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

“We are wondering whether we can show documentary films and have discussions at the library.”  That’s how it all started in 2013.

Events at the national level and at school were having an emotional impact on the teens and stimulating them to start conversations among themselves.  Two of my Teen Advisory Board (TAB) members wanted to do more.  They wanted to educate their peers about issues affecting teens, the community, and the world.  They also wanted to bring the community into the conversations.  And so began Reel Time – Community Discussions About Difficult Topics.

Initially, the discussions were adult-led. The teens generated the topics. The library planned and hosted the documentary viewings, including inviting experts—people working with folks impacted by the issues addressed in the films—to provide information and answer questions. For example, for a discussion about hunger following a viewing of A Place at the Table, we invited representatives from Teen Feed, a local organization that supports homeless youth, to share their experiences. The community events, at this point, were a product of the teens’ ideas, but not really owned by them. However, as I learned to step back, the teens began to step up.

Over time, the teens began to not only generate the topics, but to create the context for the documentary viewings, including the format of the discussions. As a first step, the TAB members co-facilitated the discussions with another adult. Ultimately, the teens began to organize and facilitate discussions on their own.

One of the first community discussions that was fully run by the teens was a viewing and discussion of the documentary Cracking the Codes.  The teen who suggested this film noted that “White people don’t know the history of black people.  Black history gets a chapter or two in a high school history book.  How can people understand each other if they don’t know each other?  It is impossible to take the most valuable lessons from history if we conveniently ignore the bad parts.”  Using sections of the film, she and other TAB members developed questions and moderated a conversation about the history of racism in our country and the continued impact of racial inequity.  Breakout sessions in small groups gave community members a chance to talk to each other.

Teachers at the local high school agreed to “assign” the event and gave credit to students who completed written reflections.  (They have done so for many of our community discussions. TAB members sometimes create questions for these reflections or mini-essays and grade them, keeping additional work for teachers to a minimum.)  The impact of the Cracking the Codes discussion is evident in these students’ written reflections:

  • “Something significant that I learned from this movie/discussion is that the way stories are told by people, history books, etc., may not be exactly how they occurred, which is something that I feel nobody in our class really ever thinks about…what the discussion hinted at to me was that this is a key problem as to why social and especially racial justice are still issues in today’s society.”
  • “After watching the documentary, I realize the importance of using my privilege for others who are less privileged.  I also recognize how sharing experiences with others is integral to the learning of social justice and social inequity.”

Other topics of conversation have included Islam, President Trump’s travel ban, and stereotypes. In the wake of the Chapel Hill and San Bernardino shootings, and in the midst of the presidential campaign, anti-Muslim sentiment was high in the United States.  One TAB member, a practicing Muslim, decided to do something about it:

“With the rise of so-called Islamic terrorism, recent political statements, and the unfolding refugee crisis, now is the time to learn about and embrace our differences.  I  want to start a conversation to show people we can talk about Islam in a way without any blame, without people getting angry.”

She organized a community discussion – selecting panelists, developing questions for them, and moderating the discussion.  After each panelist presented, questions continued for an hour!  The community was eager to learn about Islam and the event offered an alternative to the negative stereotypes dominating the media.

Last spring, after President Trump’s travel ban, the same teen organized a panel of people from all the banned countries.  She focused the event on the history, culture, and diversity of the people, rather than on political turmoil.  This suited the audience (over 120 people, including 80 teens, attended the event) because many of them knew nothing about the countries.  One teen reflected, “Learning inside a classroom from a teacher is one thing, but putting yourself out there and learning from different people is something that can teach people much more.”

“Learning inside a classroom from a teacher is one thing, but putting yourself out there and learning from different people is something that can teach people much more.”


Together, TAB members and I organized a community panel about the impact of stereotypes.  We invited parents, teachers, and high school students to talk about their experiences and answer questions developed by the students.  A college student (and former TAB member) moderated.  An adult in the audience commented that the event provided a chance for community members to hear stories from people who are rarely heard.  “It is easy to forget about the courage it takes to speak out.”  The student reflections too illustrated the impact:

  • “The inclusion of teens, especially ones that I know, on the panel added valuable depth to the conversation.  Rather than listen to experiences that may appear distant, experiences from our school put stereotyping into perspective.”
  •  “’I am black every day’ was a quote that has been ringing in my ears for days.  Her description perfectly captured ‘white privilege.’  I completely understood what she meant when she remarked that white people are not constantly aware of their whiteness because it is not out of the ordinary.  I have always felt shortchanged and insecure for being a minority.  Being white just seems easier….”

Four years and a dozen community conversations later, the teens’ passion and courage to engage with difficult and important issues has spread. Students, teachers, and administrators have joined the discussion. Community partnerships have developed.  The library has become a place to engage the community, a place where ideas are born. Our teens have become citizen educators, creating brave spaces where ideas can be discussed, thinking can evolve, and change can begin. Their efforts demonstrate that change can start right where you live, with every exchange, every interaction, and every conversation.

Our teens have become citizen educators, creating brave spaces where ideas can be discussed, thinking can evolve, and change can begin.

Two TAB members co-presented with me at local and statewide conferences in 2017.  Together, we encouraged librarians to try conversations in their communities about difficult topics.  We said passionately, “Try different topics and different approaches.  Don’t give up!”  I say, “The teens don’t give up.  Let them know an adult is paying attention.”

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.


Carrie Bowman has worked with teens in the outdoors, in the classroom, and, for the past ten+ years, in the library.  She began library work as a gardener for the Seattle Public Library before moving inside as a Teen Services Librarian for the King County Library System, in Mercer Island, WA.  She can be contacted at:


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