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Creating Youth Opportunities – a Reflection

by Elliott Walcroft, Teen Services Specialist, Kenosha Public Library (Kenosha, WI), PLA 2024 Scholarship Recipient on May 15, 2024

I had an amazing time attending the PLA 2024 Conference this year thanks to the generous scholarship I received from the Public Library Association.

One session which had a major impact on me was the session on “Creating Youth Opportunities: Libraries Serve Youth at Risk of Incarceration”. I was unable to make the other session on building restorative practices for teens, but the panel did an excellent job of presenting those ideas within the context of this presentation.

The Urban Libraries Council’s (ULC) Creating Youth Opportunities Initiative focused on bringing opportunity youth (youth at risk of incarceration) into the library. Once they were within the library space, opportunities such as internships, job fairs, career day highlights, and social workers on staff helped these youth who were at particularly high risk of future incarceration a chance to avoid this outcome.

By having social workers on staff, the libraries involved were able to provide real-time assistance in navigating social issues, crisis situations, housing challenges, and other significant issues that these youth face. Such intervention is crucial to helping shift the lives of opportunity youth in positive directions. The inclusion of peer navigators struck me as particularly impactful in connecting with these teens on a peer-to-peer basis.

This session highlighted something which we as library workers have been working hard towards — have the library be a third space in our community. The lack of third spaces – spaces which are neither the home nor work/school – is a huge issue in many communities. Youth at risk are particularly in need of safe third spaces where they can be. When we have the library as that safe third space, we are uniquely positioned to provide opportunities to help mitigate the risks associated with opportunity youth. Beyond the options outlined above, libraries also give important access to things like the internet, makerspaces, computers, study spaces, and unique things like studios and recording equipment.

I think the idea of offering career fairs and counseling was also an excellent takeaway from this session. By providing examples of careers that teens might not have considered, these job sessions are uniquely expanding the options for these teens going forward. They may never have thought that they could be in any number of professions, including librarianship. Having speakers from various careers, local employers, and library internships helps to show opportunity youth that there are so many careers and places that they could go regardless of the circumstances of their childhood.

This presentation also briefly outlined the restorative practices for youth which were discussed in other sessions. What I took away from this is the importance of choice. When we categorize ‘offenses’ in clear ways and provide options for teens who violate rules to move forward, we are not only taking care of the rule violation but also giving these teens a safe place to learn problem solving and reasoning. Beyond that, it gives them agency — and that is one of the biggest things I advocate for as a teen services worker. I absolutely will be implementing these practices at my library and advocating for some of the changes which the UCL’s CYO initiative made that had positive and lasting impacts.

I attended many incredible sessions at this year’s PLA conference, and I can’t wait to put what I learned into practice. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity and to use it in turn to create opportunities at my library!

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