and thrive in their lives.
“Without a community supporting our youth you get what we saw this morning in California where six people were shot and two were killed,” he said. “I think what our community needs… it needs wisdom and needs a thought process for our youth to be able to figure out what they can do with their lives.”
Johnson is hopeful that Think Lab will give local youth a place to get help and encouragement from mentors, look at different perspectives on issues facing Federal Way, and look at different career options they may not have realized they had.
“You have to get intentional with your work and you have to make sure that you’re strategic in how you engage youth because every youth is different,” Johnson said. “They’re not cookie cutter.”
Being able to partner youth with mentors will also help give them the necessary support and guidance they need to break away from the negative stereotypes and reach their full potential, he said.
Usman Mian, the executive director of the Federal Way Youth Action Team, gave tours of the small space to those gathering inside for the grand opening, focusing on the idea that this is a safe space for kids, particularly youth of color, to feel free and be themselves.
He said that many kids of color do not feel that they have that option around different areas of the city.
Particularly, he focused on the necessity of having a miniature courtroom in the lab so youth can deal with conflicts in a way that does not endanger them.
“Because our young people, let’s keep it real, are raised by the streets,” Mian said. “And many times they don’t want to incriminate one another in the process and that holds them back from truly resolving their conflicts in a community setting.”
Cook said the goal of the courtroom is to help students work through tier one disputes, or arguments that have the potential to become criminal.
This refers to any issues or disagreements students may have on or off school grounds that has not turned into physical fighting or an assault charge, but could head in that direction without mediation.
Cook said FWYAT wants to intervene in these situations and help students work together to show them how to handle disputes in a healthy way.
Mian said that while this program is open to any and all students who want to participate, their main core programming is designed for students who have been identified in the school to prison pipeline. The FWYAT wants to help focus on these students to help encourage their growth and support to break away from that cycle.
Shyan Selah, a Federal Way native and musician, was also in attendance at the grand opening to show his support for the endeavor and encourage youth support and engagement in the community.
Since leaving Federal Way, Selah has been able to make a name for himself with his record label Brave New World and the Shyan Selah Foundation.
This past September, he performed at the Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center to a crowd of both students and adults in the community, to share his music with them. As part of the event, called the Shyan Selah Experience, he worked with several different companies and colleges to put on a college and career fair for the students and young adult attendees.
Now, he wants to continue showing his support to the city and youth of color, and show that there is a different path in life for them.
Bobby Jennings, chairman of the Federal Way Youth Action Team board, is thankful this next step in helping local youth is finally here.
Growing up, his father always told him that it’s not enough to just say you’re going to do something.
“I like to use the words of my dad,” he said. “He said, ‘Yeah people say a lot, but you got to show me.’”
Jennings said that with the official opening of Think Lab, the community is now showing the youth how important they are.
“This is just one example of what we can do as a community when we really put our hands and our minds and our hearts together to really come purposely to serve our kids and our community.”
Gabriel Holman, policy and systems coordinator for FWYAT, is also a member with the organization and has been working alongside them to help create Think Lab.
Johnson said Think Lab is funded by local and county partners, including King County at $250,000, United Way at $75,000, and $25,000 from the city.
Think Lab is free to any and all youth that would like to utilize it, with the one requirement being that their homework is finished when they get there. It’s open from 2 – 6 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and FWYAT has also partnered with Federal Way Public Schools to work with students on campus from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cook said that for youth who may not have a way to get to the lab, they have partnered with the Positive Outcomes Program to help give rides to youth or give them bus passes.