#act4teens: Building a Co-op of Educator-Leaders

I learned about the YALSA The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action report through colleagues in the YOUmedia Learning Lab Network when I was managing the Maker Jawn Initiative at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The report affirmed so much of what we had been discussing as a network; connected learning, librarians taking on the role of facilitators and co-learners rather than experts, rethinking staff models, and more. But in Philly, the report didn’t go far enough. We wanted more than a paradigm shift. Maker Jawn’s goal was to break down hierarchies in libraries by eliminating the top-down approach to staff management, and top-down teaching in a library (where knowledge is typically transferred from librarian to youth). Our team believed that while these institutional hierarchies existed, they would continually reinforce each other resulting in no true innovation, regardless of new technology or language to reframe learning in informal spaces.

Maker Jawn’s solution to this problem was to collectively rethink staffing. At its heart was the concept of the co-op: a team where everyone involved has a stake in the maintenance, effectiveness and deepening of the group as a whole. It required everyone in Maker Jawn to be completely on board. This involved a lot of collegiality and community-building amongst the staff themselves; they had to respect each other as equals, and acknowledge that they all brought different strengths and ways-of-getting-things-done. This also involved a lot of collective learning. We developed “tinkering sessions” in addition to weekly administrative meetings, where each week one member of the Maker Jawn team brought a new medium, tool, or technique they wanted to teach.

We were perpetually in a stage of piloting and tweaking and never had enough dedicated time for reflection, but we gradually realized that we were doing something much deeper than making small fixes to improve the day-today; we were doing design work. We were designing a more equitable staffing structure that would have deeper and wider implications that we realized. This freedom from management and hierarchy, ironically, had to rely on the management rethinking the way that it managed–and empowered–the team itself.

Nontraditional model

We had to redesign our old practices of thinking about staffing management, and break down that hierarchy of sharing/not sharing information with staff, delegating tasks and duties, etc. What we developed was this model of staff management, with four spheres/guiding principles:

  • Empowerment: establishing a co-op model for staff. Giving them with ability to shape meetings, lead conversations, share issues about their site, introduce and explore tools, and built resources for the group. We extended this by developing a private g+ community where mentors could share outside of meetings.
  • Supporting creativity: hiring people who have a current creative practice and a desire to nurture creativity in youth. Supporting staff creative outputs by encouraging them to bring their creative projects and ideas to work, and integrate it with existing tools and resources. Supporting their creative projects collectively as a group (going to their shows, openings).
  • Opportunities for professional learning: establishing an environment for everyone to learn collaboratively and teach collaboratively outside of administrative meeting time (“tinkering sessions”). This enables staff to share, borrow and build new ideas. Also establishes a culture of collective learning: anyone can be an expert and a learner.
  • Opportunities for sharing outside of the library: giving opportunities to present on their work to a wider audience at conferences, and encouraging good documentation practices. This helps with capturing artifacts that youth make, but also get them in the framework of creating reflections that can go on a blog. It also gives the mentors opportunities to reflect on (and get credit for) their work in a larger context.

The model wasn’t deliberately planned and built; it happened organically through the work of a dozen dedicated, thoughtful people who were committed to designing a way of working together that we all felt ownership over, and that we all were excited about. And because we had established a protocol of openness and conversation, it was constantly open to refinement.

I noticed that as this model of collective management took form, I was supported in ways that I had previously not experienced (other people were leading meetings and introducing new ideas). What was most surprising was how we internalized this way of working together as colleagues, and then began to change the way that we worked with youth: we became better listeners. We gave youth opportunities to teach us, and we honored their ideas and their approaches. Our thoughtful, caring way of tearing down the hierarchy within our management structure enabled us to become more thoughtful, caring educators who supported each other. For libraries to become truly innovative and relevant to their community, they may have to first build a sense of collectivity and community amongst staff, and be willing to truly change institutionally, not just shift a paradigm.


K-Fai Steele (ksteele@nwp.org) is a Program Associate at the National Writing Project where she manages the YOUmedia Learning Labs Network. She is a member of YALSA’s Future of Teens and Libraries Taskforce.