For Freedoms | Empowering Teens in Election Season

A library program in Waltham, MA, offered teens an opportunity to practice active citizenship. The result was a powerful, practical, and often, a heartbreaking document of their hopes and fears.

 

All photos by Erwin Cardona
 

This September, teen leaders from the Waltham Public Library’s Real Talk program, a centerpiece of Waltham's teen programming, engaged 350 high school students to create lawn signs and install them in front of the library. 

The signs—designed by arts and civic action organization For Freedoms—begin with one of four prompts: Freedom To, Freedom Of, Freedom For, and Freedom From. Each teen was asked to finish a prompt with the one hope that they had as Election Day approached. No response was censored and no political agenda was endorsed. We simply sought to empower youth, to offer them an opportunity to practice active citizenship, and to give them a voice during election season by letting voters and candidates know what issues were most important to them.

The result was a powerful, practical, and often, a heartbreaking document of the hopes and fears of Waltham’s teens—for their lives, their communities, their country, and their world. Here are some of their responses:

  • Freedom for the Latino children in cages.
  • Freedom from the fear of having my family taken away.
  • Freedom from having to learn a whitewashed version of history.
  • Freedom to have more teachers of color in my school.
  • Freedom from men having to act masculine.
  • Freedom to hold hands with a boy as a boy.
  • Freedom to be seen as a girl and not a sexualized object.
  • Freedom from a future defined by the effects of climate change.
  • Freedom from communities living at the mercy of real estate developers.
  • Freedom from fear of being evicted.
  • Freedom to have a disability without being stared at.
  • Freedom from an eating disorder.
  • Freedom to shave…or not.
  • Freedom for kids under 18 to ride the bus for free.

The entire collection can be viewed online.

A community event

At the installation of the signs on September 28, we invited the Waltham community to reflect on teens’ thoughts and feelings, to consider the world they will inherit, and to become familiar with the world they intend to create.

Adults read the signs as they were staked into the ground. A teen DJ set the atmosphere with lively music. The League of Women Voters and youth trained by HeadCount pre-registered and registered voters. Real Talk leaders used the USCIS Citizenship Test flashcards in both English and Spanish as they walked the crowd and tested attendees’ civic knowledge—a correct answer earned participants a raffle ticket for a chance to win prizes donated by local businesses and organizations. And people of all ages filled out Wal-Grams: postcards created to allow Waltham residents to write regularly to their elected officials with stories, requests, ideas, compliments, and thanks.

Residents and candidates for mayor, city council, and the school committee were among those who milled among the signs. All listened attentively as Real Talk leaders addressed the crowd. “Waltham youth demand to be heard. We may be young, but our experiences are real…Do not belittle us, our opinions, or experiences solely because you may see us as just kids…The world has changed, and we young people will no longer sit on the sidelines…We are watching and we are listening and we will hold you accountable to your roles as policymakers…We aren’t just names on paper—we are living, breathing members of this city. We have dreams, aspirations, and needs just like anyone else here...Listen to our voices and include us in the decision-making process because only by including everyone in this city can we achieve democratic harmony.”

In the coming weeks, we plan to process the signs as a Youth Participatory Action Research project. Each statement will be entered into a spreadsheet, categorized, and assigned tags to help us determine the issues the teens surveyed felt were the most pressing. By converting qualitative data to quantitative data, we can approach newly elected local officials with information that will guide their priorities and decision-making.

Local and national partnerships

Like many initiatives, this one would not have been possible without support on many levels.

For Freedoms is a national collective for creative citizenship founded in 2016 by artists Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas. It is a collaboration between artists, institutions, organizations, and people across the nation who experiment with new and creative pathways to participation. Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s 1943 paintings of the four universal freedoms articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms seeks to use art to deepen public discussions of civic issues and core values, and to clarify that citizenship in American society is deepened by participation, not by ideology.

Waltham arts organization Blueprint Projects brought the work of For Freedoms to the attention of Real Talk in the summer of 2018, and our first experience using their signs was so transformative that we challenged ourselves to make it an annual tradition. This year, with additional support from the Library Initiative for Teens & Tweens, we purchased nearly twice as many signs.

During September, partners from the Youth Service Provider Network of Waltham helped as we held programming in the Waltham Public Library, set up shop in the Waltham Boys & Girls Club Teen Center, and visited Waltham High School classes and afterschool clubs while making regular appearances in the school library and cafeteria.

And thanks to conference appearances and our membership in the Young Changemakers in 21st Century Libraries cohort—a collaboration between the Massachusetts Library System and Harvard University Democratic Knowledge Project—we recruited the Turner Free Library in Randolph, Springfield City Library, the Public Library of Brookline, Silver Lake Regional High School, and a collective of schools and libraries in Brockton to make signs with their teens. With support from For Freedoms we look forward to adding even more libraries and schools for the 2020 election season.

This is a fabulous project for public libraries and schools alike. Go big like we did and make it a citywide collaboration. Or simply print the templates on paper and create an installation on a wall of your class, library, or school. Either way, this can be a profound exercise for youth and community members.

Interested in creating lawn signs with us in 2020? Get in touch! Email Luke Kirkland at lkirkland@minlib.net with any questions. Email emma@forfreedoms.org and pola@forfreedoms.org to learn more about becoming an official For Freedoms partner. And visit bit.ly/lawnsigntips to view tips about helping youth create their signs.

 


Luke Kirkland is the Teen Services Department Head at the Waltham Public Library in Massachusetts. Follow him @lkrklnd.

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