Massachusetts Library Gives Teens Time To Talk

A suggestion from a teen patron has turned into a popular program that allows teens to discuss social issues important to them at the Waltham (MA) Public Library.

When Luke Kirkland began his job as head of teen services at Waltham (MA) Public Library in 2015, the town high school’s sophomore class president came to him with an idea.

“She felt there were a lot of conversations that they didn’t have a space for,” about social justice and other topics, Kirkland says of student Rachel Cosgrove, who wanted a program that would give teens a space for open, thoughtful conversation.

Kirkland was skeptical the idea would catch on, but Cosgrove brought about 40 teens to the first event.

“It was shocking,” he says. “That experience really changed my perspective on what we should be offering.”

Her idea became Real Talk, a popular teen program that continues even after Cosgrove and the original teen leadership graduated last spring.

The program meets twice a month through the school year. It kicks off with discussions about trust, family, friends, community, relationships, identity, personality, and gratitude, then focuses on a chosen topic for the spring, such as stress, depression, gender equality, immigration, or substance abuse. Activities have included a Black History Month celebration, a Sexual Health Game Show, and a Q&A session with a drag king.

After the first year, Cosgrove recruited three more people for a leadership team to plan topics and activities, with guidance from Kirkland. The library used a grant from the Library Initiative for Teens & Tweens—which supports library programs in underserved and diverse Massachusetts communities—to pay stipends to the leaders, serve food at the events, and bring in presenters for challenging topics.

During an event, attendees share their names and pronouns then move to activities.

“For the most part, the goal of the activities is to get as many people contributing as possible,” Kirkland says.

One regular activity is “four corners,” where the corners are Agree, Strongly Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. The host reads a statement and everyone walks to their chosen corner; explaining that choice is up to them.

“We want people talking as much as possible,” he says. “There are people who are shy and people who are far less shy.”

During a “cross the line” activity, the host reads a series of statements and attendees walk across the line if they agree. For instance, “cross the line if you know someone with a drug abuse problem” or “cross the line if you’ve ever thought about suicide.”

“Over the course of a year, we’ve created a trusting dynamic and rapport with each other, where people are open to share these stories, and the things that come out of it are really amazing and sad, but teach us a lot about the teens” and help the library figure out what resources to offer.

Though Kirkland says they try to ensure all information shared is accurate, the bigger concern for him is getting kids to see different perspectives. He doesn’t want the teens to shut down but to “entertain the humanity of the other person.”

And the teens keep coming back.

“There might be people who have really uninformed opinions,” he says. “They get called out or challenged, and they come back and they want to engage more.” They like having a space where they can feel heard, adds Kirkland.

Among them is senior Alexis Sanford, 17, one of the current leaders. She started attending a few years ago, impressed that Real Talk was run by students and that it was having an impact in the community.

One discussion that resonates with her is the family session because the questions “really allow you to see what may be going on in their lives. … Not everyone has perfect families, perfect lives.” It helps the students get to know each other in a way they might not at school, she says.

When the founders graduated, “I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” she says. “It’s definitely prepared me for more leadership roles that I plan on taking on.”

The original leaders and Kirkland worked to make sure the program would continue, launching a website last spring with suggestions for how to create a Real Talk group. Kirkland says other libraries have expressed interest in doing so.

Eventually, he wants to modify the program more, with modular, easy-to-use activities.

“This is the first year where that first crew of teen leaders is no longer around,” says Kirkland. “So I’m really just trying to use this year to observe and reflect.”

Marlaina Cockcroft is a freelance ­writer and editor.

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