Recently, teens have been bombarded with rhetoric and actions that do not support their development or provide a safe environment for them to thrive. Unfortunately, there are far too many recent examples of young people being bullied or harassed by their peers or adults. For example, a report from the Council on Islamic American Relations of California indicated that more than half of Muslim students ages 11 to 18 report having been bullied because of their religion. As teen library staff, we should address this atmosphere of fear and social injustice and work with teens to turn it into something positive by promoting the intrinsic values of tolerance, equality, and acceptance. And we should do this regardless of whether or not our communities include a large population of people from diverse backgrounds. In order to be successful, well-adjusted adults, we need to help all of our teens learn how to understand, accept and work with others, regardless of their background.
Recent discussions at a national level about immigrants and Muslim-Americans point to the need to help young people separate fact from fiction. Regardless of whether or not your community is hosting immigrant families or has a large Muslim community, now is great opportunity to convey to our teens the importance of compassion and inclusion for people of all backgrounds. One tool that I found incredibly helpful is the YALSA’s Cultural Competence Task Force1. This task force has compiled an extensive list of resources that not only provides general information and training information in regards to cultural competence, there is a great section of resources that we can use to help our teens develop cultural competencies through youth involvement. One article, entitled Engaging Youth to Create Positive Change: Parent Support Network of Rhode Island published by National Center for Cultural Competence, Center for Child and Human Development, and Georgetown University, states the following:
Youth Speaking Out [a youth task force] provides an intensely authentic, warm and caring environment for each individual youth. Through example and experience, the youth coordinators foster an environment to ensure that culturally and linguistically diverse youth feel at home, support each other and feel free to express themselves in an atmosphere of acceptance, empathy, and respect. The staff both reflect the diversity of the community and are skilled and knowledgeable about working with youth. While difficult to measure or codify, the Parent Support Network of RI’s chose staff whose attributes include genuinely caring about these youth (p.4)2
We can easily create our teen task force by enlisting the help from our own staff and our teen community. For example, if we have staff members who share the same background as those in the community who are being targeted by racism, injustice, and so on, they can help us build the services and programs we need to teach cultural competency. Moreover, our teen advisory boards can really help us out by reaching out into their own circles by asking other teens, who are familiar with the particular culture or language, if they would be willing to volunteer to help the library build programs and services. Furthermore, if their parents are affiliated with any relevant cultural organizations, this would help the library immensely as well. Along with asking for the community’s help, it is just as equally important to educate our teens in regards to the cultures and customs of those who are being targeted by racism and to create a welcoming, inclusive environment that is safe for all teens. For additional resources to help you build cultural competence skills with the teens in your community, visit www.tolerance.org and also check out the Serving Diverse Teens page on YALSA’s wiki. If you’re looking to address the issue of Islamophobia specifically, there is a section about serving teens from diverse religious backgrounds.
If your tolerance and inclusion efforts include a goal is to bring different groups of teens together, food is one item that can bring strangers together for the first time. Food has this unyielding power to bring people together and that is why hosting a program about cuisine is a great ice breaker between teens from different backgrounds immigrant. Through programs like teen cooking classes, and international food presentations, teens from different backgrounds will literally “break bread” with one another by making and tasting their own delicacies. this activity can be a good way to expose American-born teens to a new culture, but welcome immigrant teens who are settling into their new home at the same time. For example, I found a great website that provides a great starting point as to the basics of Syrian cuisine including a special section that provides recipes for displaced Syrian refugees3. If a-full on cooking series isn’t a good fit for the teens in your community, we can always have an international food program where we can have members of the community come in and introduce a variety of food items that teens can taste.
Along with these cooking/food programs, why not introduce music programs as well as another means to bring together teens from diverse backgrounds? No matter where we are in the world, music (just like food) has a way of transcending barriers such as distance and time. Music programs is a great way to invite members from both communities to share their favorite tunes whether it be through live performances or bringing in laptops with access to GarageBand and other music mixing programs to create new and original tunes. How about hosting dance classes where teens from both communities can learn traditional dances or more contemporary dances? The sky is literally the limit with music because all we really need is passion and very few words. In fact, in Engaging Youth to Create Positive Change: Parent Support Network of Rhode Island, mediums like music and dance allows teens to express themselves with words:
The [Youth Speaks Out” offers youth many opportunities to explore and develop their inner selves. They participate in various language and visual art activities that helps them probe and express their thoughts in creative, supportive ways. The youth participate in self-reflection activities in which they apply poems and lyrics from songs to their own lives through writing in journals, group discussions, dramatizations, and role play (p.4)
Another great way to bring diverse groups together is through the video games such as Mario Kart 8 or Super Smash Bros. Gaming has, and always, will be a great program to attract the teen population. If a weekly gaming program is something your teens request, this can be one way to provide a safe and fun environment for teens of all backgrounds. The reason why I recommend Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros because they are goofy, fun, and light-hearted, which is what teens often need in this tumultuous time. Another great game is Just Dance 2016. Just Dance is a fantastic way to get teens out of their shells while help them pour their energy in something positive and fun. In fact, I highly recommend a dance off between teens and library staff so teens can see trusted adults modeling positive behavior.
Lastly, through these programs, we are providing a supportive and stimulating environment where teens from different backgrounds can come together and enjoy each other’s company. Through these meaningful interactions, teens will learn that the only difference between one another is where they were born. As teens get to know one another, they may eventually befriend one another and that is the result of promoting tolerance and acceptance. Libraries are in the position to provide the location, ideas, time, and resources to promote these interactions. Moreover, by encouraging and enlisting the help of teens to help bridge any language or cultural gaps, we can help all teens feel welcome. By engaging teens from our community, we are demonstrating the power of inclusion, which every community should be focusing on during these tumultuous times.
As teen library staff, we strive to serve our communities equitably and consistently. When the national discourse is full of rancor and toxic behaviors such as Islamophobia grow in prevalence, we should be actively adapting our services and leveraging our programs to help educate teens about cultural issues and to welcome every teen regardless of their race, religion, sexuality and so on. libraries must be proactive and help teens build knowledge about other cultures in a safe and positive way and to ensure that every teen that comes to the library is treated with respect and served to the best of our ability. More importantly, we are demonstrating to our teen community how inclusion is more rewarding than exclusion, which is what we want to impart on teens as they develop into tolerant, compassionate, and forward-thinking adults.