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“‘Community development’ sounds so overwhelming, but stories are universal,” says Jessica Herzing, the dynamic Cameron County Project coordinator. In 2016, Herzing decided to stop complaining about local policy decisions from the sidelines and started listening to residents, attending community meetings, and learning more about what makes Cameron County tick. The stories she discovered opened her up to the diverse perspectives in her community and that eventually led her to help create The Cameron County Project in 2017, an organization whose aim is a “campaign of storytelling and resident-driven visioning.” Last year, The Cameron County Project officially joined the network of Pennsylvania Heart & Soul communities, supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council in partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. Herzing’s role as coordinator is sponsored by her employer Judd Schager, CPA, who is also the treasurer for Cameron County Community Chest -- a local organization offering financial support to the project. Schager says Herzing is a “natural fit to head up the project.” Tina Solak, Executive Director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “Jessica's passion about her hometown serves as a beacon for all of us, no matter what place we call home,” she said. “The coordinator of this project needed passion and analytical skills -- Jessica fills both of those requirements.” In this Q&A, we caught up with Herzing to learn more about the exciting momentum of The Cameron County Project and how storytelling and resident engagement are being used to fuel this bottom-up approach to community development. *** How would you describe the Cameron County Project? The Cameron County Project is a grassroots community project with the goal of encouraging residents to re-engage with Cameron County. Its intention is to build a sense of pride in what makes our county so special. Sometimes in a small community it’s easy to focus on what you don’t have, and that can bring down the morale of residents. This project is about promoting what we love as residents and using that to create more positive conversations about Cameron County that help our decision makers better represent us all as they take on planning for our future. We plan to create a Resident Visioning Study for the County and an Action Plan on implementing resident values and ideas that will work in conjunction with the 2019 Tri-County Comprehensive Plan. The raw data will also be available for use through a searchable database that can aid in future research, decision-making, and implementation needs. Why did you get involved with this project? For me, building the Cameron County Project has been a labor of love going back to 2016. Back then, I was a masquerading as an engaged citizen, complaining about the decisions being made on my behalf by our local government and agencies. I had this moment where I realized that if I really wanted to know what I was complaining about, I needed to dig in and start attending community meetings and join some local clubs. After spending time at township, school board, and Rotary Club meetings, I quickly realized what I thought I knew was wrong and if I was having that epiphany, other residents probably would, too. In October 2016, I was invited to attend a Community Heart & Soul information session in Ridgway. I, along with Commissioner Lori Reed and Chamber of Commerce Director Tina Solak, left that presentation so inspired by the idea of activating the residents, lifting their voices, and inviting everyone to take a seat at the table. We saw this as a way to reinvigorate our communities and that’s when the Cameron County Project started. What do you love about Cameron County? It’s so cliché, but what don’t I love about Cameron County? I love that our communities rally together in a time of need or tragedy. I love that sense of belonging when you walk down the street and people wave and say “Hello” or call you by name. I love that people always ask, “Who do you belong to?” when trying to figure out how you fit into the community puzzle. If you don’t have a familiar last name, they follow it with “How did you end up here?” I love that my children are supported by our neighbors, who have become like family. I adore that we’re surrounded by opportunities to enjoy nature and all the recreation that comes along with that. I love that we boast some of the darkest skies in the state, but I can take a day trip to Pittsburgh, Erie, or Buffalo with little issue. I moved away from Cameron County three days after I graduated from Cameron County High School, in 2005, with the intention to never come back. Having lived in Harrisburg, Greensburg, and the Pittsburgh area – I’ve gained this new appreciation for the slower pace of life afforded by living in rural Emporium located right in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds. You often use hashtags like #MyCameronCounty and #CamCoProud. Why is it important for residents, particularly those in Cameron County, to take pride in their community? There is a trend of focusing on what Cameron County lacks because we’ve seen some real downturns in industry and decreases in population over the last couple decades. More recently, some backlash has been felt over the blighted buildings that needed to come down which draws a very real contrast to our glory days. Nothing breaks you down more than feeling like you’re stuck in a community that’s dying around you, watching your history being torn down or sitting empty, day in and day out. #CamCoProud is a way to show off what residents think is awesome here. When someone posts something they love; a place they visited, a news article about a positive thing that happened, a local organization that did something remarkable – it’s our goal they tag it #CamCoProud to highlight the awesome things we should be 100% proud of, the things that only Cameron County can offer. With a new pride-filled perspective, every empty lot, building, and house, can be an opportunity - for growth, economic development, or positive change. What events have you held so far and how have they been received? We “ballooned” Cameron County to celebrate being designated as a Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Community, and to announce our partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation. That was fun! We tied green and silver balloons on all the parking meters in the Borough of Emporium, on the Emporium Welcome Center Train Caboose, and at local businesses in Sterling Run, Driftwood, and Sinnemahoning. Residents looked at us funny and were asking, “What exactly are we celebrating?” It created some really great conversations about the project and what we’re working towards. We also partnered with our local Fair Association to hold the Cameron County Cookout last summer and had the best time talking with the residents that came. They had some fantastic stories and we were so humbled by the donations we received from local organizations. We’ve been so fortunate to create partnerships with community groups that have opened doors for us to collect stories from our residents – we haven’t had to plan many events ourselves. This is especially true of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce, the