“It wasn’t easy for her to go to school because people yelled at her and threw things at her and called her names,” said 15 year old Tynaria of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, who was the first African American student to attend an all-white public school in the South in 1960.
Tynaria spoke softly about her admiration for Bridges into a microphone connected to mobile podcast recording equipment along with her friend, Miracle. Dwan Walker, mayor of Aliquippa, sat across the table and listened.
“She fights for what she wants,” Miracle told Walker. “I would be terrified walking in a school of people who aren’t like me.”
The teens had spent the weeks prior to the recording alongside peers in their Teen Reading Lounge group, a reading and civic engagement club created by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, discussing books about prominent African American figures in honor of Black History Month.
Working together they created trifold presentations and prepared anxiously for the culminating event: creating podcasts and showcasing their work to community leaders at BF Jones Memorial Library.
“They were really nervous about the presentations but once the day came that all went away,” said Kristen Janci, Youth Services Librarian.
BF Jones Memorial Library has been making a concerted effort to foster community dialogue and bring a diversity of people to the table in a region working hard to reinvent itself and reconcile with its past. Engaging youth in innovative ways has been a key part of that effort — and it has been working.
After listening to their presentation, Walker, who was elected Aliquippa’s first African American mayor in 2012, told Tynaria and Miracle that they were stronger and braver than they know. He commended them for their interest in the civil rights movement, connecting it to their own community’s history.
“Back in the day they had twelve schools in Aliquippa, twelve schools, and they segregated you by ethnicity and by race,” Walker told them. “Where you lived on each plan dictated which school you went to — imagine that.”
A Wounded Community
“There are past wounds,” said Ann Andrews, director of BF Jones Memorial Library. “Unfortunately, because of poverty and some past issues in Aliquippa we deal with a stigma.”
That stigma has its roots in a long history of segregation going back to Aliquippa’s development as a company town by Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation in the early 20th century. As workers poured into the area looking for decent paying jobs, they were separated by race and ethnicity into different neighborhoods.
The high demand for US steel led to a period of great prosperity for Aliquippa but when that demand eventually began to dry up it had a crippling effect on the economy. By the 1980s, the last remnants of the steel industry closed shop, leading to increasing blight and abandonment. In 1987, the city was declared a “distressed community” by the state under Act 47, citing a “continually deteriorating financial and economic picture.”
The jobs were gone but racial and socioeconomic divisions remained, further strained by the downturn. Aliquippa, once considered the ideal place to raise a family, struggled to adjust to a new economic reality — one that didn’t include Big Steel.
Bridging Time and Place
The BF Jones Memorial Library, colloquially known as the “crown jewel” of Aliquippa, exists as a bridge between time and place. Built in 1927 in the Renaissance Revival style, it features vaulted ceilings, a limestone facade, solid mahogany and brass doors, and intricate woodwork throughout. The exquisite attention to detail reflects the immense wealth of the library’s namesake, steel tycoon Benjamin Franklin Jones, whose lifesize bronze statue greets visitors in the foyer.
The building’s opulence is a conspicuous bridge to the community’s once mighty past, when the library catered to a more affluent population.
Many of today’s patrons, drawn from communities throughout the region, face issues of economic insecurity and are looking for more than just book lending. In response, the library has added services like resume workshops, flu shots, and classes that bolster job skills.
“We have a very diverse population that use the library,” said Andrews. “People in the community are really attracted to our services.”
The programming has been especially appealing to young people. The library pulls students from four school districts: Aliquippa, Hopewell, Central Valley, and South Side. Each district’s population is demographically distinct and the library is actively bringing together families that wouldn’t otherwise meet. They are lured by the special events, activities, a large young adult book collection, and, of course, free afterschool snacks.
“It’s great to bring the kids together,” said Andrews. “Whatever happened in the past or whatever people are struggling with, this is now. That is invaluable.”
Last fall, the library added to the momentum by creating a new media lab that helps young people express their creativity and build technical skills in digital media production.
