This past summer, I ran a biweekly book club for teen Somali girls at the Brian Coyle Center, located in the heart of Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Somali immigrant families. The girls were members of an existing leadership club, and the club’s founder approached Hennepin County Library about a book club partnership. Through the experience, I and other staff in Multicultural Services learned some important lessons about collaboration and working successfully across cultural backgrounds.
It’s All About Relationships
The book club could not have happened without the ongoing relationship between Hennepin County Library and the Somali community, which is the result of sustained and intentional work. HCL has a full-time Somali Community Liaison (as well as one each for the Hispanic and Hmong communities) who was the first point of contact for the book club request. Because of the time and effort he had put into promoting library services to his community, that channel was open when the need was there. The rapid success of the book club was also possible because of the enthusiasm of the girls’ group leaders. None of these connections were made overnight—they were the result of time spent drinking tea and talking to families without a set agenda. The liaison also had an important role in educating non-Somali library staff (including me) about his community. While such work is easier when the liaison is a paid staff member, any librarian can accomplish these results by finding an enthusiastic member of the community they want to reach and spending time with that person. One well-placed contact who believes in the importance of library services can open a whole network of relationships.
Social Workers Are Natural Allies
An important point that came up in planning for the book club was that many members of the Somali community have lasting trauma from surviving the war in Africa. While the teens in the book club were young enough to have few such scars, they are surrounded by family members who do. In addition, like any children of immigrants, they’re growing up in a very different culture from their parents. Because these sensitive issues could be part of our discussions, I invited a social worker to co-lead the club with me. We were very clear that she wasn’t going to be leading a group therapy session, but social workers are trained on asking perceptive questions and listening to diverse perspectives, so her participation was invaluable. This book club only scratched the surface of what would be possible with such a collaboration. For example, Brian Coyle is a site where many social work students complete their field work, meaning they have more ongoing contact with the population than any librarian and would make good partners in further promotion of library and information services.
Teens Are Teens
After an initial consultation with the community liaison and group leader about what would be appropriate book content, I selected a few titles for the girls to vote on. I purposely included a couple of books that dealt with issues of cultural and intergenerational family conflict, but the first book the girls chose to read was Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. More than once over the course of leading the book club, I heard from library staff of all backgrounds who were surprised that children of immigrant families want to read the same books as most kids their age. It’s important for all of use to remember that while specific populations have their own unique needs and interests, teens are, first and foremost, teens. We did also end up choosing and reading Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet by Kashmira Sheth, which opened up a rich debate about arranged marriage. But the questions of the importance of beauty and sameness raised by Uglies were just as important to this group of girls in hijab as to any other American teenagers.
There were other, smaller lessons I learned, too, as a first time teen book group leader—be prepared to lose some books, for one—but the items above are what emerged as universally important. I hope they’re useful to you as well.