Cameron County School District, and the Cameron County Family Center. Through their kindness and support of our mission, we’ve been able to have tables and speak at big local events. It has opened up opportunities to teach kids about the idea of a community which has allowed us to collect so many stories from the children and teenagers in our county. How is the Heart & Soul process getting residents involved in community development in Cameron County? Like other small, rural communities, Cameron County has really low attendance from residents at decision maker meetings. It’s also hard for residents to get timely information -- we only have two newspapers that are published once a week and our local governments and municipalities don’t have a huge online presence or hold limited office hours. These factors can create a wall for residents to receive the information they need to be adequately informed and voice their opinions. The Cameron County Project’s ability to apply Heart & Soul to our residents means we can take the “collective idea bucket” to the residents, meeting them where they are, in a way that makes sense to them. By allowing everyone the opportunity to share their story and what they love about our community, we can have positive conversations about tough issues and make sure that everyone’s hopes, concerns, and ideas are part of how the county moves forward. Why is getting people involved so important? As a resident, I know that it can sometimes feel like your way of thinking is not in line with the decisions being made. When you aren’t sure how to go about being heard in a constructive way or feel like no one would care even if you did, it’s easy to fall into a habit of “nay-saying” those decisions to your friends, neighbors, or on social media. Community Heart & Soul is so great about overcoming that frustration and bridging the barriers to being heard. If you can’t attend a 10AM Commissioner meeting, that’s ok – we’ll meet you when your shift ends. If you can’t make it to the 7PM School Board or Township meeting because you don’t have a sitter – that’s ok, we’ll meet you when it makes sense for you. If you want to be heard, and share your story, we’ll find a way to make it work so your voice is part of the greater conversation. Just because you can’t make it to a meeting, don’t know exactly who needs to hear your idea, or how to best get it where it needs to go -- doesn’t mean your ideas are less valuable than anyone else’s. This project’s goal is to reach those people, have a friendly conversation, remind them how awesome and important they are, and help direct them and their ideas in the right direction. What role do you think storytelling plays in community development? “Community development” sounds so overwhelming, but stories are universal. Our stories are what make us who we are and explain how we each view our communities. I think it’s through our stories that we see that my Cameron County is different than my neighbor’s Cameron County but each of our experiences and views is so vital to how we as a community come together to make decisions about our future. If you can just share what you love about Cameron County then we can have a conversation about your past and your hopes and wishes for the community. There is so much powerful data about what you value and what you cherish about this place we share. People don’t even realize that it’s the things they love that our decision makers most need to hear. The most interesting trend at this stage in the story gathering process is how different the Northern Tier and the Southern Tier are in their hopes and concerns within similar age groups. Bridging that divide has always been a challenge, but I’m excited to see how this project brings together both parts of our county. Another interesting thing we found in our interviews was that the high school students said they most valued the feeling of belonging to a community. They really seem to value how much their neighbors care about them and how that makes them feel. They also have some pretty implementable ideas: a Teen Lounge for homework, more opportunities to pursue artistic outlets outside of school, even just answering the question, “How can we cover the cost to rent a local indoor gym for a basketball game once a week?” These are conversations we’ve been having with local organizations and businesses to see how we can act on their practical requests. What change would you like to see in Cameron County in the coming years? I’d love to see more people at decision maker meetings. I’ve attended too many where I’m the only person from the public. I always learn the most powerfully positive things at those meetings that change my point of view about a decision being made. I think of decision-making in a community like throwing stones into a pond. No major decisions are made overnight. An idea is “thrown” and it ripples through being presented, discussed, mulled over, and as the ripple hits the shore, it’s enacted. I’d love to see more people at meetings when the stone is thrown, rather than waiting until the ripple almost reaches the shore. Related Content Pennsylvania Humanities Council And Partners Bring $130,000 In Funding, Training And Technical Support To Upper Chichester And Cameron County Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Profile: Cameron County Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities
Ukuleles, ugly sweaters, laughs, tears, and a sloth named Tibbers. The debut of Teen Reading Lounge, a youth-led, book discussion program at Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, was anything but dull. Even the lures of screen time and competing after-school activities couldn’t deter the dedicated group of young readers from coming back week after week to dive deep into the discussions. “The kids just kept saying that they didn’t want it to end,” said Tina Cunningham, the adult facilitator for the group. “They just wanted us to keep meeting.” The program is made possible thanks to a generous sponsorship from Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery, Inc., a family-owned company with deep ties in Blair County. The company’s president, Ann Benzel, represents the fourth generation of the family to run the pretzel business. She prioritizes giving back to the community and has a record of public service in the arts and humanities. “For me, philanthropy has always been about making tangible change in people’s lives by underwriting things that are important,” said Benzel. “Being able to give teens the tools and support they need in this endeavor is very rewarding.” With Benzel’s help, the library was not only able to start Teen Reading Lounge but it could finally update the furnishings and ditch the drab colors in the teen area that had become like kryptonite to young people. “The space wasn't teen-friendly,” said Cunningham. "It looked like the kind of place where you wouldn't be allowed to sit down." The new space is brightly colored with cozy chairs aplenty and a guitar in the corner -- just in case singing breaks out (which it does.) The casual setting is drawing in young people to the new Teen Reading Lounge program, where they can hang out and talk openly about issues they feel are important without fear of judgement. Creating supportive spaces away from the stresses of school and social media