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Walking into the crowded conference room and seeing Dr. Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana Studies, listening intently to a student interpret the meaning of a play, you would be excused for thinking you stumbled into any typical humanities class on a Friday afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania. But this classroom, squeezed above a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in a nondescript building on South 40th Street, is special. Conversations take place here that don't often happen anywhere else on campus. Courage to confront the past The students are veterans enrolled in University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound (Penn VUB), a college preparatory program with cultural experiences supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. The mostly African American group are older than other students on campus and many have grappled with addiction and housing insecurity. They are looking to open up new career opportunities through higher education like any other college-hopefuls but are distinguished by their rich and complicated lives -- lives that lend to unusually powerful discussions. “When you add in the range of experiences of both men and women, who have developed a perspective on how the world works -- a perspective that may have been reached via the loss of self-respect, alienation from family, and finding the courage to confront their demons -- it makes for incredibly enlightening conversation,” said Beavers. The day’s topic featured an examination of Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson’s unflinching play about African American life in Pittsburgh at the dawn of the 20th century. The story is a personal one for Beavers whose own family migrated to Pittsburgh from South Carolina in 1945. He has written and lectured extensively about Wilson and teaches a community service course at Penn based on his plays. “We Have Value” The group of about a dozen veterans walked into the room primed for a discussion. Really primed. In the weeks prior they read and discussed the script and then caught a performance at The Arden Theater. For some, Penn VUB provided their first live theater experience. “[It] added a deeper connection to the story than reading the play alone,” said Lashay, one of the veterans. “I thought it was amazing how the play was still relevant to issues being faced today.” “It became personally emotional,” said John, another veteran, who said the performance brought rare clarity to some issues he was struggling with. When Dr. Beavers arrived to the classroom, he had little time to take his seat before the discussion dived deep into the meaning of ‘citizenship’ for freed slaves. “We share a common human condition,” said one veteran. “We too experience what white people experience. We too have a family. We have value.” “What does it mean to own yourself?” Beavers questioned back. “To know oneself, to know one’s value as a human being, and being able to proclaim that and live it!” someone called out to nods and sounds of approval. Coltrane Throughout the discussion, Beavers reminded the class that he never asks rhetorical questions. He was not delivering a one-sided traditional lecture, rather it was a creative exercise everyone was invited to take part in. “I try very hard to engage in active listening, which means pulling out things that flip a switch for me and trying to build on it,” said Beavers. “That way, the group -- all of us -- feel like we’ve built something together.” What was built had the free flowing feel of a Coltrane record. Voices rose and fell, heady theories gave way to personal stories -- with the occasional syncopation of humor and bald honesty. “I destroyed my family because of my alcoholism,” someone admitted. “Like Citizen Barlow who went to the City of Bones, I’ve had to reconcile with the faces of my own past.” In the play, the mythical City of Bones is the destination for the legendary slave ship, Gem of the Ocean. The character Citizen Barlow makes a spiritual pilgrimage there with Aunt Ester as his shamanic guide, allowing him a revelatory vision of his people’s ancestral journey to America and insight into the terrible crime he committed. In the James Ijames directed performance at The Arden Theater, this scene burst to life as the whole theater flashed and rumbled, beckoning the dramatic transformation of the set into a colonial slave ship. At centerstage, water cascaded onto a chained, sobbing Citizen Barlow while the haunting silhouettes of African slaves lined the outside of the hull and the cast intoned solemn hymns. Vivid details from Gem of the Ocean were recalled and discussed by the group again and again -- the play struck at the heart of their lived experiences. “The performers brought life, dimension, and action,” said Charles, who before the play said he knew little about the lives of African Americans in this era. “I learned that I need to pursue more knowledge about my ancestry and culture.” Engaging veterans in deep humanities discussions is gaining national traction. Initiatives supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations are providing resources for veterans to talk more openly about their past experiences and, in the case of Penn VUB, provide a springboard to college success. “Through our support of University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound program we’ve seen the transformative power of the humanities for those who served in the military,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “The humanities provide a valuable tool to help veterans deal with the lasting injuries of war.” New beginnings For his last question to the class, Beavers, who stayed far longer than he had scheduled, asked, “What have we talked about today?” After a pause, one of the older men spoke up. “We’re still fighting the same battles, the same wars. We have to stay the course in order to make it better for the ones coming behind us.” “You’re not on this journey alone,” said another. “There’s been many before you. You have to reach out and help people along the way.” Beavers smiled. “This has renewed my sense of optimism about what we do as educators,” he said. “This is clean. This is pristine. This is magnificent. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe how this afternoon has been.” “New beginnings have to be clean,” he concluded. Do you want to go, Mr. Citizen? Do you want to get your soul washed? Listen to what I tell you. We gonna go to the City of Bones tonight but first you got to get ready. I want you to go and take a bath. Get scrubbed real good. -- Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson Related Content The “Saving Grace” Of Penn VUB: Spotlight On Andre Williams For Philadelphia-Area Veterans, the Humanities Build Academic Skills--and a Path to Positive Change Veterans Honored At Penn VUB Graduation Ceremony Humanities Inspire Academic And Personal Growth In Philadelphia-Area Veterans
