30 Days of How-To #20: How to Be an Advocate for Teens

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Teens can feel (and genuinely be) pretty marginalized in their communities and in their own lives. Part of what we can do as librarians is to empower teens and to advocate for them within our institutions and our communities. This kind of advocacy is also one of the evaluation criteria YALSA provides in its Teen Services Evaluation Tool. Today, I’ll be providing some ideas on how to be an advocate for teens.

Be an advocate for teens within the library
Make sure that what’s going on in teen services is on administrators’ minds. Emphasize what teens are doing for the library, whether that means highlighting the awesome program your Teen Advisory Board just organized with the children’s department for younger patrons, bringing in quotations from satisfied adults who have made use of your Teens as Tech Trainers class, or even just emphasizing how much of your circulation over the summer was teen materials. Always have some new fact, statistic, or piece of feedback that you can share with a Board member or your director if you find yourself with a minute in their company.

Train your colleagues. Make sure that all staff members, even–especially!–those who aren’t youth services librarians by title know about what’s going on with teens in your community and what resources they might need. Give them a quick run-down of the 40 Developmental Assets and how your library is helping provide them to teens. Provide them with book lists, homework help resources, and other materials that will help them serve teens when you’re not.

Represent teens at meetings. Find out about new initiatives going on at your library and make sure that teens’ needs are being met. Ask your teens about how the library can serve them better–and then find a way to do those things. Examine existing policies and ask, “Do these policies serve teens fairly?” If not, work to change them. Make sure that teen interests and needs are represented in everything from the mission statement to circulation policies to the layout of the building.

Be an advocate for teens in your community
Teens often get a bad rap, but you can help counteract that by speaking up for your teens in the community. Never pass up an opportunity to talk about the good things that teens are doing at the library and elsewhere with community members and the movers and shakers in your area. In Young Adults Deserve the Best: YALSA’s Competencies in Action, Sarah Flowers suggests having an “elevator speech” handy for when you have just a minute or two to talk up teens.

Being an advocate for teens in the community also means helping them find opportunities to harness their powers for good. Hook teens up with volunteer activities. Help cultivate a culture of helping one another and creating safe spaces. If your library doesn’t already have a Teen Advisory Board, create one and start developing your teens’ agency within the library and the community by having them help you plan programs, fundraisers, food drives, and more. Help your teens by helping them do good–and then tell everyone about the good they’ve done.

Be a personal advocate for teens
Many of us work with teens every day, and in doing so, we get to know them well and become informal mentors for them (and contribute to their having another of those 40 Developmental Assets!). In our conversations, we may find ways to help our teens by mediating conflict, standing up for them, or giving them tools to confront difficult situations. We can help them navigate difficult “real world” systems (finding a job, applying for college, dealing with bureaucracy, finding forms and doing paperwork) if they’re not receiving support from parents or teachers.

We can’t offer legal or medical advice, of course, and if we run into situations or confessions that make us worry that a teen is a danger to him- or herself or others, or that his or her life or safety is in danger, we need to report those to the appropriate authority or agency. (You may even be a mandatory reporter, depending on in what capacity you work with young people.) But we can help kids discover their own power, put them in touch with community organizations that can help them, and provide a friend when they need one.

Advocacy tools
Want to get some more items in your advocacy toolkit? Check out the 28 Days of Advocacy the YALSA blog ran a few years ago (or all posts in the Advocacy category), or Advocating for Teen Services in Libraries on the YALSA wiki. YALSA also provides information on how to be a youth advocate and prepared a guide called “Speaking Up for Library Services to Teens” [PDF].

About Gretchen Kolderup

Gretchen Kolderup is the Manager for Young Adult Education & Engagement at the New York Public Library and a member of YALSA's Board of Directors.
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4 Comments

  1. Does YALSA provide any information on setting up a teen advisory board? I’m new to teen programming and still in the “figuring things out” stage. My experience thus far has indicated that few teens can devote very much of their time to the library, at least consistently. Communications would almost certainly be primarily electronic.

    I had thought of running the idea of a teen advisory board by teens who attended programs we hosted and posting materials in the library advertising the need for teens for the group. Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks!

  2. Amanda, I’m having trouble finding much on YALSA’s website to guide you as you start a TAB. You can always ask on yalsa-yaac, though–the people there are very helpful!

    My TAB grew organically from discussions I was having with kids who were already hanging out at the library, so your idea of asking around among teens attending programs sounds like a good start! You might also consider having it listed as volunteer experience at your local middle and high school in case they have service requirements, or finding a way to have it listed as volunteer experience at the schools’ career counseling departments. And don’t worry if you start small: I had three kids at my first TAB meeting, but in the 9ish months since then, we’ve grown to about 10. It’s still not exactly where I’d like it to be, but it takes time to develop teen services!

  3. YALSA sponsors a Teen Advisory Group Interest Group which has a space on ALA Connect at http://connect.ala.org/node/108689. Members can provide some ideas on getting started with a group. Info on the Interest Group is also available on the YALSA site at http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/aboutyalsab/discussion.cfm.

    Good luck.

  4. Great post, Gretchen! I’m looking into training my co-workers on talking to teens, working with teens, and, accepting them as library users. Even on a bad day (i.e. Summer, a week before school goes back into session and every teen is crazy with anticipation and nerves…) I refused to let my coworkers (in other depts) goad me into saying something negative about the teens. Maybe that’s not realistic, but until they realize that most teens (just like most people) mean well, they’ll continue to think negatively about this loud, outspoken demographic.

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