has become part of the new community role many libraries are embracing, bolstered by recent research on the impact of belonging to learning and development. "We get to actually express our feelings and no one feels left out or scared,” said Spencer, one of the teen participants. “We’ve become like a family.” Teen Reading Lounge is youth-led but the adults still play an important role. Staff are given extensive training and ongoing support to ensure the best environment for youth development. Conversations between young people can be difficult, especially when they wade into complex subjects like identity, religion, and politics. Adults are trained to create a safe environment where humanities discussions can take root and teens can assume leadership responsibilities. “It can be a challenge to let go and give teens the reins but it has really helped the library strengthen its relationship with the kids,” said Melanie Ramsey, Director of Youth and Children's Services at the library. Since teens run the show, each Teen Reading Lounge site across Pennsylvania is unique. At Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, the group came up with a way to ensure everybody’s voice could be heard. Enter Tibbers, the beloved toy sloth who is passed around like a “talking stick.” “Everyone loves Tibbers,” said Cunningham. “His job is to make sure everyone is respected and knows they’ll get a chance to talk.” Tibbers has become a symbol for the mutual respect of the youth community, encouraging active listening and respect for the speaker in a way that is accessible. The conversations he oversees are mostly fun but they can veer into the serious and even tearful. A discussion about The Perks of Being a Wallflower became especially sensitive. The group saw much of themselves in novel's main character, Charlie, a shy boy with an aptitude for literature. The often tortuous drama Charlie experiences in high school led to group conversations about acceptance and the trials of navigating young adulthood. Ramsey said that providing space for tears is important for social emotional learning. “We talked a lot with the teens about the ways books can teach you empathy,” she said. “Teen Reading Lounge is giving them experiences they maybe wouldn’t otherwise have.” A 2018 data analysis conducted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit supports Ramsey’s assertion. It found that Teen Reading Lounge actively builds participants’ social awareness and increases understanding other perspectives -- particularly among rural youth. Along with weighty discussions of big ideas and social challenges, participants have ample opportunity to build relationships and collaborate. The Hollidaysburg teens got to know and trust each other while “baking” microwave mug cakes, learning to play ukuleles from a local expert, creating mood boards, and holding an ugly sweater Christmas party. "I was able to meet some people who I have gotten very close to," said Alma, a teen participant. “Teen Reading Lounge is a fun new thing to get into." With this pilot session successfully under their belt, Cunningham and Ramsey are recruiting for future sessions. “I tell them, ‘we have so much fun, there are great snacks, a great group of kids, great conversation, a cozy place,’” said Cunningham. “‘We won’t make you talk, we won’t make you sing.’” But, she admitted, “There is lots of talking and singing.” 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. Related Content Teen Reading Lounge Program Info Berks County Library Expands Youth Leadership Opportunities With Teen Reading Lounge How A Philadelphia Librarian Created A Thriving Community Of Teens Teen Reading Lounge Inspires Healthier Model For Dialogue, Nurtures Empathy Teens Build Social Skills, Process Tragedy At Teen Reading Lounge Group In Northumberland This YA Novel Sparked A Project To Help Erie’s Homeless Population
Learn how a reading-based library program builds teen social emotional skills In 2010 the Pennsylvania Humanities Council created Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), an interactive discussion program that uses the humanities to build social emotional learning skills in youth. Over the 8 years TRL has been out in the field, we’ve worked with over 80 libraries, schools and community-based organizations across Pennsylvania to engage over 1,000 young people from a variety of backgrounds. The program is built on the belief that the humanities can cultivate curiosity, empathy, critical-thinking, social awareness, and perseverance. There are three key steps to building a Teen Reading Lounge experience: featured texts chosen by participating youth; peer-to-peer discussion and dialogue of the themes and issues explored in the readings; and development of hands-on activities and projects to deepen youth’s understanding of the issues brought up in discussion. Projects often incorporate a community engagement or volunteer component as youth begin to connect the readings to issues present in their lives and communities. The program framework is intentionally simple and flexible. There are no required reading lists or must-do projects. Site staff, local educators and youth work together to build a curriculum that’s relevant and meaningful to them. Research around positive youth development cites this as a best practice; developing programs in collaboration with youth that meets their developmental needs and interests ensures they’ll stick with the experience longer. That sustained participation can yield higher levels of engagement and stronger outcomes. When we’re talking about building social emotional learning skills, the more time youth get to practice these skills the more likely they are to become a permanent part of behavior. We’re also working with sites and youth to improve the model and share promising strategies. This is done through youth feedback loops and practitioner community of practice calls. A spirit of experimentation and exploration is baked into the model. The reflective nature of the wrap-around supports is essential to making the learning stick for both youth and the adults overseeing the program. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social emotional learning (SEL) “enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.” SEL consists of growth in five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Teen Reading Lounge cultivates these competencies by inviting youth to be active participants in their learning and personal development. The humanities are a natural fit for these activities because they invite us to explore the human experience by analyzing circumstances and choices as a way to build knowledge about how we live our lives. Teen Reading Lounge programs have taken place in a variety of settings and deployed a variety of strategies to engage youth in skill development and learning. This too is intentional – and part of what makes the experience unique for each site. As youth workers, all our hand-wringing about sticking to a set agenda, or accomplishing narrowly defined goals, can fail to give young people the opportunity to be their own leaders. It is the spaces between our agenda items where teens so often shine -- making decisions as a group, establishing rules, cooperating and dealing with conflict. As the following examples demonstrate, expanding these opportunities