By: Megan Burton
This post is part of the YALSA Presidential Theme: Youth Activism through Community Engagement
No one expected a conversation about national news to spark a call to action in a small town library’s Teen Advisory Board (TAB). It all began in June 2016 in the days following a tragic event that took place three-thousand miles away. Despite the physical distance, the violence felt close to home.
School was out for the summer. The sun was bright well into the evening and the added time off brought more teens to the library. We opened the room at 5pm and the 25 or so teens began to socialize before the program began. But the tone was different than a usual Wednesday Teen night. They were quiet.
We started our meeting with the welcome circle—a way to build community and prioritize youth voice. By summer 2016, we had spent a year co-creating these practices and norms. The teens themselves had crafted this protocol to be inclusive and give time for everyone to share their name, preferred gender pronoun (PGP), and age as part of their introduction. They also created a question of the week that we all would answer. They set a tone of equity and an expectation of respect. After our introduction time, I opened the discussion by acknowledging a mass shooting had occurred in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub and, without identifying them, I explained that a there were a few people in the group who wanted to discuss the tragedy. With caution, I urged them to think about this event in a personal way, to reflect on the fact that our physical distance to traumatic events does not keep us from feeling real empathy for those directly affected by trauma. And last, I encouraged them to actively listen.
One by one, the teens shared about how they felt when they heard the news. At the root of all of this discussion, many of the teens had personally experienced threats of hate and violence from peers. They empathized with those who were directly affected by this tragedy and it echoed locally.
In tears, one teen asked the group, “Why did this happen? What can we do?” Another teen responded, “Just having this conversation is something we can do. Talking openly like this is something we can do more often. Then, when we’re ready, try to do what we can around here.”
That one conversation sparked a paradigm shift for our group, from being narrowly focused on library programs, to thinking broadly about what we could do for our community. We started building in time for a Teen Town Hall every week to talk about current events. Having discussion time helped the “A” in our TAB grow exponentially—from “advisors” to “activists”.
“Having discussion time helped the ‘A’ in our
TAB grow exponentially—from ‘advisors’ to ‘activists’.”
The teen group started becoming more involved in their community, in the Friends of Library and in civic groups outside of the library. Some joined their high school’s ROTC, one volunteered for a local political campaign, and another served on a school district board as a student representative. And when they arrived at TAB each week, it was a chance to share updates on what was happening in the community, how they were contributing, and ways for their peers to get involved, through organic discussion rather than recruitment.
Engaging with the community was quickly adopted as a TAB value. During Teen Tech Week in 2017, we took the theme “Be the Source of Change” as our call to action to create service learning projects. TAB members addressed community technology issues they were passionate about. Some measured how folks in our town can feel very disconnected and need access to digital spaces where they can gather. Another teen used audio editing software to create an original PSA song about discrimination to share through a school bulletin. And when our library was up for a levy last November? The teens got involved beyond just the TAB! As teen leaders in their community, they participated and asked thoughtful questions at community conversations. They shared messages about the library through social media and in their social circles. A group of Running Start students (students earning their Associates degree while in high school) even organized an effort wave “Vote Yes for Libraries!” signs on a few busy street corners. The teens brought their voices to every decision making process and every conversation our community held – from mayoral races to transportation issues.
And these conversations must continue. Parkland was a sobering reminder that we must, as those who actively work for and with teens, engage in open discussion with youth about violence. To watch as incredible young people like Emma Gonzalez take to the microphone and amplify their voices in this national discussion is awe-inspiring.
“No matter where the conversation is taking place—it is on us as adults to advocate for more venues for youth to be heard.”
We have to take the cue that—no matter where the conversation is taking place—it is on us as adults to advocate for more venues for youth to be heard. Student activists all over the country are planning to march against gun violence in schools. We have reached a point in our national forum where young people are becoming more welcome and visible in conversations about gun violence. It is also more urgent than ever that we continue to support these discussions. We have reached a critical time in librarianship where the onus may be on us teach our youth about tolerance, to ask questions, debate, and disagree respectfully.
The biggest takeaway I have found from facilitating our TAB’s shift from a program-focused group to a community-focused group has been to share the power. That is ultimately what empowers the teens you work with: taking a step back, and trusting that you can share the responsibility. I had to check my adultism—in other words the privilege that my adult opinion will almost always be valued more than youth voice. Adultism is often the norm, even within well intentioned youth-serving organizations. It’s possible to fight against adultism within teen services, especially with YALSA’s new competencies as a guide to transform the work we do to be more equitable, more culturally competent, and more aware of our own inherit biases. What I believe to be the most important part of fostering youth voice is to not be the loudest speaker in the room. And when you step into a meeting where youth are not present, bring their voices, concerns, and questions with you. Sometimes, just talking as a group can be the catalyst for your TAB to take on community activism.
Visit the Youth Activism through Community Engagement wiki page for resources to help you shift the A in your own TAB.
About Megan Burton:
Megan Burton is STEM and Learning Supervisor at Kitsap Regional Library in Bremerton, Washington. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.