WASHINGTON — Washington -- The young woman was sitting backstage in Studio B at Black Entertainment Television (BET), chatting amiably with an interviewer, when he asked what she thought of the term "lost generation" being used to describe African-American teen-agers.
"Just answer one question, please," replied 17-year-old Yolonda Coleman, an edge creeping into her voice.
"If we're such a lost generation, what are we doing here, talking about these issues, trying to make things better every week? If we're such a lost generation, how do you explain 'Teen Summit'? And, please, tell me how would you explain the Posse?"
On one level, the explanations are easy.
"Teen Summit" is a TV show featuring African-American teens that airs at noon Saturdays on BET, a cable channel reaching 37.3 million homes.
The Posse is a group of teen-agers from Maryland, Washington and Virginia who appear regularly on the show to speak their minds, as well as question celebrities and experts on issues ranging from teen prostitution to whether today's black teens are a lost generation.
But on another level, "Teen Summit" and its regulars are not easy to explain -- at least not to a mainstream audience that has been fed a steady diet of negative images -- mainly guns, drugs, gangs, and babies having babies -- when it comes to black teen-agers.
The members of the Posse don't come close to fitting any such stereotypes; they are a diverse bunch, but all are achievers in one way or another, with student council presidents and published poets among their ranks.
Some do come from the violent inner-city streets that so %J fascinate the media. But others come from tree-lined suburban enclaves in Southern Maryland and Northwest Washington. Many are headed to the Ivy League schools or top historically black colleges and universities.
And, each week, they are part of the hottest teen show on television.
"Teen Summit" has an audience of about 1 million young viewers, according to A. C. Nielsen. That's three times the audience of the next highest-rated teen show, "Club Connect" ++ on PBS.
But that doesn't start to measure the real reach of "Teen Summit." Each week, it is also shown in 2,500 school systems across the country to spark discussions on social issues that concern teens. And it's carried on TV networks in Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.
"I think one reason so many teens watch is that we're real," says Senior Producer Ronald E. Carrington. "The Posse members are real to the audience. The kids can identify with them. When I was growing up, I used to think the 'Mickey Mouse Club' was only people with perfect lives. . . . We don't want that for the Posse."
Another reason for the appeal of "Teen Summit" is simply that it's a very good show -- far better than any weekly discussion show ever tried on MTV, such as "Like We Care." It's a show that teen-agers want to watch.
This week, for example, the conclusion of a two-part series titled "Don't Dis Your Sis" airs. The goal of the two-parter is to "examine the prevalence of disrespectful male attitudes and behavior toward women," says Olufunke Adebonojo, a spokeswoman for the show.
While most producers would merely sit a bunch a teens in front of the camera and have a moderator lead them through a discussion, Mr. Carrington did it a better way.
First, a guest host was brought in for part one of the series to join regular host Belma Johnson, because Mr. Johnson is a man and the producers thought a woman should share control of the microphone for this topic.
The co-host was Queen Latifah. The rap artist and star of Fox Broadcasting's "Living Single," one of this season's highest-rated new shows, is a role model to many of the teens.
The show opened with Latifah performing her latest release, "U.N.I.T.Y.," which deals directly with men physically abusing women. Latifah's stance in the song is suggested by the lyrics: "You put your hands on me again /I'll put your --- in handcuffs."
And then the discussion started, with everyone in Studio A seeming to want a piece of it. That included the 100 or so teens in the audience, telephone callers from across the country, as well as experts, guests and nine Posse members sitting on boxes, crates and the loading dock on the show's warehouse set.
The show was lively, emotional and marked by moments of remarkable insight, such as 17-year-old Posse member Ellington Wes" Felton calling for a critique of "the deeper system," which attempts to demean black men and, as a result, leads some of them to find a false sense of empowerment in demean ing black women.
The hour ended with rap artist 4-Khan performing his new single "Culture Girl," and everybody in Studio A leaving their seats to join in.
Emmys get awarded for such shows. Today, part two of "Don't Dis Your Sis" looks at sexual harassment.
Backstage, the 40-year-old Mr. Carrington and some of the Posse members say why they think "Teen Summit" is so successful.
"Diversity and reality," Mr. Carrington says. "We don't want people to think all black teen-agers are the same, because they're not. Teen-agers, in general, are not all the same.
"If you look at our Posse members, we have kids from real upper-middle-class families and kids from other backgrounds. We have one new member who was put out on the street by his parents at a very young age, and he's come back and is making something of himself. . . . Viewers can relate to that."
"The guests are important, too," says Posse member Keana Wilkes, 17, a student at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro.
"A lot of people admire Spike Lee, and we had him on when 'Malcolm X' came out," Ms. Wilkes says. "My favorite was Maya Angelou. People really respected her after we read her %o autobiography. . . . Viewers know we have great guests."
"The issues are relevant to people our age, and I think that really matters," says Posse member Vincent Harris, 17, a student at the Potomac School in McLean, Va. "If we have something on our minds, it usually becomes a topic. . . . The producers let the topics come from us."
That emphasis on what matters to teens, instead of what adults think should matter to teens, is the ultimate goal of "Teen Summit," Mr. Carrington says.
"We don't really give a rip what adults think," he says. "We want the kids to have the voice. We want it to be their platform, so that people in the national and international communities can see that African-American kids do have something to say. We want viewers to know that what you see elsewhere in the news and on many mainstream media about African-American teens is simply not true. . . . These kids are not a lost generation."
IN THE POSSE
There are 32 members of the Posse, who rotate in groups of eight each week on the show. Each year, as members graduate from high school, new members are added.
In May, "Teen Summit" telecasts information on joining the Posse. The process includes a series of questions that %o applicants must address in an essay, according to Senior Producer Ronald E. Carrington.
Last year, for example, applicants were asked to imagine that they were visiting Japan and had to explain to a Japanese audience what being an African-American teen-ager means to them.
IN THE AUDIENCE
Each week, "Teen Summit" has an audience of about 100 teen-agers from the Maryland, Washington, Virginia area.
For information on how to be an audience member, write to: Black Entertainment Television, c/o Teen Summit, 1899 Ninth St. N.E., Washington, D.C. 20018
To suggest topics you'd like to see discussed on "Teen Summit," call (202) 636-2400, Ext. 5086.
And each week during the telecast, an 800 number is shown that you can call to participate in the discussion that day.