can be more important than having control of the outcome. Growing Empathy at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School Teen Reading Lounge was developed in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and initially all participating programs sites were public libraries. But in 2017, PHC expanded the program to include high schools and a variety of other youth-serving organizations. A small, dedicated group launched at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia that year, led by out-of-school time program coordinator, Jo Bradley, and language arts teacher, Samantha Dugan. One text the group explored was Liliana Velásquez’s Dreams and Nightmares, a gripping first-person account of the author’s solo journey from Guatemala to the United States when she was just fourteen. Together the girls participated in a series of conversations about the book, which led to them sharing stories of their parents’ immigration experience. Three of the teens in the group were children of Vietnamese immigrants and the novel made them acutely aware of their own families’ struggles. One of the young girls remarked that Liliana’s account of her journey to an unfamiliar land made her reflect on her own parents’ journey to the United States. She spoke of building empathy for them, hinting at a growing understanding of the immigrant experience. The group was fortunate to meet the author in person, an activity facilitated by the dedicated adults overseeing the program. This experience provided a rich learning opportunity for the group as they were able to hear more about Liliana’s story first-hand. They fired off questions to Liliana, eager to better understand the choices she made, how she navigated some life-threatening situations and what impact the experience had – and still has – on her. The program coordinators were careful not to dictate the questions asked during this Q & A session or control this exchange; it was important for youth to drive this discussion on their own. Embracing their creative control, the students’ final project based on Velásquez’s Dreams and Nightmares was something novel and unexpected. They applied their religious education to develop a secretly coded Bible for immigrants. This ingeniously covert travel guide gave survival instructions, directions to safe locations and other life-saving advice. Through discussion and interactions with Liliana, the group was able to tease out some of what the immigrant experience might be like and brainstormed solutions to help individuals navigate unfamiliar and hostile terrain. This project brought the group closer together while allowing them the opportunity to develop interpersonal skills. The group also explored the concepts of self-management, self-awareness and social awareness. A graduating senior in the group reflected on the experience saying, “On the news we see adults shouting at each other and getting upset but Teen Reading Lounge gave us a positive example of how you can discuss complicated issues and that has really grown my interest in being a more participative citizen.” Processing Tragedy at Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library When the Parkland, Florida school shooting happened this year, Priestley-Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, PA, was in the midst of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as their featured Teen Reading Lounge text. The book was selected because of its relatability to the participating youth’s life and developmental stage; many of them were middle schoolers about to transition to high school and were eager to discuss the changing landscapes of their academic and social worlds. Then the Parkland tragedy hit the national media – and the conversations began to take on a sense of urgency about rampant school violence and fears about safety. Although it was heartbreaking and unexpected to have these conversations, librarian Kim King and local teacher Renee Albertson, who were co-facilitating the program, recognized that the opportunity for youth to talk about Parkland was more important than whatever expectations they had for the program. Kim remarked, “We did not anticipate this discussion, but we knew we had to make space for it so we adapted our plan. It was important to give our group a voice and help them see they could navigate unexpected situations. We all needed time to reflect on what was happening nationally.” Alice’s journey “down the rabbit hole” – previously viewed as exciting and new – became a mirror for the growing disorientation, fear and hopelessness teens felt about the Parkland shooting. The shooting had stirred consciousness of their vulnerability and in this process, youth revealed a growing disillusionment about their safety. They felt like they had entered a new world where things were more unpredictable. Over the course of the program youth discussed these issues in depth and explored some current school safety and disaster planning policies. As Alice makes her way through Wonderland, she comes in contact with many different characters, including the Queen of Hearts – an arrogant, emotional monarch – whose solution to most problems is “off with his head!” The group used this character as a way to analyze and discuss leadership styles. Using playing cards with different traits, participants chose their top must-have qualities for a leader. Once this was completed, they discussed it as a group making sure all participants had time to share their top traits. The conversation generated around this exercise had two goals: one, get youth to think about what leadership meant to them; and two, to make connections to skills they had or wanted to build on their way to becoming leaders in their own lives. Interestingly, given the context of the discussions about Parkland that preceded the activity, many young people identified “ensuring safety” as an important leadership skill – once again showing that the program opened up a whole new way to process tragedy and consider its effects on how we live our lives. Exploring Social Awareness at the Free Library of Philadelphia For several years, the Teen Reading Lounge group at the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been meeting to discuss an array of books exploring topics such as privilege, equity, power and social justice. Although some young people have dipped in and out of the program, attendance has been consistent – a rarity for high school aged youth. Erin Hoopes, the branch manager and librarian overseeing the program, has taken care to build a comfortable, safe and welcoming environment for these teens. They come back because they know TRL is a place where they can explore topics they may not be able to unpack in school or at their own dinner tables. To watch Erin facilitate group discussion is a master class in how to connect with young people. She takes the reins when appropriate but also steps back to let the young people practice their facilitation skills. Her questions are always sincere; it’s obvious that she cares about what these young people think. She also recognizes the urgency of the issues with which they are grappling. The youth she works with are at a developmental phase where they are in the process of discovering their values and ideals – a necessary step in forming their identities. However, the