Exploring Culture in Teen Programming

I first got this program idea from reading the YALSA Teen Literacies Toolkit. I’ve been curious about library programming and the intersection with community identity. The definition of literacy is evolving and it’s exciting to see that these additions are relevant to the audiences we serve.

One of the competencies listed is Cultural Competence. The definition given for this concept is:

Ability to recognize the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; and to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interaction with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into services, work, and institutions to enhance the lives of both those being served by the library profession and those engaged in service (Overall, 2009)

This topic is actually very close to my heart. My parents moved to the United States when I was ten years old which makes me into a first-generation immigrant. Growing up, I’ve always felt that I was a part of both the Middle Eastern culture and the American culture. At times, I felt that I needed to pick one and other times I refused to choose and just called myself a “Global Citizen”.  I didn’t see that as an intellectual activity at first, culture was always something I explored on my own, it was my hobbies that gave me a love of Reggaetón and Korean fried Chicken.

Working with the teens in the public library, they are always curious of people who do things differently in different cultures. My first experimentation with this was in my early days of youth programming with my Anime Club teens at the Skokie Public Library. Country music happens to be something I love, I’ve had some conversations with teens about their musical preferences and it seemed that Hip Hop dominated within the group. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hip Hop. I wanted to start a conversation with the other teens I hadn’t interacted with, so I played country music. Seeing the faces of the teens as they walked in the Billy Currington playing on the speaker was priceless. The conversation we had about music after was even better.

In my current job, I’m interested in bringing my teens further and taking them to other parts of the world as well. I would love for them to be able to not only recognize other cultures, but also be able to connect and engage with others who they perceive to be a part of those cultures. My goal though, is to show them how similar we all really are and how much fun we can have if we not only accept but celebrate each other.

Cultural Exploration Programs

My first experiment with cultural exploration was testing it out in my existing programs that I was already comfortable with. So, during one of the Basic Coding programs with Ozobots, I played a playlist of Moroccan wedding music. The playlist was on YouTube and at one point, I let it go to the suggested videos since it was on a theme. This was the first time all twelve teens had been exposed to this genre of music. The conversations that took place ranged from questions about the dances and fashion, to wedding traditions and similarities of beats between music in the US and Moroccan music.

Cultural Exploration: Music Around the World

My goal for this program was to explore different cultures, get acquainted with the world map and explore Mango Languages, our library’s language resource. In my first cultural exploration program, I tried to keep it simple, so I can customize and change it up if needed. I chose The Voice as the basic program medium because it has many equivalences around the world. In terms of technology, I used our new smart television, some office chairs, tables and paper and pens. The television was positioned at the front of the room and my participants facing the back of the room. I instructed my teens to reflect on the person and language they heard.

Our conversations focused on our perceptions based on how we think someone sounds. The conversation then flowed into what our assumptions are about where they’re from, how old they are, and what we think they could look like. Throughout the program, we had some great conversations on the language, geography, race, even culture of the person who was singing.

After the last video, I shared our language resources and the teens picked Japanese as the language they would like to test out. We used the Mango Languages resource to explore the pronunciations and how to say basic greetings and phrases. My proud mama moment came when the teens used their new language skills to greet staff as they were helping return the office chairs to the computer lab.


Community inclusion is a theme that our system is focusing on. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is moving toward becoming an information hub within the community for those who are new or those who have lived her a long time. It’s teamed up with the Queen City to connect new residents with existing resources. This will be done through our new program series #WelcomeCLT and city resources being highlighted in the branches. For our teens, I think there’s some great potential for our cultural exploration program to be used to experience our own diverse community in Charlotte.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Digital Branch: #WelcomeCLT. https://digitalbranch.cmlibrary.org/welcome-clt/

Fargo, Hailley, et al. “Teen Literacies Toolkit.” Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), 1 July 2017, www.ala.org/yalsa/teen-literacies-toolkit.


About Abrar Alkusaimi

Abrar is a Teen Librarian at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System. She considers herself a native Charlottean even though she was born in Sana'a, Yemen. She couldn't make up her mind on what career to take at first but the library was her first love. She fell into librarianship because of her passionate for community building and teen empowerment especially for minorities through education and literacy.

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