How To Foster Teen Activism

Kansas City (MO) public librarian Wick Thomas brought teenagers to meet the Governor face-to-face in his office to ask for more library funding. That’s just one way that Thomas encourages responsible activism and leadership among young adults.
Wick Thomas (far right) with Teen Leaders of Today! members. Photos courtesy of Wick Thomas

Wick Thomas (far right) with Teen Leaders of Today! members.
Photos courtesy of Wick Thomas

As a culture, we frequently tell teenagers that they are the future. It’s not true. Teens can be leaders in their communities and schools today. From the Little Rock Nine to Malala Yousafzai, young people consistently change the world with their bravery and passion. I think that adults tell teenagers that they are the leaders of tomorrow because we are afraid of how quickly they might change the world if empowered now.

Realizing that the library can be a radical institution has been key in my work with young adults at the Kansas City (MO) Public Library. In March, we rallied two bus loads of teenagers and headed to the state capitol building in Jefferson City, MO, to talk to legislators about how proposed budget cuts to libraries would adversely affect their lives. Many of the young adults we work with come from economically underprivileged families. The library is not just a resource for them, but a necessary part of their lives. Whether it’s for Internet access, databases, or just a safe place to go after school, the library helps them survive and thrive.

Teens Alba Medina (left) and Evelin Medina at the MO state capitol rally.

Teens Alba Medina (left) and
Evelin Medina at the MO state capitol rally.

Almost 100 teens were in the capitol that day, meeting with their senators and representatives and eloquently advocating for library funding. The day took a turn, however, once we got to Governor Jay Nixon’s office, where my group of about 20 was escorted out. Staffers said that the group was too loud and threatened to have us led out by state troopers if we did not immediately leave. Luckily, several teens had taken video proving that they had, in fact, remained respectful and quiet.

While I wish our group had been heard that day, the experience taught them a lot. On the bus home, we addressed the confusion and feelings created by being dismissed by a public servant. The conclusion they came to was that they were still powerful. They knew they were asked to leave because they were right. Being censored and shushed was a catalyst for them to become fiercer advocates.

We held several meetings after that trip and formed “Teen Leaders of Today!”, a leadership council for the library. They planned and implemented several events throughout the summer. The members serve as representatives of the library in their schools and communities.

While the group advises us on best practices for working with teens, they serve more as an advocacy board than an advisory board. While library staffers facilitate meetings, the teens are running the show and making the decisions. This has been a great way to teach them about everything from the inner workings of the library world to effectively interpreting analytics and planning events.

The highlight for me this year was our first-ever Kansas City Public Library Youth Empowerment Summit, which teens planned and implemented. They held workshops on how to access power in their communities and effect change. Sessions covered topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues in high school, mental illness, and how to be a better activist. In addition, they planned or helped with our End of Summer Reading Celebration and Teens on the Fringe, a component of the Kansas City Fringe Festival.

Dawson Barrett, author of Teenage Rebels: Stories of Successful High School Activists, from the Little Rock 9 to the Class of Tomorrow (Microcosm, 2015), gave an amazing presentation on how important teenagers have been to social justice movements. Young adults care about these issues, and having a space to discuss them helped them better understand the power that they currently hold—and solidifies our role as a radical, necessary institution.

Many are quick to dismiss young people without realizing the potential they hold. Teens can not only rally in our defense now, but also be our allies long past their adolescent years. They care passionately about the library—they just might not know it yet. Let’s help them do so.

Thomas-Wick_Contrib_WebLibrary Journal Mover & Shaker Wick Thomas is a teen services librarian at the Kansas City Public Library and a community organizer. He has received awards from University of Missouri–Kansas City, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Human Rights Commission of Kansas City.

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