November 17, 2017

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Libraries Reach Out to Young Black Men

Demetria Tucker (center) serves teens at the Pearl Bailey Library in Newport News, VA. Below: a poster from the Pearl Bailey Library. Photo and poster art courtesy of the Pearl Bailey Library.

Demetria Tucker (center) serves teens at the Pearl Bailey Library in Newport News, VA.
Photo and poster art courtesy of the Pearl Bailey Library.

When Demetria Tucker arrived at Newport News, VA, in 2008 as the senior family and youth services librarian at the Pearl Bailey Library, getting teens into the building was not a challenge.

The facility, located in a predominantly African American neighborhood, was “inundated” with teens after school looking for access to the Internet, she says. But the group dynamics were disruptive, and gang behavior was spilling over into the library.

Poster from the Pearl Bailey Library.

Poster from the Pearl Bailey Library.

“How could we combat some of that and empower them with the necessary tools to become productive adults?” she asked herself. “We wanted to provide programs and resources to help them make positive choices.”

So she went straight to the teens who seemed to be leaders among their peers and elicited their help in redesigning a space in the library—nicknamed the “chill spot”—just for them. She taught them to play board games, created a chess club, and organized a teen advisory committee and book clubs to find out what the teens would want to read.

“Kids want to see and read things that are relatable to them,” Tucker says. Now the teens are the best advertisement for the library—literally. Members of the advisory committee are pictured on posters that hang around the neighborhood and draw in other young people. “We had to start out with what their interests were,” says Tucker, “and then move forward.”

Building a bridge

Tucker’s work at Pearl Bailey is evidence of the growing push to give minority youth, particularly those in low-income communities, reasons to visit their school or public libraries—and to increasing the variety of materials that draw them into reading.

The shift is inspired in part by the work of Sandra Hughes-Hassell, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she coordinates the School Library Media Program in the School of Information and Library Science. Tucker was one of her students.

Sandra Hughes-Hassell (left), author Brian Pinkney  (center), and UNC donor Gene Story. Photo courtesy of UNC/School of Information and Library Science

Sandra Hughes-Hassell (left), author Brian Pinkney
(center), and UNC donor Gene Story.
Photo courtesy of UNC/School of Information and Library Science

Hughes-Hassell interviewed young African American men when she began conducting research on the issue in 2011. Teens of color “are not seeing themselves reflected in the literature, in the curriculum,” she says. “They want adults in schools and libraries to address issues of race and racism. They want educators and librarians to bring their lived experiences into the classroom.”

Those experiences can include clashes with law enforcement, deaths of unarmed young men, and the racial violence that has erupted in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, and other communities. These events make the work librarians like Tucker are doing more necessary, Hughes-Hassell says. “Cases like Trayvon Martin—[the teens] want people to understand that affects them deeply,” she says.

Before books can engage with some of those topics, they need to feature diverse characters or be written by someone of color, Hughes-Hassell notes. Xandi DiMatteo, the teen librarian at the Central Library in Rochester, NY, says that sometimes her quest to find African American or Latino protagonists is more important than the book’s content.

“If there is a hint of a racially diverse character, I’m buying it,” she says. With funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Hughes-Hassell’s program—along with the School of Library and Information Science at North Carolina Central University—organized an invitation-only summit in 2012 that brought together more than 40 educators, public and school librarians, school reformers, and others with the common goal of improving library services for African American youth, particularly males. The participants were responding to another report that same year from the Council of the Great City Schools, which described the achievement gap for African American males as a “national catastrophe.”

A summit report, “Building a Bridge to Literacy for African American Male Youth,” cited statistics on low achievement among African American males and outlined specific steps the library community can take to improve literacy outcomes among young black men—not just for school, but also for the rest of their lives. “Poor test scores are not the worst consequence of illiteracy for these young men,” the report said. “Recent research shows that lack of adequate reading and writing skills can set the stage for a continuance of intergenerational poverty, crime, and substance abuse.”

Discussions of cultural competency

“Building a Bridge to Literacy” has also become much more than a conference summary. Hughes-Hassell’s team created a website with resources and a series of 10 professional development modules  that librarians, teachers, and other youth-serving professionals can use to adapt their services to be more appropriate for the students in their schools and communities.

