Socializing to Social Justice: WTF—Woke Teen Forum—at the Hartford Public Library

An interview with Gabbie Barnes by Izabel Gronski

This post is part of the YALSA Presidential Theme: Youth Activism through Community Engagement

The YALSA Presidential Advisory Taskforce was recently brainstorming librarians that were out there in the trenches, working hard to support youth activism through community engagement. Immediately, I thought back to a presentation at the 2016 YALSA Symposium by Gabbie Barnes and Tricia George from Hartford, CT. Their presentation was called From Socializing to Social Justice: Connecting teens to community through social narratives. They tackle youth activism head on in numerous ways, but the Woke Teen Forum in particular was truly inspiring. Their passion for teens and youth activism was evident throughout their presentation and interviewing Gabbie Barnes over a year after their presentation shows that their programs are still going strong. Tap into their passion and find some inspiration for ways to promote youth activism at your library.

Izabel: Tell us about the youth activism programs that you have started at YOUmedia Hartford.

Gabbie: YOUmedia Hartford at the Hartford Public Library is a digital learning and makerspace for teens ages 13-19. We are only open to teens during our service hours, which makes our operations work a little bit different than traditional libraries without dedicated teen spaces. We also average upwards of 85 youth per day, which, as you can imagine, makes 1:1 connections slightly more challenging. To engage as many youth as possible, we use multiple entry points for program development. As a result, youth activism at the library happens in many different ways.

  1. We have structured programs, called “intensives”—these require youth to participate on a regular basis and invest in a desire learning outcome. Those include:
  • Woke Teens Forum (which spawned the youth-led Unconference)
  • YOUmedia Advisory Council
  • Strong Girls Camp
  • Short-term internships for youth to build proposals around issues they’re passionate about.

2) We have unstructured expressive outlets, which are drop-in and require limited commitment on the part of the youth other than showing up. Those include:

  • open mic nights
  • community conversations around controversial and “sticky” subjects
  • artistic workshops focused on messages of liberation.

We also work with a lot of community partners. I’m lucky to be friends with organizers in the community who want to engage youth, specifically. There is a vetting process for who does and does not work with our youth, but ultimately we create space for folks to work with the teens at the library if it’s mutually beneficial. Right now, we have an organizer who does one-on-ones with youth to find out what they’re passionate about and then organically offers gathering times to meet other teens who are similarly passionate. The end goal is a campaign, but the groundwork is starting with each conversation.

There is also a lot of grassroots work happening that I don’t know about–relationships being formed, meetings being had, and events being planned.

I: What inspired you to start the Woke Teen Forum, specifically?

G: We were in one of the most verbally abusive political campaign years of my adult life. The teens were always buzzing about it, and it felt like every day there was some new, horrible thing that they needed to unpack when they came to the library. As someone who stitched together a lot of what I know about systemic oppression in this country through self-guided learning, I felt like I could build a crash course for young people. My goal was to provide an entry point into what is—by design—a much more complex and complicated web than many of us realize. We talked about the intersections of race with housing, education, incarceration, voting, gender, food, and drug reform.

I: What is the most challenging part of pursuing these programs?

G: Scheduling. Even the most engaged teens struggled to make it to every meeting. Young folks are stretched so thin trying to build their resumes for college, be involved in their communities, and still maintain very active social lives. Finding a schedule that worked for everyone was just impossible. To boot, many of the teens I speak to wish that the library was open during their more “alert hours” which for many is in the middle of the night, but it made me ask myself just how effective we can be when we’re competing with after-school extracurriculars, sports, homework? In a perfect world, the public library would be open 24-hours to accommodate all of the schedules in our communities.

I: What was the reaction from your library administration?

G: We’re lucky to have an administration that is supportive of our ideas and believes that we were hired because we embed ourselves in what our community wants. I was most concerned about the acronym, but that was an easier sell than I expected.

I: And your teens?

G: Teens were on board from the beginning. They helped me determine what the topics were going to be; I didn’t want to build something for them without their input. After we finished the curriculum, two of the teens ended up organizing a youth-led design-thinking conference on educational equity. It was one of the most inspiring and awe-inducing moments of my career.

I: How about the community at large?

G: The community was so supportive. I had a few folks from various community organizations reach out to see if I wanted them to host one of the sessions related to their organization’s mission or personal area of expertise. Ultimately, I ended up leading all of the workshops, because of scheduling, but I’m going to try to make partnerships happen in WTF 2.0!

Youth are already doing activism work whether you know it or not. Rather than try to make something for them, figure out how to support what they’re already doing. Have conversations, create space, offer resources, make connections.

 

I: If you could share one piece of advice for librarians seeking to promote youth activism at their library, what would it be?

G: Youth are already doing activism work whether you know it or not. Rather than try to make something for them, figure out how to support what they’re already doing. Have conversations, create space, offer resources, make connections. Leverage your “power” as an adult to provide opportunities for youth to have a seat at the table in spaces they otherwise would not be included.

 

Activism is grounded in history, pain, and hard work. Many people have been doing this work long before it became a library buzzword, and many will continue to do the work long after it fizzles out.

 

I: Do you have any final words for our readers?

G: I fear that when we talk about activism and social justice in libraries that we’re buzzing in the way that we did with 3D printing and maker spaces—or whatever the next hot trend is. Activism is grounded in history, pain, and hard work. Many people have been doing this work long before it became a library buzzword, and many will continue to do the work long after it fizzles out.

Of course, too, I have to shout out my library elders: Spencer Shaw for promoting multiculturalism in libraries and their services and paving the way for black librarians in Hartford; Audre Lorde for being a womanist, anti-racist advocate, writer, and best of all, librarian; Margaret Edwards for advocating for youth and teens in the public library; EJ Josey for founding the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and Ruth Brown for standing up for racial equality at the expense of her career.

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Gabbie Barnes is a Black, multicultural-dreamer living, working, surviving, and thriving in the Hartbeat: Hartford, CT. She is an auntie, soul sister, daughter, cat mother, mentor, librarian, consultant, mentee, and cinefile. She offers spiritual advising, tarot readings, and essential oil advice. Gabbie received her MLIS during a short, 4-year stint exploring life as a Pacific Northwesterner. She has institutional experience in academic, special, and public libraries. Find her on LinkedIn @hartfordlibraryninja or send her an email gbarnes@hplct.org.

Izabel Gronski is the young adult librarian at the Oak Lawn Public Library. She has experience founding and leading multicultural student groups at Northwestern University, including the International Students Association and the Polish American Student Alliance. She is passionate about expanding teens’ horizons by offering intercultural experiences and opportunities for community engagement. Follow her on twitter @izag or send her an email at igronski@olpl.org.

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