Humanities in Action Interview: Carla Christopher

April 21, 2016

Former York poet laureate is Teen Reading Lounge facilitator working to engage youth in the humanities

Martin Memorial Library in York, Pennsylvania, is one of the fifteen public libraries that will be launching Teen Reading Lounge this spring. Carla Christopher, a champion of the humanities who has already made an impact on youth in York, will be the program facilitator.

Besides being the York poet laureate from 2011-2013, Christopher is a publisher, event producer and educator. She has won multiple awards for her work in poetry and has been recognized by the National Federation of Poetry Societies and the Pennsylvania Poetry Society.

Christopher’s passion for arts, culture, literature and education will definitely bring humanities to the front and center of Martin’s Teen Reading Lounge program. Martin’s teen program coordinator, Dawn States, and Christopher worked closely together to shape the program to focus on personal motivation, identity and resilience.

Participating teens will read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper as well as other novels that address social biases, overcoming obstacles and encourage a journey toward self-understanding. They will also have the opportunity to visit Studio 117 (a production studio), York City Pretzel Co. and The Rooted Artist Collective during the six-session program. Christopher hopes that by participating in Teen Reading Lounge, teens will gain hope and possibility as they interact with their peers, professionals and artists.

In mid-March, we had the opportunity to interview Christopher about her experiences and her involvement with developing diverse humanities programming for teens.

How did you first become involved with Teen Reading Lounge?

I am a cultural educator with Martin Library, which lets me go into York City Public Schools to teach students about Native American, Black American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander culture and arts. I also help judge the library’s literary contests and facilitate cultural programming like a recent Black History Month Arts & Culture series. Martin’s director of children’s programming, Paula Gilbert, is one of the most proactive and dynamic idea-having women I have ever met. When she heard about Teen Reading Lounge, she knew it would be fantastic for the library, and she approached me to see if we could brainstorm interaction and engagement-filled ways to bring the program to Martin.

This session of Teen Reading Lounge at Martin Library has an entrepreneurial focus. What influenced that decision?

It wasn’t enough for Dawn, Paula, and myself to have our students read and discuss books in a vacuum. We wanted to create an environment where our readers could see themselves in the books, could see how understanding and adapting the skills characters used into real-life situations made reading a practical, beneficial and worthwhile endeavor. Reading isn’t just fun, it’s fundamental. We couldn’t think of any better way to drive that point home than to have students read books about inspiring characters that achieve incredible things despite extraordinary challenges and then introduce students to individuals from their own communities who have done the same thing – but in real life.

When designing the program, what was discussed and decided upon in order to ensure that the program accurately reflects the needs, interests and development for the teens involved in the program?

The most fabulous part of our Teen Reading Lounge team is that Dawn States, the teen services coordinator at the library, does tons of one-on-one work with City teens on a daily basis. Since both she and I have been in the city, every single day, working with these students, we were able to talk about what we observed first-hand; where our students struggled or gave up, and what kept them engaged or excited. We also, and I can’t stress the importance of this enough, took the time to ASK students what they needed. Too often, well-meaning but ill-advised program developers or facilitators TELL participants what they will be given, without asking those involved what THEY want and need. Investment and a feeling of empowerment and autonomy has been key to continued engagement for all of my work with middle and high school students.

How do you think this program will help to improve interpersonal/social skills?

We are interested in providing students spaces to discuss, interact, and ask questions on all levels. Book discussions encourage peer-to-peer sharing, and the field trips give students a chance to interact with all different types of professionals and artists. We want these students ready for higher education, the workplace, a diverse world full of social connections waiting to happen. They need to be able to navigate all of those situations with confidence to be successful in 2016 America.

In what ways will teens be able to express creativity?

Students will be painting, cooking, writing poetry or short stories, recording their own pieces at a professional studio, evaluating performances, making business plans for their own businesses and more. 

Can you tell me about your experiences working with low-income youth in the York area?