media, a prevalent force in these young people’s lives, can undercut this process. This is particularly true for youth of color who aren’t always valued or positively supported by society. Erin works with a lot of these young people – and it’s important to her to support them. Not only does research suggest that adult role models can have a positive effect on youth development – but to her it’s the right thing to do. For Erin, giving youth in her library a space to discuss and analyze the issues that affect their lives is key to building their confidence about themselves and their futures. As the group grew in membership and maturity, Erin sensed a need for them to take action on some of the issues they were discussing. She introduced the concept of civic engagement to the group and together they built projects exploring education inequities in the Philadelphia school system (the group was made up of youth from schools throughout the city) and gun control. The process of choosing topics to explore wasn’t easy. Although they often bubbled up out of the book discussions, building consensus around which one to address was challenging. To help the group through the process of shared decision-making and collaboration Erin used a tool called the 5 Stages to Social Action. Developed by Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass as part of the Freedom Schools curriculum, the 5 stages walks a group of young people through the process of identifying what matters most to them. Questions like “What issues are you concerned about in your community?” and “What do we know or want to know about these issues?” help young people learn more about the cause and effects of societal challenges and do a little bit of fact-checking around their own knowledge and perception of the issues. The tool then carries through these discussions to dreaming big - what can we do about these issues – and from that, the group creates a project to explore solutions. Erin’s group conducted two major projects: they wrote a blog about their experience with the education system and produced a video exploring the public’s perception of gun violence. In addition to talking through these issues, building knowledge about them and learning about their peers’ perceptions and beliefs, youth also take the reins in creation. In these two cases, they learned how to build and launch a blog as well as produce a video from start to finish. The goal here isn’t to “get it right” – and occasionally a group will over-reach or abandon projects they build as a result of the process. Staff is advised not to frame this as a failure but as a valuable learning process that supports the teen’s self-management skills. Erin has talked about how difficult it was not to step in and “save” the project. Instead, she advised and then asked them to reflect on the process – which is where the real learning lies. Participants considered motivation, self-management, teamwork and patience with all of these projects. In other words not only did they practice the skills it needed to get the project done but in the process explored what it takes to make something successful or not. This is an important life lesson. Tackling complex projects is part of every adult’s life and learning how to set realistic goals takes practice. Through this process, Erin’s group has built a sense of community and a sense that they can apply solutions to big, complex problems. Her community of teens is now thriving -- creating impressive civic engagement projects and putting on events that are making headlines. They recently guest-blogged for the YALSA this year and said, “Through TRL, we have become better, more empathetic individuals, and more conscious about the world we live in.” The Humanities Have a Place in SEL One of the most frequently cited benefits of the humanities is improving students’ critical thinking skills which is closely related to the SEL concept of responsible decision-making -- that is, making ethical, informed and conscientious life choices. Responsible decision-making is hard enough for adults, but for teens struggling through their social and emotional development it is especially challenging. Teens can be helped to see the potential consequences of their actions by collectively engaging with the humanities through book discussions. It can build a strong foundation for responsible decision-making by exploring multiple perspectives while encouraging self-reflection and dialogue. In the real world practice of facilitating discussions with teens this can be messy but in a wonderfully rewarding kind of way. The TRL outcomes we track through surveys and other data collection, tell the story that the humanities have a place in SEL. They support the conclusions of a 2017 meta-analysis by CASEL that found SEL to “boost student well-being in the form of greater social and emotional competencies, prosocial behavior, and prosocial attitudes.” Teen Reading Lounge participants showed significant improvements in communication skills, interpersonal relationships and job-ready skills like literacy and creative problem solving. They also report doing better in school and feeling better prepared to express their thoughts and opinions. This is important for any teen but particularly the marginalized. As one of our site managers said, “It’s a great way for libraries to reach all kinds of kids but especially those that are on the fringes.” At our recent workshop for facilitators and site managers of Teen Reading Lounge, making space for kids at the margins was a frequent topic. Each site is nested in a community with unique demographics and needs. Effective SEL addresses the needs of all participants and an effective library or other organization opens itself to the diversity of the community. That’s easier said than done and you just have to embrace the bumpy road ahead. One of our workshop facilitators remarked, “The [TRL] workshops provide youth development professionals -- yes librarians are in the business of youth development if they are working with youth -- an opportunity to develop and practices skills that help to enrich the experiences of teens in the program.” From the examples we’re seeing at Teen Reading Lounge sites throughout Pennsylvania, the humanities are an able partner in making a meaningful impact in the lives of teens and supporting their SEL. Even in this age of infinite distraction, teens forget everything else during a highly spirited TRL discussion. From stories of personal transformation to powerful civic engagement projects, the humanities are sparking change in teens and the broader community. Offering young people the right environment, a place where they have autonomy and feel like they belong is something we can all be excited about. JEN DANIFO is a Senior Program Officer at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC). She works closely with grantees to provide technical support in all aspects of public engagement, program development, and learning and evaluation. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the Young Adult Library Services (YALS) digital magazine (Volume 17, Number 2, pp. 27-31). For more information, or to subscribe to YALS, visit their web site. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council would like to thank YALSA for permission to republish this article.
