An interview with Jenifer Phillips by Izabel Gronski
This post is part of the YALSA Presidential Theme: Youth Activism through Community Engagement
Most of my networking and professional development happens on social media. There are excellent conversations happening about librarianship on Twitter and Facebook. One group in particular that I enjoy watching for collaboration and idea curation is Teen Librarians. That is where I “met” Jenifer Phillips, the Teen Program Coordinator at the Haverford Township Free Library in Haverford, PA. There was a great conversation going about teen activism programs in the weeks leading up to the student-led walkouts on gun violence, so I popped in to promote the Youth Activism through Community Engagement wiki that this Presidential Advisory Taskforce has been working on. Jenifer commented a little bit later about her Stay Woke program and I knew we had to touch base and asked her to share her knowledge in a blog post. Her insights are especially helpful for those of us who just don’t know where to to start, but feel the need that our teens have for activism based programming. Hopefully, Jenifer will inspire you to take the leap as well!
Izabel: What types of youth activism programs do you hold at your library?
Jenifer: At my library I do two programs that I would consider youth activism programs. One is called Out @ the Library and it is a club for LGBTQ youth and allies to get together in a safe space. We talk about different issues that affect the LGBTQ community and we talk about the heroes and history of the community as well. The other program I do is Stay Woke, where we have a select topic that we explore. Our topics in the past few months have included immigration, Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, and gun control. I have a dynamic 19 year old co-facilitator for Stay Woke, Veronica. She prepares a Power Point for each session and we both prepare some questions to get the dialogue going.
I: Is there anything else that you do specifically to promote youth activism?
J: After the 2016 election I could see the discussions changing in my programs. I could see young people trying to make sense of things like Charlottesville or the travel ban. I think having an amazing teen co-facilitator for Stay Woke promotes youth activism. Veronica started this program in her high school and when I heard about it I reached out to her to bring Stay Woke to my library. I think it is so poignant for the teens to have someone of the same generation leading the discussion. I also talk about how much you can use social media to raise your voice. Technology is such an amazing tool for teen activists. We also really encourage them to look at culture and entertainment as a way to be activists. What you are listening to, what you are watching, and what you are reading can really empower and spark thought and ideas.
I: What is the most challenging part of this type of work?
J: One of the most challenging things is when we, as a group, try to see the other side’s perspective during a debate or discussion. And I do think it is important to look at things from different angles. If we can try to get our heads around why someone might think that way, even though we may not agree, it will hopefully lead to empathy and civic discourse instead of angry, empty words. One of the other challenges is just creating that safe space, especially for newer teens, who may not be out, or may not be comfortable raising their voice yet. It’s putting together the rules and finding the physical space for young people to feel confident and comfortable.
I: How have teens responded to these programs?
J: For both of these programs, the teens have been amazing. I got very emotional during one of the first meeting of Out @ the Library when a young teen who was playing a group game said, “I can’t believe that I am sitting in a room with other gay kids just hanging out and playing a game!” The other response that comes to mind is when an older teen begged me to let him say a few words before toasting with Sprite. I was a bit worried because this guy can be a little raunchy! He said, “This group is my family and you have saved my life.” With Stay Woke, the teens have just been so grateful to have a place to talk about important issues and to realize that young people can lead the charge and that adults are listening.
I got very emotional during one of the first meeting of Out @ the Library when a young teen who was playing a group game said, “I can’t believe that I am sitting in a room with other gay kids just hanging out and playing a game!”
I: What type of reaction have you received from your library administration and your community?
J: I am so fortunate to work in an amazingly supportive and progressive library with great colleagues. The community has likewise been mostly supportive. And I have to admit, I was nervous about getting these programs up and running because you don’t know what the response will be. Being very honest in our promotion of these events has helped, as well as having a wide range of programming. So that way we can say, if this program isn’t something that you like, we can encourage you to come to something else.
I: If you could share one piece of advice for librarians seeking to promote youth activism at their library, what would it be?
J: My advice would be, that if you are having reservations about doing these types of programs, be brave, put your ideas down on paper and go for it. You never know until you ask and there are teens out there that need that dialogue and that safe space. It is so worth it!
… be brave, put your ideas down on paper and go for it. You never know until you ask and there are teens out there that need that dialogue and that safe space.
Visit the Youth Activism through Community Engagement wiki page for resources to help you and the teens you work with start conversations in your community with community partners.
Jenifer Phillips is a young adult librarian at both Haverford Township Free Library and Ridley Township Public Library. She has over nine years of experience and was a 2018 presenter at the PLA’s How-To Festival. She is passionate about working with teens and about creating inclusive and diverse resources and services for people in public libraries.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.