A Kids' Council Is Born | Tweens and Civic Engagement

Hired as a tween librarian, the author gained insight into her patrons' interests through an anonymous question box, and followed up with related programming.

“Why tweens?” is a question I often get asked when I tell people what I do. When I was hired as a tween librarian in 2014, the New Brunswick Free Public Library (NBFPL) in New Jersey was addressing the same questions many youth services departments were: What do you do with tweens? How do we best serve them? Where do we best serve them? I didn’t have ready answers to these questions, but I was willing to learn.

This age group, which NBFPL defines as students in 4th-8th grade, makes up one of the largest subpopulations that use the library regularly. I suspected they wanted homework help and a place to learn new skills and hang out. While this turned out to be true, what I didn’t anticipate was that their desire for civic engagement and leadership opportunities would rival that of teens and adults.

That discovery came a few years ago when we put up an anonymous bulletin board in the children’s room. Kids could discreetly submit a question in a box near the reference desk and I or the children’s librarian would post responses.

We assumed we would get typical adolescent questions, and we did; “Why are people having relationships?” and “Why does my sister fight with me all the time? We also received lots of library-related queries. What we didn’t expect was the overwhelming number of social, intellectual, and political questions that our tweens submitted, including, “Why do people talk bad about community college even though it is more affordable?”; “Will we make it to 2019 or even 2020?”; “Why don’t people care about others?”; “Is creativity important to survival?” Their questions revealed that they were thinking deeply.

To address their social and political curiosity, we designed a civics program. Our aim was to show participants the ways in which people can make social change. “Civics Week,” offered around Presidents Day, encouraged tweens to explore books, activities, and online tools that taught them about federal, state, and local government, and community activism through daily activities.

The response to the program was positive, so later that year we offered an expanded version of it titled “Constitution and Election Month,” leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Tweens logged activities throughout October and November, and participated in a mock election on November 8, 2016. Participation in both these programs was fair, but the true goal was visibility: of information, of the civic process, and of the accessibility to both.

Interest in these topics exploded immediately after the 2016 election. Questions such as “Will my mom be deported?” began appearing in the reference box. Discussions during the weekly tween STEM club and casual conversations at the reference desk were now peppered with additional questions about immigration and citizenship, and fake news and government checks and balances. These curious minds wanted to discuss their thoughts in real time. We needed to think bigger.

Enter our “Kids’ Community Council” (KCC), founded and named by our tween regulars in late 2016. This group, which meets weekly, was created as a forum to tackle difficult questions. The tweens wanted a venue to gather and discuss how national events manifest in their neighborhoods and lives, and to come up with ideas to make their community a better place. While the earlier programs introduce civic concepts, the Kids’ Community Council enables participants to practice the kind of public dialogue essential to democracy.

There are a few basic guidelines for the KCC. Attendees can discuss any issue they like, but they have to bring suggestions. They must speak directly to each other, rather than to the librarian. I rarely participate in discussions unless they ask me for information or they come to a conversational impasse. Disagreement is welcome, as are the whole range of emotions (some afternoons reach parliamentary levels of vociferousness), but we’ll pause and practice empathetic listening and ways of expressing contradicting opinions in constructive ways. The topics have ranged from how to talk to crushes and critiquing YouTube vloggers to I.C.E. and gun control.

And we take breaks. We eat snacks and play games. Sometimes we participate in mindfulness exercises, or escape-room and theater activities. We try to balance the original purpose of the group with skill building and activities they would like to try. At their request, council members have volunteered at our library events, greeting people at the door, guiding their friends and neighbors around our New Jersey Makers Day event and Summer Reading Fair.

Maintaining thoughtful tween civic engagement is grounded in the staff’s commitment to providing programs that are part of a larger whole and encourage lifelong library use. Everyone, from the children’s, teen, and adult librarians to the circulation and technical services departments, sees tween services as an important part of the library’s responsibility to New Brunswick residents.

Creating appropriate tween services also requires understanding the unique demographic makeup of New Brunswick. The statistics show that New Brunswick tweens represent a number of historically-marginalized groups, and subsequently are at greater risk for experiencing disenfranchisement and structural inequality. They are more likely to experience, either directly or indirectly, the traumas associated with poverty and racism, as well as the “ Discipline Gap,” in which students of color are more likely to receive excessive punishment for behavioral infractions than their white counterparts, and more frequent removal from educational settings. Many of them live in hard-to-count (HTC) areas and thus are erased from official census data. Across the board, their voices are less likely to be heard.

According to Census.gov’s 2017 American Community Survey, the juvenile population of New Brunswick is 75.7 percent Hispanic or Latino and 12.2 percent black. While 35.1 percent of the total population (adults included) is foreign-born, 90.3 percent of the children are born in the United States. Of kids aged 5 to 17, 24.4 percent speak a language other than English at home. Lastly, 40.4 percent of kids live below the government-determined poverty line.

It would be easy to see these tween patrons as merely sums of statistics and prescribe what they need. But they know what they need: a place to exercise their voices and explore collective activism. They are powerful in their ability to observe, distill, create, and change, and our most profound learning about what the library must offer them has come not from research or statistics, but from listening to them—in our Kids’ Community Council, at the reference desk, in the library garden, during storytime, homework tutoring, and Civics Week, and anywhere they share their stories.

We are committed to providing these kids with the services, programs, and engagement opportunities they tell us they need.

Chelsea Woods-Turner is the Tween Librarian at the New Brunswick Free Public Library, where she is committed to fostering a love of storytelling and equitable access to library services with middle-grade patrons.

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