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Magazine Feature

Social Justice Symposium for Teens

by Erin Hoopes on March 5, 2018

ERIN HOOPES is Library Supervisor, Philadelphia City Institute Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia. Contact Erin at HoopesE@freelibrary.org. Erin is currently reading When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors.


If you’ve worked with young people for just about any length of time, a teenager has likely shared something painful with you and you may have felt momentarily powerless to help them. I experienced a moment like that on an afternoon when I heard a small group of young teens in my library branch discussing police brutality. I sat down with the teens that day and I listened. They were furious, frustrated, and sad. Absorbing their words and their feelings, I felt those same emotions. I also felt helpless. Their pain was so large and I felt so small in that moment.

I thought about that conversation a lot over the next few days, and asked myself the question, “What can I do?” I was already incorporating social justice topics into my teen programming, but that didn’t feel like an adequate response. So, the Free Library
of Philadelphia’s Social Justice Symposium for Teens was born.

I envisioned a day-long program dedicated to teens talking and learning about social justice. Through this program, I wanted to send a message to my teens that they have the inner resources to change their lives and their communities, and that there are powerful adults who can help connect them to the material resources they need to make those changes.

Here’s what I remembered after I processed the initial emotion of that conversation in my library branch: I am not powerless, and neither are you. We as librarians have extraordinary power. We maintain trusted institutions in our communities and we offer spaces that are safe both physically and intellectually. Most powerfully, we are connected. We form relationships with all kinds of people. We might interact positively with hundreds of people in a single day. Put simply, people trust us to help them.

In addition, librarians as a whole are a privileged group. We are predominantly white, we hold college degrees, and we earn salaries that position us solidly in our country’s middle class. We have a responsibility not just to recognize our privilege, but to turn it into power for individuals and groups of people who are less privileged.

What can you do to leverage your power? First: listen to your young people. Don’t be so busy, so focused on tasks and numbers, that you lose opportunities to hear what your teens are saying. Take the time to get to know the teens who walk in your doors. They will talk to you, and to each other. They have strong voices. Your job is to be their megaphone. Be the person who says, Tell me. I am listening. Now, let me help you tell others. The world needs to hear what you have to say.

Seventeen-year-old Geneva, who attended both Social Justice Symposiums at the Free Library, said, “I feel like fighting for justice gives people meaning in their life. Libraries can allow young teens to have a voice. It’s a safe place where they can learn how to make a difference, especially during this time when there’s a lot of inequality in our country.” Geneva first began exploring social justice when she was introduced to a quote from Gandhi in the seventh grade, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Now, she says, “I want to step up and I want to make a difference. I want to have a career where I can positively impact people.”

Another approach you can take is to weave topics related to social justice into your regular teen programming. Choose a book like The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas for your book club. Invite a community activist to your afterschool program. Participate in
a service event, such as a 5K or park cleanup day, with your teens. Post booklists and design displays that deal with justice.

Make sure you are aware of the issues in your neighborhood and be prepared to discuss them. Several months ago, during a teen book club meeting, I discovered that instead of talking about the book, what my teens really needed to talk about was a recent event covered by the local news, in which a group of high school  students had been videotaped assaulting a disabled person. We ended up having a long and meaningful discussion about bullying, about when and how to confront it, and what to do if confronting a bully might put you in physical danger. It was an important conversation for the teens to have, far more important on that day than the book we were scheduled to discuss.

Next, model activism in your own life. Practice kindness. Listen to your col- leagues and your staff, if you’re a manager. Listen to your patrons. Acknowledge when you’re wrong and work to correct your mistakes. Advocate for fairness and justice in your place of work, on both local and systemic levels. Use your program budget (if you have access to funding) to support minority performers and multicultural programming. Read books that are different from your “comfort” books. Learn about the issues in your community. Connect with people who are different from you, and who offer you a different perspective on the world.

And finally, plan a program entirely devoted to social justice, like our Symposium. The Social Justice Symposium for Teens debuted at the Free Library on Monday August 29, 2016. It was funded by an internal grant from our library’s Strategic Initiatives department, which offers funding to library staff for new and innovative projects. My first task was to identify a keynote speaker, and I invited Renee Watson, whose book This Side of Home (2015) had been published recently. The issues it dealt with (racism, classism, gentrification, education inequities) were particularly relevant for our teens.

Then I reached out to colleagues and community contacts to identify work- shop leaders. The Symposium consisted of a keynote talk, lunch, and afternoon workshops. A colleague introduced me to a neighborhood activist who had formerly been homeless and incarcerated, and he agreed to lead a workshop on “beating the odds.” Another community member taught teens about the human trafficking crisis, and a local attorney led a workshop on the education crisis for girls of color.

Thirty people attended the first Symposium, and the feedback was positive. 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.” This is exactly what seventeen-year-old Nia, who is on the Youth Planning Committee for the 2018 Symposium, hopes the program will accomplish. “I think exposure is important. Young people need to be exposed to more types of things. Social justice affects us and our peers. You need to have an understanding of what you’re going to be affected by,” she said.

In 2017, I received a grant from the Philadelphia City Institute (PCI) Board of Managers to hold the second annual Social Justice Symposium for Teens. The PCI Board of Managers, a nonprofit organization, first opened a library and reading room dedicated to young people in 1855. Since that time, they have continued to support a Free Library in center city Philadelphia through generous financial and operational support. We were honored to have Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, give the keynote speech at the program, which was held on August 12, 2017. We used the same format as the 2016 program: keynote talk, lunch, and afternoon workshops.

Workshops in 2017 addressed several topics, including the significance of young people in social justice movements, Constitutional rights, overcoming the barriers of systematic oppression, incarceration and poverty, and inequities in the juvenile justice system. Attendees also responded especially strongly to Thomas’s talk and the main character of The Hate U Give, Starr Carter. After the program, one teen said, “I learned it is okay to be scared to stand up, but standing up for what you believe in is a good way to get something done.”

In 2017, our attendance grew to fifty people and again the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In post-program surveys, 96 percent of attendees reported that after participating in the program, they were more aware of issues of importance in their community and felt more con dent about becoming involved in the community. One hundred percent said that they might or would definitely attend the program again next year. Comments included: “I learned more about my rights as a person of color” and “I liked learning about different issues in the community and realizing that as a teen my voice is powerful.”

Sixteen-year-old Timmy, who is helping to plan the next Symposium, was especially impacted by local attorney Whiquitta Tobar’s workshop, Juvenile Debtors Prison—Paying for Justice. “I got to learn a lot of new stuff, especially with Ms. Whiquitta’s workshop. She showed us that the world is not in its best form, but it can always be better. That’s what the Social Justice Symposium showed me—that the world can be better. I want to change the world,” he said.

Members of the Youth Planning Committee for the 2018 Symposium are helping to design the program format, selecting the keynote speaker and workshop leaders and topics, and learning how to handle logistical details. They hope to include an art contest, book giveaways, and games as part of this year’s program, and are reaching out to other organizations that work with local youth to spread the word.

Timmy said, “If youth are the target audience, it only makes sense if youth get to plan it. I like seeing the other side of a program and having an influence on what we do this year. And I hope we get a really big turnout, and we inspire other youth to get involved in social justice.” Geneva added, “Last year I felt empowered, especially with the new knowledge I gained. It made me think, what can I do as a person? I hope the Symposium gives teens a voice and makes them empowered.”


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