In Monica Hesse’s acclaimed YA novel The War Outside, German and Japanese families are held as prisoners of war in separate areas at Texas’s Crystal City Internment Camp in the 1940s. Haruko and Margot, teen girls divided by culture and circumstance, develop a secret relationship, meeting regularly in the privacy of an icehouse to share their feelings. The tense drama that unfolds raises topical questions about justice and the politics of fear. The Teen Reading Lounge group at the Erie County Public Library, a kind of “icehouse” in northwestern Pennsylvania, read Hesse’s book last fall and identified with the plight of Haruko and Margot. “They were talking about how awful it would be to live in an internment camp and not have access to the things you need,” said Tammy Blount, the Teen Services Librarian who facilitates the group. “The kids were asking themselves, ‘Where do we see that nowadays?’” Teen Reading Lounge is a youth-led, nontraditional book club that encourages deep discussions and projects that have a social impact. The group was started at the Erie Public Library in the fall of 2015 and has been part of their recent growth in youth programming. The library is currently undergoing an expansion that will feature a new teen space with its own book collection, makerspace, and tech area. Blount says she appreciates how Teen Reading Lounge has helped her to develop meaningful relationships with many of the new young people coming to the library. “We get to have important discussions that teens are not typically having,” she said. “The topics are weighty and that builds a deeper bond.” The group is drawing together youth from towns across the county, bringing a diversity of voices to bear on issues raised in the discussions. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the participants, some of whom face economic hardship, are given the opportunity to go on field trips, engage in special learning activities, and listen to guest speakers -- all tied to the book discussions. Past events have included a sail on an historic schooner, listening to a teen TedX speaker, learning Japanese calligraphy, and hosting Penn State Behrend's portable planetarium at the library. The popularity of the program has library administrators setting their sights on starting a new, after-school group at a branch location. Blount insists that the appeal is not just about the books. “It is much bigger than reading,” she said. “The discussions challenge the teens to see the world through someone else's eyes.” "Teen Reading Lounge has opened me up to many new viewpoints and has taught me how to think about other people's perspectives,” said Clara Tupitza, a regular to the group. She says the opportunity to meet youth outside her usual social circles is a big plus. “It has helped me come out of my hermit shell,” said Madeleine Karikhoff, who says she is pleasantly surprised by how popular it is. She believes the discussions have made her more assertive and helped her to find her voice. When the group reflected on when Haruko and Margot spoke for the first time at the Texas internment camp -- during a powerful dust storm -- they remembered the harshness of their own weather. The winters in Erie County can be severe and the teens figured that the people most impacted by bad weather would be those facing housing insecurity. “There is a lot of need in the area,” said Logan Blount, a junior at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy. They searched online for realistic, impactful ways to help and came up with the idea of making “blessing bags” -- small bags stuffed with essentials. Once their project was publicized at the library the donations poured in. The teens got to work, filling the blessing bags with donated socks, hats, gloves, and toiletries. They also created nonperishable food bags with water, granola bars, packs of nuts, and beef jerky. In January, all the bags were taken to the Upper Room of Erie, an area homeless services agency, with hopes that they would provide some comfort to those seeking shelter from the bitter cold. Luis Cole, the staff member at the Upper Room who received the delivery, said he would be handing them out within the hour. Similar humanities-inspired service projects are happening at Teen Reading Lounge sites throughout Pennsylvania. Based on a 2018 analysis conducted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the program is successfully building participants’ social awareness and empathy -- most strongly in rural and urban areas. At the Erie County Public Library, the teens say they just wanted to do the right thing. “Our discussions about The War Outside showed me that even the smallest bit of kindness can go a long way,” said Tupitza. “I wanted to be able to give that kindness.” 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. Related Content Teen Reading Lounge Program Info Berks County Library Expands Youth Leadership Opportunities With Teen Reading Lounge How A Philadelphia Librarian Created A Thriving Community Of Teens Teen Reading Lounge Inspires Healthier Model For Dialogue, Nurtures Empathy Teens Build Social Skills, Process Tragedy At Teen Reading Lounge Group In Northumberland
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s programs and grants bring Pennsylvanians together to build avenues for civic involvement and community development, and for youth and adult learners to strengthen skills for school, work, and personal improvement. Our operations are funded through core support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional program funding from generous individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies. Because of the partial government shutdown, the National Endowment for the Humanities is currently closed, along with many other federal agencies. This means that we cannot draw on our general operating funds, as we typically do each month. As the shutdown continues, we have been forced to delay some of our grant payments. We have notified all who are affected by this delay, and we have assured them that funds will be released as soon as possible after the National Endowment for the Humanities re-opens. We thank all of our program partners and participants for your patience and your perseverance as we work through this unexpected challenge. We are also deeply grateful to the individuals, foundations, corporations, and agencies whose generosity sustains us during this period.
Andre Williams was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 1986, at a time when the United States military sorely lacked the resources to help soldiers reintegrate into civilian life. Seeing few options, he took a job in construction while DJing on the side for extra money. His terminally ill father, a master carpenter who passed away near the end of Andre’s service, had encouraged him to find less physically demanding work. Williams’ career did change course, by accident, when he was faced with prohibitively high repair costs for his DJ equipment. Out of necessity, he succeeded in fixing it himself, which sparked a lifelong passion for electronics. He sought training in computer networking and eventually landed a dream job at IBM, where he worked for the next 15 years. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by serious heart complications, leading to an aortic valve replacement in 2009 and a long, painful recovery. When he was finally ready to re-enter the workforce, it was in the midst of a recession, and jobs were hard to come by. He knew he needed to upgrade his skills to compete -- that meant going to college. A friend told Andre about the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound (Penn VUB) program which helped veterans prepare for higher education. Entering college as an adult is always difficult, but it can be especially challenging for veterans. The Penn VUB program was created to meet their unique needs. Participants in the program are often first generation college students and most are facing economic hardship. Penn VUB’s successful formula combines traditional college preparatory work with immersive cultural experiences and field trips to college campuses. “Once I found out about the Veterans Upward Bound, that was it, I said, ‘I’m going to go there and I find out how they can help me get reacclimated into getting back into college,’” said Williams. What he discovered at Penn VUB was a camaraderie reminiscent of his military service and a program that offered so much more than just college prep. He especially appreciated the inspiring leadership style of Program Director Diane Sandefur, who patiently encouraged the veterans to work hard and achieve their potential. “She reminds me of one of the most serious units in the Marine Corps called Recon,” said Williams. “She’ll do whatever she can to help you to succeed, but you have to put in the effort.” The classes were rigorous and prepared him for the academic workload of college while the lively environment helped him learn to manage his PTSD, which can be exasperated in social settings. “For me, Penn VUB was a saving grace,” said Williams. More than anything, he enjoyed the cultural field trips. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Penn VUB has been able to expand its humanities curriculum and provide enriching cultural experiences at theaters, museums, and historical sites that relate to classroom studies. Williams went on a few such trips, but his most memorable was to New York City, where he paid a solemn visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, toured the Apollo Theater, took in a showing of Wicked, and walked the campus of Columbia University. “I could actually see myself in Columbia as the result of being there, being able to touch the statue Alma Mater, and seeing the library,” recalled Williams. “It was a wonderful, life-changing experience.” Even after they enroll in college, Penn VUB graduates are able to stop by and access computers, receive guidance, sit in on a tutoring session, or just enjoy some fellowship with other veterans. Williams completed the program in 2016, but he still keeps active in the community. He proudly represented Penn VUB, along with Diane Sandefur and other students, in the First and Second Annual Philadelphia Veterans Day Parades. Williams is currently attending the Community College of Philadelphia with advanced standing after scoring high on his placement exam. He credits this achievement to Penn VUB, which he says gave him both the skills and confidence to be successful. It has been a long road from his heart surgery, but he now feels ready to take the next step in his educational journey -- a technology bachelor’s degree at either Drexel University or Pierce College. “I want to teach computer networking and I would love to be able to teach computer networking to other veterans,” said Williams. “That would be a lifelong fulfillment for me.”
