One of the most important things library staff can do with the youth they serve is to provide them with ways to build leadership skills. Building leadership skills provides teens with a pathway to lifelong learning, and gives them skills that are critical to their future. While it may seem that focusing on leadership is something best left for school counselors to address, promoting leadership building skills through the library is a prime way to help teens achieve their full potential while building on skills that will be sure to benefit them as they get older.
Content Area 5 of the YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library staff focuses specifically on Youth Engagement and Leadership. While one goal of this competency is to help library staff understand how important it is to respond to teen’s interests and needs as away to develop leadership among adolescents, it also speaks to the importance of connecting with community partners and providing volunteer opportunities for teens. It may take you time to move between the Youth Engagement and Leadership Competency skill levels of developing, practicing and transforming, however, if you look closely at the vision you have for your library, at the activities you provide, and at the specific teens in your community that you serve, you may see that you are already skilled in portions of each of the levels already.
Take my library in Scottsboro, Alabama. This past year, the Scottsboro Public Library started the first young adult program for teens ages 13 to 19. We went with that wide range of ages because we wanted to work with youth from as young as junior high school but also leave room for teens who just graduated high school and already attend the local community college. In a community as small as ours, it is important for us to let some programs trickle into the years past high school as a way to keep local youth engaged and involved.
Our group is called the Young Adult Literacy Council (YALC) and it is compromised of a core group of 10 teens that participate in monthly meetings. While the teens are able to come to the library, snack on pizza, and engage in learning in the STEM lab, they are also responsible for helping to plan programs for other youth. Because many of the teens that attend are not involved in other extracurricular activities, I wanted every teen that took part in YALC to have the opportunity to earn volunteer hours through the library.
Whether it’s helping us get ready for the summer reading program or to run a STEM learning for elementary students, each time teens volunteer their time they earn service hours, which is something they can put on their resume. It also gives these teens a sense of belonging, letting them know that their presence in this world matters, and that their contributions are changing lives. The Youth Engagement and Leadership competency that states, “Encourages teens in opportunities to connect with the community through service learning and civic engagement projects,” fits perfectly into this work because my library helps teens see the importance of giving back and taking initiative in their role as volunteers.
This past year the Scottsboro Public Library was privileged to take part in the First Cohort of the YALSA led IMLS project Future Ready with the Library. This project challenges the libraries involved to tackle issues that affect college and career readiness of middle school students. Little did I know at the time I began my Future Ready work that the project I would take part in would provide insight into two more of the areas in the Youth Leadership and Engagement competency. area:
- Foster’s teens’ critical thinking, goal setting, problem solving, conflict management, decision making and other important life skills.
- Engages teens in leadership activities in ways that are meaningful to them and that build a variety of interpersonal and workforce-ready skills.
Through a partnership with the Jackson County Cooperative Extension System and Scottsboro Junior High School, I created the “Building Better Leaders” project. Using curriculum provided by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, I and Nikki Cornelison, the local 4-H Foundation Regional Extension Agent, visit the junior high school during a “Response To Intervention (RTI)” period in the morning for twenty-eight minutes.
During this time we each talk to a group of students about the importance of building leadership skills, reminding them that every choice they make matters to their future, introducing the idea of “soft skills,” and bringing in guest speakers from the community to talk about their jobs while at the same time providing life-long leadership learning. One thing I learned since starting this project is that students in junior high school don’t need to hear about another potential career they might be interested in. That will come in the career classes they take in 9th grade. What they need to hear in junior high school is that being a good person, not being a bully, showing leadership initiative, and caring about their studies is what can lead them to the career they are most interested in. We encourage our guest speakers to talk about those very things.
Learning leadership skills through public library services is critical to underserved communities and groups of students who utilize the library as their go to “third space.” Why not harness the potential you already have and engage teens in character development and leadership skills.