Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff: Cultural Competency and Serving Immigrant and Refugee Teens through Community Partnerships

Rachel McDonald has been a Teen Services Librarian for King County Library System in Washington state since 2007. Her primary interests are incorporating youth voice and bridging the digital divide through library programs. Rachel has been a member of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) since 2004, serving on the Board of Directors and multiple task forces and award committees, including the Alex Awards and the Michael L. Printz Award. She was a recipient of YALSA’s 2013 Excellence in Library Services to Young Adults award and is a student in the University of Maryland College of Information Studies YX certificate program.. She is currently reading The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe.

cover of YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library StaffIn this YALSAblog post Rachel McDonald highlights how skills in YALSA Competency areas related to Community Engagement and Cultural Competence and Responsiveness enable her to meet the needs of non-dominant youth.

For the past five years I’ve worked as a Teen Services Librarian in Tukwila and Seatac, two communities that are a part of the King County (WA) Library System. Due to their close proximity to Seattle, and cheaper housing costs, both cities are popular with newcomers to the United States. In fact, over 40% of the population of Tukwila is foreign-born. At the high school down the street from the Tukwila Library, students speak over 45 world languages. Since the 1990s, local refugee resettlement agencies have resettled thousands of refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Syria, and Ukraine in South King County.

The longer I work in these communities, the more I understand how important cultural competence and responsiveness are to effectively serving my entire community, and teens in particular. While awareness of one’s own cultural beliefs and cultural differences within the community is an important first step, truly transforming services to teens involves building relationships with other community organizations in order to better engage with different cultural groups, especially those who may experience barriers to using the public library. In Tukwila and Seatac, that means working with partners such as the International Rescue Committee and New Futures.

Students at the IRC’s summer camp for refugee youth learn about electricity using Squishy Circuits

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a nonprofit working with refugees wherever conflict arises. In the United States, their primary focus is on resettling refugees; helping them to secure employment, housing, and navigate complex bureaucratic structures. In the case of youth, that means learning about schooling in the U.S. Our partnership with the local IRC office began simply enough: their youth coordinator reached out to the library to ask if we could conduct a library tour for refugee youth enrolled in their Newcomer School Readiness Program. This program is designed to give elementary and secondary school students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than 9 months help in learning how to navigate the local school system, including how to walk to school safely, appropriate behavior, and additional English instruction.

As our partnership with the IRC has grown, we have moved from a single tour to a 5-week slate of weekly outreach activities and library visits designed not only to introduce students to the library and the staff that work there, but also to allow them to see the library as a place where they can explore their interests in a supportive environment. As the IRC has developed new programs for refugee youth, such as a summer camp, a girls support group, a youth food justice program, and a college and career exploration program for high school students, library staff have worked closely with youth program staff at the IRC to offer our expertise, support, and resources where appropriate. In exchange, the IRC has connected us with youth whose knowledge and use of the library might otherwise be very limited. Having fostered a relationship with these youth has made it easier to ensure that they stay connected to the library, and several of these youth have moved into leadership roles within the library’s teen council.

Making LED bracelets at New Futures’ afterschool program at Windsor Heights
Making LED bracelets at New Futures’ afterschool program at Windsor Heights

New Futures is a program run by a local nonprofit operating at three of the largest subsidized housing apartment complexes in South King County, including Windsor Heights in Seatac. The nonprofit offers programs for all ages, from preschool to adults, as well as community development and family advocacy programs. Their middle school and high school program offers academic support, enrichment activities such as field trips, and leadership development. Residents of Windsor Heights are primarily immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mexico, and Central America. Though the apartment complex is located about one mile away from the Valley View Library, a lack of reliable transportation and family responsibilities such as providing childcare for younger siblings keeps many teens from visiting on a regular basis.

Beginning in 2015, I’ve partnered with New Futures’ summer program to bring library outreach programs to the site. Working with the youth program coordinator, we have chosen programs that tie in to outcomes for their programs while intersecting with student interests. Since the majority of teens who attend the afterschool and summer programs are female, we’ve done activities that involve crafting and STEM concepts, such as making LED bracelets. As my relationship with New Futures has grown, I’ve been able to bring in local experts to talk about everything from applying for your first job to writing poetry. In turn, New Futures staff have incorporated library services and initiatives, such as our summer reading program, into their programs, so that teens who might not normally participate are afforded the opportunity.

Refugee youth work with Mitzvah Corps volunteers to construct a tower at summer camp
Refugee youth work with Mitzvah Corps volunteers to construct a tower at summer camp

I’ve had a lot of success working with non-profits that serve non-dominant youth However, there are sometimes challenges. One challenge I’ve experienced in working with nonprofits that serve non-dominant youth is that there tends to be high staff turnover. Reliance on grants and other sources of funding mean that staff may be hired on a temporary contract basis or that an intern may be in charge of developing a program. I’ve learned that documenting past partnerships and successes is important so that you can be ready to bring new staff members up to speed on their organization’s relationship with your library. I’m grateful to have had some amazing partners in my efforts to provide culturally competent services to the communities I serve, and I look forward to learning more from them in 2018.

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