As Martin’s cultural educator, I visit schools throughout the city. These students are talented, resourceful and full of energy…but not full of hope or a sense of possibility. What they see around them doesn’t inspire that. I had the same experience working with the Strand Capitol Performing Arts Center to do a year-long creative writing workshop at William Penn Senior High School, York City’s local high school. The work these students created was insightful and mature, but often painful to read. I want to help them believe in more for themselves, and show them roadmaps, provide them with tools to get there.

Why is it important to develop culturally relevant programming for youth?

In America we still take a lot of pride in our communities or culture origin. From St. Patrick’s Day green to English and Welsh Christmas carols, we see the brighter side of European culture as part of our American life all the time. Most Black American students, because of the brutal cultural erasing of the slave trade, or my Native students, because of their tribe’s displacement and oppression, have no knowledge of their origins, and what history they do know is not a legacy of celebration but one of pain and subjugation. I am learning more and more how hard it is to have pride in yourself in 2016 when you don’t have pride in your past, in your heritage and your culture. I try to give that back to my students. By showing them the art, the music, the history of achievement, and the legacy of strength, I want to help students learn that they too have those abilities within them. They are more than the descendants of slaves, displaced immigrants and oppressed peoples – which is all they come to me knowing.

Our Teen Reading Lounge program is using this same ideal, showing students the power of possibility, by providing examples of achievement through carefully selected stories and characters that we hope our readers will identify with.

What is the arts and culture scene in York like?

As a small city, there is a lot of overlap between different genres of art and different projects because artists often share venues or spaces and we hear about what other people are doing. We have a scene heavy with collaboration, improvisation, and experimentation. I perform as a solo poet, as a spoken word artist, as part of a poetry ensemble that performs with a percussionist called Poetic Voices, and as a singing blues/jazz poet with the ensemble Groove Ink. I have been the guest poet on a rock CD and a soul CD and written poems that have been turned into paintings for at least three different art shows.

When did you first get involved in the humanities?

[I’ve been] an avid reader and writer from as soon as I could hold a book. I entered and won my first poetry contest in the fifth grade and I was hooked from then on. Reading took me around the world, through history, and showed me how things worked. I could make my own pace, determine my own focus…reading was very empowering for me as a young person.

Tell me about your experience being a poet laureate.

Although being the laureate was a position of service, I learned so much from the position that it felt like a gift to me as well. I learned about York history in my research to write commissioned work, I met inspirationally talented students in my school visits, I traveled across the entire state doing performances as York’s representative, and I refined my teaching style and got lots of new ideas from the teen and adult participants in the workshops that I facilitated. It was a busy three years but ones I wouldn’t trade for anything!

What skills do you believe one can build from writing, discussing, and/or reading poetry and literature?

To have insight, to be able to problem-solve and envision solutions, to respond in a flexible way to disappointment or challenge. I believe it’s important to have examples to draw from; reading and discussing build a mental bank of creativity currency for students who might have limited “real-life” experience and promote comprehension and application.

Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite poems? Tell me about your favorite book.

I love Maya Angelou. I saw her once in Detroit as a high school student and her powerful presence, her slow and thoughtful voice and beautiful, accessibly worded poetry became a lifelong inspiration to me. I saw her again, as Poet Laureate, at York College, shortly before she passed away and I thought, if she could inspire this much in me, how many others did she have the same effect on? The power of one person following their dreams, working to perfect their craft, and then being willing to share it, hit me then, in a way that continues to get me out of bed in the morning. One of my favorite phrases is “You will never know most of the good you do.”

I love Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” as well as “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Leonard Cohen, almost anything by Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, although my favorite is “Song of Myself.” I also am a huge fan of Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Mary Oliver, and lots of local poets. My favorite fiction books are The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love intense character studies that offer prophetic or deeply insightful social commentary and time/place analysis through a single personal story.

Related Stories

Stay Up To Date

Sign up for the PA Humanities newsletter now.