BF Jones Memorial Library takes its role as a bridge between disparate communities seriously, continually doing outreach, experimenting with scheduling, developing new programs, and helping to build a stronger community.
This focus on community development is something libraries across the country are embracing. American Library Association President Loida Garcia-Febo recently suggested that the public needs to recognize libraries as places that build strong communities, not just as depositories for books. “They support community engagement and the delivery of new services that connect closely with patrons’ needs,” she said.
Youth Take the Lead
One program on BF Jones’ roster that’s having growing appeal is Teen Reading Lounge, the popular youth-directed reading and civic engagement club. Started in 2015, it has expanded to three groups representing young people from throughout the Aliquippa area. The teens gather to read books together, discuss important issues raised in their discussions, and then find ways to put the humanities into action to benefit the community.
“Teen Reading Lounge provides important resources and an effective way to engage youth — something really solid,” said Andrews.
The teens that took part in the podcasting event were at a group organized off-site at Aliquippa Impact, a nearby nonprofit serving at-risk youth.
When Kristen Janci first reached out to the nonprofit to bring their kids to the library there were transportation issues, so she decided to roll up her sleeves and bring Teen Reading Lounge to them, facilitating it herself. Mary Getz, Cohort Coordinator at Aliquippa Impact, is grateful for the outreach by the library and says the program is creating opportunities that would otherwise not be provided to their youth.
“One of the ways that young people learn to create change is by finding their voice and using it to tell their story,” said Getz. “Teen Reading Lounge helps our students cultivate important skills to do just that by creating positive dialogue around subjects that are important to them.”
Janci says she just wanted to make sure underserved populations had the opportunity to benefit from the library and Teen Reading Lounge was the right approach for that.
“There’s a community aspect to it; we welcome everyone in and make them feel like family,” she said. “That appeals to a diverse group.”
The library is one of more than 80 Teen Reading Lounge sites across the state that have been sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council since 2010. Core to the program are the civic projects inspired by the teens’ humanities discussions. These could be simple acts of service, or in the case of the youth at BF Jones, large scale events like last year’s blockbuster community carnival.
The Teen Reading Lounge group had read books about young people who made a difference and discussed how they could honor local heroes in the Aliquippa area. They came up with the idea of a community carnival with a human rights theme, inviting nearby groups and people that were making a difference.
The event’s popularity surprised everyone. People from the surrounding areas flocked to the library to talk to the community groups, eat food, play games, and mingle.
“We hadn’t done anything like that before, never on that scale,” said Janci. “We had the local chapter of the NAACP all the way to the fire department.”
The teens’ community carnival is coming back again this year and may become a permanent annual event — a testament to the power of young people to help strengthen the bonds of a community.
“I really appreciate how Ann and Kristen see the library as a community center, a place for everyone,” said Jennifer Honess, a social worker who facilitates the Teen Reading Lounge group and assisted with the community carnival. “There are not a lot of places where kids can take the lead and volunteer but BF Jones allows them to do that.”
Healing Past Wounds
Segregation was built into the original plan of Aliquippa but the BF Jones Memorial Library is helping to erode those long-standing divisions and make space for residents to reconcile with their past.
“Aliquippa is a beautiful place and the library is one branch of that tree that brings hope and life to the community,” said mayor Walker. “That library’s healing people, it’s definitely healing people.”
The old narrative that Aliquippa’s best days are behind it are being replaced with new ideas for a better future.
Ann Andrews thinks there is a lot to be optimistic about. “This is a good time for Aliquippa, things are on an upswing,” she said. “We are headed toward a better economic and social standard — there’s been a lot of activity that’s growing a sense of pride in the community.”
Much of the conversation about making positive change in Aliquippa is happening at the library and it is young people who are taking the lead and building up their own self-confidence along the way.
“[The Ruby Bridges podcast project] helped me realize that no matter how many people try to stop you from being successful, if you want it bad enough go get it,” said Tynaria. “It made me think about all of the activities I had quit because people told me I wasn’t good enough… it made me want to go for my dreams.”
Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, generous individuals, foundations, and corporations.