Voices of tomorrow: PA Humanities’ convening on youth-led programming

September 19, 2023
Zyahna Bryant, right, brainstorms with teens from PA Humanities' Youth-Led Humanities programs about topics to discuss and what they want adults to know at the Community Culture Changers Convening at 3 Dots Downtown in State College in August.

By Karen Price

Zyahna Bryant was just 12 years old when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. 

She may have been young, but that didn’t stop the Charlottesville, Virginia native from leading a rally for justice in her hometown. From that moment forward, Bryant has been a community organizer working to create change around issues of race and inequity. Now 22 and a graduate student, Bryant shared her story at PA Humanities’ Community Culture Changers Convening at 3 Dots Downtown in State College in August. The gathering brought together facilitators, librarians, administrators, and teens from across the state who participated this summer in PA Humanities’ Teen Reading Lounge and Youth-Led Humanities programming as well as Project READY, a professional development program for librarians who serve youth of color, sponsored by the PA Office of Commonwealth Libraries. 

“I wish that there were more spaces like this where there’s a constant learning process for adults who are working with youth to continue to learn what works and what doesn’t and constantly assess that,” said Bryant, who was named one of Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21 Young People Changing the World in 2019. “And to have young people at the heart of that assessment, I think, is brilliant. It gets right to the core of the people who should be answering some of those questions about ‘Are we effective?’ I’m really glad I had the opportunity to help facilitate that.”

Librarians, facilitators and administrators from across the state listen to teens as they talk about feeling unheard, their ideas and their passions.

PA Humanities founded Teen Reading Lounge (TRL) in 2010 in partnership with librarians, educators, artists, and scholars on the belief that encouraging youth to choose creative programs based on their own interests is crucial to adolescent development. The new Youth-Led Humanities (YLH) cohort uses best practices identified through more than 10 years of TRL research to help facilitators in libraries and afterschool programs create sustainable, youth-led humanities programming and engagement. The second YLH cohort starts this fall. 

This summer’s gathering was an opportunity to bring together those who are working to build an inclusive and welcoming space where diverse groups of young people can use the tools of the humanities to explore what’s important to them. 

Bryant, who supported funding for public education at a panel alongside Bernie Sanders, created the Black Student Union at her high school, and petitioned the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee when she was a teenager, was the keynote speaker.

“I like learning about books and stuff you’re interested in. It makes you feel comfortable about growing up and being true to yourself and learning how to be an adult, learning how to be your true self with other people.”

Rose Shikanga, teen Youth-Led Humanities program participant from Sayre Public Library

In addition to discussing her experiences as a young leader, Bryant supported teens to plan and present their own youth-led panel discussion for the adult participants. She asked questions of the teens including when was a time that they felt unheard and what did that feel like, what would it look like if school officials implemented their ideas, what leadership opportunities they have now and what they are passionate about.

Sophia Hyatt, 14, who was part of Sayre Public Library’s Youth-Led Humanities program in north central Pennsylvania, shared that she drew up a plan to bring more diverse books to her district’s elementary school, but it was denied by administrators. Shania Spivey, who participated through St. Hubert’s Out Of School Time programming in Philadelphia, shared that students who wanted to start a Black Student Union at her school were met with opposition. 

Bryant also asked how they’d like to see young people represented. Hyatt and Spivey both said that while students are invited to share feedback at their schools, the adults don’t always listen to what they have to say and don’t include them in decision-making and creation of policies and programs. Rose Shikanga, a teen who was also part of Sayre’s Youth-Led Humanities program, said she’d like to see more adults give time and resources to what young people say they want and need.

“We have ideas and we are knowledgeable,” Shikanga said. “We’re not just immature.”

Shikanga said she was grateful for the Teen Reading Lounge and Youth-Led Humanities programs because the adult facilitators care about teenagers and are willing to listen to them and help them.

Keynote speaker Bryant, right, facilitates a question and answer session with three of the teen participants in PA Humanities’ Youth-Led Humanities programming, from left, Sophia Hyatt, Shania Spivey and Rose Shikanga.

“I like learning about books and stuff you’re interested in,” she said. “It makes you feel comfortable about growing up and being true to yourself and learning how to be an adult, learning how to be your true self with other people.”

Spivey enjoys the freedom of TRL and YLH, which is held after school at St. Hubert’s.

“I get to be myself in a school setting, which is really great for me because some people might think I’m a little bit of an oddball, although personally I think I’m not,” she said. “So I really like to be able to be myself and help other students and other children be themselves around adults.”

Hyatt appreciated having the opportunity to meet and talk with Bryant and learn how she was able to have an influence and change the things around her, even at a young age. 

“And I really enjoyed having the opportunity to interact with youth who, like me, just want to be heard and have a voice in the world and make an impact in their community,” Hyatt said. “I appreciate that there are adults here who are nothing but supportive of that goal and they’re here to help us.”

Special thanks to facilitators and collaborators Aurora Sanchez, Valerie Adams-Bass, Fatima Hafiz, Corri Hines and the Office of Commonwealth Libraries!

Saying hello to members of the cohort joining virtually.

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