Free Library of Philadelphia Hosts First-Ever Social Justice Symposium for Teens

Inspired by the teens at her library, Erin Hoopes organized a Social Justice Symposium at the Free Library of Philadelphia, with author Renée Watson as a keynote speaker.
Author Renee Watson keynoting Free Library of Philadelphia's Social Justice Symposium for Teens on August 29. Photo by Erin Hoopes

Author Renée Watson keynoting at the Free Library of Philadelphia's
Social Justice Symposium for Teens on August 29. Photo by Erin Hoopes

On April 30, 2015, I walked through my branch library’s teen area and overheard a group of young teenagers discussing a protest march against police brutality planned for that evening in Center City, Philadelphia. Interested in what they had to say, I sat down to talk with them. It was a moving conversation, and I left work that evening wanting to do more. I had planned library programs for teens in the past that touched on the topics of inequality, racism, and social justice. But as the national conversation on these topics was deepening, I felt it was important for my library system, one of the largest urban libraries in the country, to have an active voice in the conversation. In particular, I wanted our teen patrons’ voices to be heard, developed, and strengthened. Our library director, Siobhan Reardon, had encouraged us as a staff to challenge the status quo, to come up with innovative programs and service ideas as our role in the community changed.  And as a system, we had a strong tradition of teen programming that targeted the developmental assets for youth, including our afterschool program that hired teen leadership assistants in every library branch. My idea for a Social Justice Symposium for Teens built on that history and on the dynamic and creative programs my colleagues were holding for young adults throughout the library system. I envisioned a two-part program, with the main event being the Social Justice Symposium for Teens at our Parkway Central Library, and smaller preparatory events occurring at library branches across the city. I wanted to hire a keynote speaker for the Symposium and community mentors for the preparatory branch events. Obviously this meant money, and finding money for programs is always a challenge. However, the Free Library of Philadelphia, which recently underwent an organizational restructuring process, now has a department called Strategic Initiatives. This department gives small grants to staff members with new and interesting program ideas, so I applied for and was awarded a grant for the Symposium. Nathaniel Eddy, who serves as a coordinator in the strategic initiatives department, said, “Teens, while often challenging to reach, are a fount of ideas and incredibly passionate about the issues facing their communities. The Symposium seemed an ideal program to engage this audience and a way to discuss the very real topics of inequality, justice, and challenges affecting their lives today.” I received a budget of $4,725, which allowed me to hire author Renée Watson as our keynote speaker, along with three community mentors to lead the preparatory programs and workshops at the Symposium itself. Another huge challenge in teen programming is getting young people to actually attend programs, so the grant also paid for several incentives: lunch, SEPTA tokens, and gift cards for students participating in the Symposium, along with free copies of each branch program’s featured books for all teen attendees. lockdown-wdmThe next challenge was finding colleagues who had time to help me implement the initiative during the intensely busy time of summer reading. Branch managers Marvin DeBose of Haverford Library and LaBae Daniels of Frankford Library branch agreed to participate. We each selected a community member to serve as our branch’s mentor, and then worked with our mentors to choose a social justice theme and books that would best allow the teens to explore that theme the week leading up to the major event. The Haverford Library held two book discussions on beating the odds of mass incarceration, featuring Slugg by Tony Lewis Jr. and Homeless at 13 to a College Graduate by Anthony Ross. The Frankford Library held two book discussions on human trafficking and slavery, focusing on Sold by Patricia McCormick and The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers. The Philadelphia City Institute Library held two book discussions on mass incarceration and racism in the criminal justice system, featuring Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers and The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. In preparation for the Symposium, I created a survey to measure the impact of the program, a resource handout, and a program schedule. I had invaluable administrative support from Eddy in strategic initiatives, and colleagues throughout the library system helped advertise the program on social media and by word-of-mouth. In all, 30 people attended the Symposium on August 29: two middle school students, 12 high school students, two college students, and 14 adults. I had hoped for higher numbers, but I still felt that qualitatively, the program was a definite success. this-side-of-homeWatson shared several of her poems with the audience, talked about her personal experiences, and read from her books This Side of Home and What Momma Left Me. She spoke to the importance of “having books that reflect a young person’s life and windows into other people’s lives.” “How do we help young people have self-pride, self-love and care about the issues of the world?” she asked. “Libraries are crucial to movements.” Three concurrent workshops followed the keynote, including one by mental health specialist Lamar Simmons on homelessness, mass incarceration, and education. The others were led by the Frankford Branch's After School Leader Tessa Windle on human trafficking and attorney Whiquitta Tobar on the education crisis for girls of color. All the students agreed that after participating in the symposium, they were more aware of issues in their community, and most said they would definitely attend if this program was offered next year. Andy, a ninth grader who learned about the program from his local librarian, said, “Obviously, these days we are aware of what’s happening in the world, so I came to learn more about it and how to help.” Isiah, an eighth grader who also heard about the program from his local librarian, said of Watson’s talk, “As she said, if someone I know cracks a racist joke, but they don’t actually mean it, I will tell them it’s not cool. Even if it’s a black person talking about a Hispanic, that’s also not cool. So I think I’ll tell people if they’re doing something not right, I’ll have to stand up for that.” It was a privilege to be a part of this program that provided an opportunity for teens to learn more about the issues that matter to them, and to make their voices heard. The symposium brought together Philadelphians of different ages to discuss community issues they felt deeply about, and to reinforce the Free Library of Philadelphia as an institution that cares about social justice. Erin Hoopes is head of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Philadelphia City Institute branch.     Save Save

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