Youth Engagement and Leadership – Civic Engagement for and by Teens

Hello everyone,

For December, we’re going to look at YALSA Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff #5, Youth Engagement and Leadership, considering the equity issues that involve civic engagement. Much has been discussed in the media about how so many opportunities for civic engagement intentionally or unintentionally leave out members of underrepresented citizens, including teens. A few examples of this include the exclusionary tactics within the US women’s suffrage movement; the preponderance of white men in elected posts throughout this country; and the concerns from women of color and those with disabilities regarding the Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

But all is not bad news. Libraries nationwide are doing their best to change the tide to a much more equitable future for all citizens and residents. Guest teen bloggers from the Waltham (MA) Public Library share their Civic Engagement experience with the help of their teen department head, Luke Kirkland.

FIVE TAKEAWAYS FROM MAKING ELECTION SEASON LAWN SIGNS WITH FOR FREEDOMS

By Real Talk teen leaders Alexis Sanford, Iris Alvarenga, Karina Diaz, and Christina Lafortune, with Waltham Public Library Teen Department Head Luke Kirkland

During the last two election seasons, teen leaders at the Waltham Public Library have partnered with the national arts and civic action organization For Freedoms to create an installation of lawn signs in the Library’s front lawn. Each pre-printed sign begins with a different prompt: Freedom To, Freedom Of, Freedom For, or Freedom From. Teens were invited to select one prompt and complete it with a statement they wanted adult voters and candidates to consider as Election Day approached. 

The result was a collection of statements from 350 unique teens communicating their fears and hopes for their lives, their communities, their country, and their world. And by displaying them in the Library lawn through October and up to Election Day, we invited the community to take time to reflect on teens’ thoughts and experiences, to consider the world teens will inherit, and to familiarize themselves with the world teens intend to create. Visit bit.ly/ffwpl2019 to view the entire collection.

The teen leaders driving this initiative are leaders from Real Talk, a youth-led conversation forum that is the centerpiece of Waltham Public Library Teen Room programming. After the signs came down, we took some time to reflect on the project. Here are five takeaways from our teens.

IT WAS SIMPLE

Everyone agrees that the beauty of the project is its simplicity. Alexis observes “Everyone was able to share their story through something so seemingly simple.” Teens get to make only one sign, but everyone was able to use it as an opportunity to share their story. For Iris, For Freedoms’ prompts offer enough to spark ideas, but they leave plenty of room for inspired creativity—and for upending the expectations of adults. “Even though the signs were simple and had simple phrases, so many of the phrases were so powerful. Adults didn’t expect it from us, and they were like ‘Whoa, sis!’”

SELLING IT IS TRICKY

On the other hand, finding 350 unique teens and convincing them to fill out signs with serious expressions of their perspectives is decidedly not simple. To accomplish the feat this year we spent a week engaging teens across the city: we held sign-making programs at the Library and the Boys & Girls Club; we visited Waltham High School classes and afterschool clubs; we set up stations in the WHS school library and cafeteria to make signs during lunches.

Still—at each location, it took effort to sell the project. “It’s hard to really get them to do it,” says Iris. “It’s hard to do it in a way that makes them really care.” The turning point was when teens really understood that this was an opportunity to share their unique voice without interference—that there was no grade or rubric and that no response would be censored or restricted to any specific partisan agenda. Iris observes: “Teens shut down when you tell them what to say. But when it’s about something they care about, that sells it for them.” 

In the cafeteria, Alexis noticed that people would come make signs once a crowd formed, and that teens who made signs early would go recruit friends to do the same. “Other people wanted to participate when they saw their friends participating.” So teen leaders started going directly to tables and pulling people over. Christina even employed an imperative call to action. “I started just going up to people and telling them ‘Your voice matters and it’s time for you to share it!’ It worked!”

However teens started making signs, once they started, they just wanted to make more. (Sorry! Just one per person!) In the end, says Iris, “It’s an opportunity for them to share their experiences with adults.” And teens had A LOT they wanted to say to adults!

MAKING ADULTS LISTEN

By installing the signs in the front lawn just off of Main Street, the spectacle caught the eye of every pedestrian and driver for five full weeks. And at the installation event, Karina and Iris had the opportunity to deliver a brave address with candidates for mayor, city council, and the school committee in the crowd.

“Waltham youth demand to be heard. We may be young, but our experiences are real…Do not belittle us, our opinions, or experiences solely because you may see us as just kids…The world has changed, and we young people will no longer sit on the sidelines…We are watching and we are listening and we will hold you accountable to your roles as policymakers…We aren’t just names on paper—we are living, breathing members of this city. We have dreams, aspirations, and needs just like anyone else here…Listen to our voices and include us in the decision-making process because only by including everyone in this city can we achieve democratic harmony.”

For Karina, that experience was the most powerful part of the project. “Delivering speeches and sharing our views and having adults actually listen felt amazing!”

FEELING VALIDATED

Even though adults were the intended audience, reading the signs had a powerful impact on the teens who created them. “I was really moved to see the problems that we have and be able to relate to them and support each other,” says Karina. Christina agrees: “It showed that what we experienced is valid because other people were experiencing it too.” Seeing signs they could have written themselves was a cathartic reminder that they aren’t alone in the challenges they face. But Christina also points out that it was a gift they could have only received from their peers. “All youth no matter where they were from were brought together through their struggles and found support in each other that they wouldn’t have found in adults.”

NEW PERSPECTIVES

Whether teens or kids or adults were reading the signs, the intent was always to bring to light the unseen experiences youth in our community are having. So while some signs were validating, others were eye-opening. “Seeing unique signs and realizing that people have these problems and you never knew they did” was a transformative experience for Karina. It made a difference in the way she thought about the people she sees around her every day. “It’s a moment of awakening. It makes you feel more open-minded about understanding other people’s problems.” Mission accomplished.

Want to make lawn signs with us in 2020? Visit bit.ly/lawnsigntips to get a closer picture of how we helped youth create their signs. Email Waltham Public Library Teen Department Head Luke Kirkland at lkirkland@minlib.net with questions. Contact emma@forfreedoms.org and pola@forfreedoms.org to learn more about becoming an official For Freedoms partner. And visit realtalkteens.org to check out our toolkit for developing your own youth-led conversation forum.

Thanks Alexis, Iris, Karina, and Christina! And special thanks for Waltham (MA) PL teen department lead Luke Kirkland for sharing the efforts of this amazing group of teens!

And remember, free webinars for this and each competency are available from YALSA.

Todd Krueger, YALSA President 2019-2020 | Twitter: @toddbcpl  

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