With PECO grant, Pennsylvania Humanities Council will support Chester Made’s work to produce, preserve and publicize local stories The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has received a $40,000 grant from PECO to sponsor a series of multimedia projects entitled 'Illuminate Chester' which will bring light to the stories that have defined Chester's past and that are shaping the city's future. Through a campaign and special events, stories will be collected from Chester residents and shared broadly in and outside the community. Some of the most powerful will be professionally produced into short documentary-style videos, or other multimedia projects, and publicized. “Celebrations of cultural heritage and resilience illuminate the strong sense of pride and possibility that exists in the city,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “When communities reclaim stories from the past and define what they value, they rebuild their future in their own terms. Chester is a leader in showing the power of stories to make positive change.” The project will be directed by Chester Made Project Manager Ulysses “Butch” Slaughter, a reconciliation expert, journalist, and filmmaker. The first story is currently in development with Visions Video Pro and will focus on Chester’s connection to William Penn. Penn’s first landing in Pennsylvania was in Chester (then Upland) in October 1682, but today the place best recognized as “Penn’s Landing” is about 15 miles up the Delaware River in Philadelphia. “This project helps to reveal Chester's historic treasures and the city's contribution to the country's foundation,” said Slaughter. As the stories are developed they will be made available to the public at local Chester events and online at pahumanities.org. "At PECO, we power programs and initiatives that offer an opportunity for the communities we serve to celebrate their rich history,” said Romona Riscoe Benson, PECO’s Director of Corporate Relations. “We are proud to partner with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Chester Made to provide this important experience showcasing Chester’s cultural heritage, while advancing arts and culture within the local community.” About Chester Made Chester Made is a humanities-based initiative to recognize and promote arts and culture in Chester and harness their power as a force for community revitalization. The Chester Made Exploration Zone and pop-up makerspace at 511 Avenue of the States form a creative, cultural hub in the heart of the historic arts and culture district that gives community members the chance to engage with one another, learn more about the city’s cultural assets and history, rebuild their downtown, and change perceptions about Chester. Partners include the City of Chester, The Artist Warehouse, Widener University, The Public Workshop, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Visit Chester Made at facebook.com/ChesterMadePA. About the Pennsylvania Humanities Council The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) puts the humanities in action to create positive change. PHC programs and grants bring Pennsylvanians together to build avenues for civic involvement and community development, and for youth and adult learners to strengthen skills for school, work, and personal improvement. An independent partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, PHC is part of a network of 56 state humanities councils that spans the nation and U.S. jurisdictions. Learn more at pahumanities.org.
Unlike most libraries, Muhlenberg Community Library is in the enviable position of being on the same campus as the local public schools, creating a prime opportunity for drawing in young people. Jacki Clark, Youth Services Coordinator, sought to capitalize on this good real estate by developing a Teen Reading Lounge group in 2018. “I looked online at what it was all about ... and the excitement behind it and was like, ‘Okay, this could be interesting... this could grab kids that maybe don’t want to read,’” said Clark. Teen Reading Lounge quickly became a hotspot for area youth after it launched. Clever marketing and word-of-mouth has led to sessions filled with twenty or more teens engaging in book discussions, deliberating over current events, and working together on projects inspired by their readings. The kids drawn to the program represent the growing diversity of Berks County. "I feel welcomed in this room and, for once, being one of the only black kids isn't a bad thing,” said Jayla Kearny, a tenth grader. “People are nice and understanding -- they have open minds.” The bustle of activity during a Teen Reading Lounge session has the warmth of a big family gathering with Clark playing a supportive role, encouraging the diverse group of teens to reflect deeply on the humanities. “They have their game plan in mind and honestly, I don’t always feel like they need me! They’ve got it together,” said Clark. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council the teens have had speakers, such as local hip hop artist Rich Flizzy Flow, and have embarked on educational trips to the Reading Public Museum, Knoebels Grove, Mi Cocina Cooking School, and the Genesius Theatre. The group has developed creative projects together, like their recent Tear Apart Hate collage, that center on their shared readings on topics like justice and inequality. “I'm always looking forward to the book discussions -- that's my favorite part,” said tenth grader, Veronica Lyons. “No where else can you focus on things like this.” Encouraged by the growing enthusiasm in Teen Reading Lounge, Clark now aims to give teens the responsibility of facilitating the discussions themselves, creating opportunities for leadership development and building public speaking skills. “I don’t know exactly what will be in store for 2019 but I know it will be awesome,” said Clark. 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.