“You are now seeing people talking about the idea that librarians need to be culturally competent,” she says. The American Library Association’s (ALA) Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers a webinar called Cultural Competence in the Library, and ALA offers the Great Stories Club grant program to create reading and discussion groups targeting underserved teens. Since 2006, 670 libraries in 49 states have participated in the program, involving more than 30,000 children and young adults, from age 12 to 21. A new round of grants this year is expected to reach 8,000 young adults and explore topics such as the “origins of teenage violence and suicide” and “the role of creative arts in dealing with change and transformation through novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books.”

Karen Lemmons, a library media specialist at Detroit School of Arts, a performing arts-focused high school, was hoping to win one of those grants so she could start a book club for the young men in her school. “I’ve had some of them blatantly tell me, ‘I don’t like to read,’” she says.

Karen Lemmons, library media specialist at Detroit School of Arts, reads The Pact with high school students. Photo courtesy of Karen Lemmons.

Karen Lemmons, library media specialist at Detroit School of Arts,
reads The Pact with high school students.
Photo courtesy of Karen Lemmons.

Like the majority of the nation’s librarians, Hughes-Hassell is a white female. Early in her career, as an elementary school teacher in rural Virginia, she recognized the gap between the curriculum she was trying to teach and the students in her class. “I know that if I had understood culturally relevant pedagogy, I would have been a better teacher,” she says.

Librarians, she says, should first confront their own feelings and prejudices about race and examine their current collection to see whether African American authors are represented. Who are the authors and illustrators who are invited to speak in the school or public library? Whose books are displayed and whose posters are hanging on the walls? Librarians can also consider what authors they follow on social media and look at how diverse the group is, Hughes-Hassell says.

Finding the right reading hook

Street lit, or urban fiction, is one genre intended to give young African Americans books that represent their culture. Hughes-Hassell says that for some teens, those books are the “first time they’ve ever seen themselves” in a work of fiction. But the story lines are typically very dark and give a limited portrayal of what it’s like to grow up as a young African American male or female in the United States.

Lemmons says she avoids bringing much street lit into her collection because as a school librarian, she has to focus on how the literature supports the curriculum. While she says some of those books might provide a “good hook,” she tries to steer students toward a broader range of titles. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” she says.

One book that resonated with Lemmons’s students is The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream (Riverhead, 2002), a nonfiction book about three young men from the streets of Newark, NJ, who support one another in their quest to become doctors. The book, she says, provides the kind of message that can inspire young people because it describes how the three persevered toward their goals despite coming from a rough background and not always having the highest grades.

Books in which the characters—whether fictional or nonfictional—overcome obstacles are also examples of what Alfred Tatum, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls “enabling texts” because they speak to issues that students care about. “An enabling text is one that moves beyond a sole cognitive focus—such as skill and strategy development—to include an academic, cultural, emotional, and social focus that moves students closer to examining issues they find relevant to their lives,” he wrote in an article for the reading and language arts learning program Hampton-Brown Edge. Too often, he says, texts for struggling readers merely reinforce their image of themselves as struggling readers.

High-interest/low-literacy (hi-lo) books—with easier vocabulary but with themes that would appeal to older students—are also designed to lure reluctant or struggling readers into reading.

Teachers at schools such as Eagle Academy for Young Men in Queens, NY, one of six schools created by the organization 100 Black Men of America, know how hi-lo books can reach boys who come from a lower socioeconomic bracket and are reading below grade level. Eighth-grade English teacher Vivett Hemans says her students do have access to the public library, “But will they go?”

Hughes-Hassell says that hi-lo books might have a place, but librarians who only offer those to youth are making assumptions about the teens’ reading levels. While some African American students might not be reading at grade level, many simply are rejecting books that don’t seem to address their interests or the issues they care about.

“Rather than being focused on Lexile levels or reading levels, librarians need to be focused on identifying powerful, compelling and meaty texts,” Hughes-Hassell says.

Hemans instituted D.E.A.R. time in her classroom, or “Drop Everything and Read,”  an initiative cosponsored by the National Education Association, designed to make reading an established part of a child’s life. Books with eye-catching covers and relevant topics are displayed prominently, from J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon’s Voices from the March on Washington (Boyds Mills, 2014) to Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin’s Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Huston (Clarion, 2012). Hemans’s students also read Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, and each student is provided with a copy to annotate or mark up.