On September 21st, PaTTAN’s Harrisburg conference center buzzed with about two dozen energetic Teen Reading Lounge educators, artists and librarians. Each year the Pennsylvania Humanities Council gathers this passionate and diverse group together to prepare for the next round of the program, deeply connecting the participants to both the why and how of Teen Reading Lounge. Toward that end, activities ranged from the reflective (periods of focused meditation) to the pragmatic (modeling effective teen ice-breaking activities.) This year’s Teen Reading Lounge kick-off workshop was orchestrated by the charismatic Fatima Hafiz, a professional coach from Transformative Education Associates, who led a series of creative and sometimes unorthodox activities meant to increase effectiveness with engaging young people. “I don’t know if the workshop is typical of professional development workshops, however, I do know that when adults can connect with their passions and the things that matter to them, they become better equipped to serve young people,” said Hafiz. The workshop’s unique approach is appropriate for Teen Reading Lounge, which Pennsylvania Humanities Council describes as a “non-traditional book club.” Teens are put in the driver’s seat -- they select the book, choose projects and direct the conversation. At a time when the lives of young people are often highly regimented, Teen Reading Lounge can be an oasis of freedom and creativity away from the ever-encroaching demands of adults. The role of facilitators and other adults is to create a space where teens feel free to express themselves while providing appropriate institutional support and helping to focus energy and resources around the humanities. “This work isn’t just about delivering a program,” said Jen Danifo, Senior Program Office at Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “Most of what are sites are doing is building relationships with youth and providing welcoming spaces for them to gather and connect. This work takes time, effort, dedication and intention. Pennsylvania Humanities Council provides learning opportunities to support staff through this journey so that they tap into what motivated them to begin this work and discover the wealth of assets and skills they already have.” The exchange of strategies was emphasized through rotating discussion groups based on topics submitted by the Teen Reading Lounge facilitators themselves. The collegial, bottom-up approach helped keep focus on the most pertinent issues. Newbies peppered veterans with questions ranging from making space for transgender teens to effective advertising methods. Everyone shared stories of challenges and successes, along with contact information and offers of help. As solutions and ideas bubbled up they were enthusiastically taped to the walls, draping the room with supportive insights like “Keep it fresh!” and “Be ready to change gears.” The regular trainings, webinars, community of practice calls, and site visits provided by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council intend to guide and encourage facilitators while networking them with peers at Teen Reading Lounge locations throughout the state. “Youth development occurs when those who are serving youth are also developing,” said Hafiz. Participants expressed heartfelt appreciation for the workshop throughout the day and also later in responses to a Pennsylvania Humanities Council feedback survey. “The workshop was incredibly satisfying to my soul,” observed Jacki Clark, a Teen Reading Lounge facilitator and site coordinator at Muhlenberg Community Library. “The lack of pressure of the setting, the ability to have open ended questions and dialogue with others, both new and seasoned, is so refreshing.” Clark’s group of teens back at Muhlenberg has now grown so large that she’s scrambling to make new accommodations. Since its development in 2010, Teen Reading Lounge has spread to over 80 sites across Pennsylvania, including both public libraries and other out-of-school-time sites. Glenn Miller, Deputy Secretary and Commissioner for Libraries for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries, which contributes funding toward the statewide program, stopped by to observe some of the workshop. “Your own commitment to this, your own energy, your own passion for reaching these kids and bringing them in and empowering them -- this makes such a difference," he told the group. During the simulated teen discussion session that passion and commitment was evident. The group was organized into a “fish bowl” formation with one circle of seated participants inside another. Led by a designated facilitator, the inner circle read and discussed a short selection of text from a popular or classic work that dealt with issues of race or mental health. The outer circle quietly observed, but if they felt inspired to contribute they could join the conversation. The exercise allowed the adults to sit on the receiving side of facilitation while the facilitators were observed for coaching and feedback. Similar to real Teen Reading Lounge groups, the adult discussions were wide-ranging with plenty of thoughtful digression in between. At times, emotions ran high, especially around the topic of racism, providing an opportunity for the facilitator to constructively guide the conversation. The experience was powerful, with many of the adults revealing personal details of their lives. Like the teens they facilitate, they experienced both the challenges and rewards of being emotionally vulnerable in a safe and supportive group environment. “These workshops give adults opportunities to practice facilitating conversations about subjects that are often uncomfortable or possibly polarizing in discussions,” said Valerie Adams-Bass, a researcher in the developmental processes, social and academic outcomes of Black children and youth at the University of Virginia who helped create Teen Reading Lounge and attended the workshop. “By modeling strategies among peers, facilitators learn from one and other, increase comfort facilitating and they are able to pick-up additional strategies from peers.” The day closed with Fatima Hafiz striking a Tibetan singing bell, calling everyone back for a final moment of reflection. Participants reported not only positive effects on their teens and themselves but a more fundamental change in their communities. “My library sees teens coming in and ‘owning’ the library -- it is theirs,” said Jacki Clark. “Their responsibility, a place they love and are welcomed into. We are watching the future of this building, the concept of a library, transform. We are the hub of the community, especially to our teens.” Related Content Teen Reading Lounge Program Info How A Philadelphia Librarian Created A Thriving Community Of Teens Teen Reading Lounge Inspires Healthier Model For Dialogue, Nurtures Empathy Teens Build Social Skills, Process Tragedy At Teen Reading Lounge Group In Northumberland