DiMatteo adds, however, that librarians also should not assume that urban teens are only interested in reading about familiar people and places and “books about kids from the city.”

Author Kekla Magoon (left) at the “Building a Bridge to Literacy”  conference with participants Julius Walker (center) and Andrew Truesdale. Photo courtesy of UNC/School of Information and Library Science

Author Kekla Magoon (left) at the “Building a Bridge to Literacy”
conference with participants Julius Walker (center) and Andrew Truesdale.
Photo courtesy of UNC/School of Information and Library Science.

Empowering teens

The work libraries are doing to provide culturally relevant programming also extends beyond finding the right literary selections. At the Uniondale Public Library on Long Island, NY, librarian Syntychia Kendrick-Samuel began offering vocal coaching to teens as part of an “empowerment” program focused on the arts. Taught by accomplished music teachers, the group—called the Dewey Decibels—has had opportunities to perform, and, on a survey, the teens said they want the program to be offered again.

“It was wonderful to see a mixture of shy and not-so-shy teens take the stage and perform before strangers,” Kendrick-Samuel wrote in SLJ. “The larger goal was to empower young people with a greater sense of self-esteem and positive emotional growth.”

At the main library in Durham, NC, teen librarian Faith Burns focuses on giving the teens that come into the branch—most of them African American males—a comfortable, welcoming place.

“I have tried to consistently let them know that I care, that they and their voices matter, and that I’m here, for whatever they need,” she says. “I think that this is the first step—and a step in the right direction—for working with a group of young people whom society traditionally discounts and sets aside.”

Burns has focused on getting the students help with their homework and hosted a poetry workshop with the Durham Library Foundation.

“One teen eloquently wrote about natural hair, another his feelings on the shootings of African American men by police officers. I was moved by each teen’s performance,” she says. “My goals are to give them more opportunities to express themselves.”

At John Hancock College Preparatory High School in Chicago, where 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, librarian Timothy Toner says through his “book talks,” he asks students to think about the last book they enjoyed reading, even if it was Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series (Abrams) or something with animal characters by Richard Scarry.

“It puts them back in that frame of mind when reading was pleasurable,” says Toner. He notes that some kids may think they don’t like to read because adults only recommend books they think are appropriate, whether or not kids are interested in them. “When a whole class comes in to hear me pitch books, I will apologize to them, informing them that at some point, some well-meaning teacher or parent derided their book choice, and it was as if someone reached inside them and snuffed out a candle,” he says. “Many students, especially boys, will nod involuntarily.”

His most effective strategy, he says, is finding a student who is passionate about a book.

“I slowly and carefully feed that zeal with positive feedback, and then walk away. I let the newly minted evangelist do their good work,” he says. “The problem is, of course, you can’t count on those students being around as often as needed.”

Hughes-Hassell adds that the variety of educational opportunities libraries are currently adding, such as maker spaces and science exhibits, are responsive to young African Americans’ cultural strengths and give the library an alternate image to that of a place where students must sit still and be quiet. But it’s also an equity issue, she says. If STEM-focused after-school programs or maker spaces are available in school and public libraries serving white students, they need to be equally available in minority neighborhoods.

In Rochester, DiMatteo works hard to program author visits for teens—often using as much as half of her budget to schedule the events, even though she says some of her coworkers are surprised that teens even show up. But the visits, DiMatteo says, are some of her best-attended events, and she knows that most local schools don’t have funds to offer such opportunities. “The quality of the interactions is so great,” she says. “The teens connect with the authors. They get on their Facebook pages.”

Quinton Garriss, who graduated this year from Heritage High School in Newport News, is one of those teens who has not only found his local library to be a welcoming place, but now does some of that book evangelism work with other youth in the community. Shortly after moving to the city when he was 13, he met Tucker at the Pearl Bailey Library and became part of the teen advisory committee.

A young boy he met recently told Garriss that he didn’t like to read, but that he did like Batman.

“All he knew about Batman was from what he had seen on TV, so I encourage him to read the Batman graphic novels that we have at the library,” Garriss says. “I felt that I made a difference in encouraging him to read.”

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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