We love libraries. Through Teen Reading Lounge (TRL), our award-winning reading and civic engagement club for youth, and through partnerships with state and local library organizations, the staff here at PHC have seen firsthand how vital libraries are to communities across Pennsylvania. Every year we are fortunate enough to visit libraries in all corners of the state. We meet their staff and patrons, talk to their young people, and witness how their programming is transforming lives and making positive change in the broader community. Someone who has put in many miles traveling to libraries is our Senior Program Officer, Jen Danifo. She works closely with libraries to implement Teen Reading Lounge and provides training and technical support. Her work at PHC is rooted in the belief that the humanities can be powerful force for positive youth development and community change -- and that libraries are the perfect place to put the humanities into action. In celebration of National Library Week, we sat down with Jen to get her thoughts about Pennsylvania libraries, how they’re adapting to change, how they’re engaging with youth, and their important contributions to youth development. What do you love about Pennsylvania’s libraries? I’ve visited many PA libraries in my time here at PHC, and hands down it’s the people I love the most. The staff of our PA libraries are so dedicated, creative, and caring. I’m always amazed at how much they can accomplish and how much they love the communities they work in. I also love how libraries are committed to making organizational adjustments in response to the way our world is changing. Libraries aren’t just about books and circulation anymore. The work we’ve done with libraries on our Teen Reading Lounge program has helped bring a lot of these changes to the surface. Libraries are thinking through things like how to engage with diversifying communities and how to be more inclusive and equitable. It’s not easy work, but necessary if they are to continue to thrive. Can you give some examples of how PHC works with libraries to become more aware of community changes? The recognition that our communities are changing and that libraries have to adjust to be better community partners is vital. You can’t just jump to programming first. PHC really believes that organizations have to make a considerable effort to understand who lives and works in their communities. We work with libraries that are committed to this as well. For example, one of the first steps we take with our Teen Reading Lounge grantees is to ask them to create a community network map. We ask them to look at the demographics of their community and service area. They think about the different kinds of young people in their community and where they gather (or don’t gather). They consider community partners and individuals who can help them reach or build relationships with youth. They think about income and family structures and other context that helps them understand a young person’s experience. This ensures they are being guided by the context and need, that they have a larger purpose and are more intentional with programs. This first step also helps libraries build their knowledge about the community and how it could be changing. How will they adjust? What partnerships might they have to build to reach different kinds of youth? They also do quite a bit of self-reflection and explore how they and their organization can be a champion of missing and hidden voices that may be present in the community but aren’t being engaged. As many libraries begin to shift towards more of a community center model, the network mapping exercise either highlights what they already know about the community or fills in gaps about what they don’t. We're seeing libraries make this shift and as a result engagement with youth is more meaningful and programs are more intentional and relevant. How can libraries better engage with youth? In our experience with TRL, we’ve seen that first and foremost youth want a safe and welcoming place to gather and trusted adults who will meet them where they are. In many communities they can be locked out of public spaces because of biases and preconceived notions about who they are and how they’ll behave. Imagine what kind of an effect that has on a young person’s confidence and personal development. Youth want what everyone wants: they want to tell their story, they want to be heard and they want to feel supported as they try to process what’s happening in their lives. Think of a time when you felt valued, respected, and supported. What contributed to that experience? Replicate that for your young people and I promise you, it’ll make a difference. Many libraries are learning that the more they create space for youth to take the lead and drive activities, the better the experience is for everyone. The old model of adults taking the lead and telling youth what to do needs to be replaced with something more youth-driven. We’ve learned that working in collaboration with youth yields better relationships and they’ll stay engaged if they feel like they are appreciated. What role should young people play in a library? Youth should play all the roles! Seriously, what can’t they do? We’ve seen them plan programs, do outreach, promote, and run programs. I honestly think there is no limit to the roles youth can play in the library. I’d like to see more young people on library boards, though. I’d like to see them have more of a chance to build leadership skills, learn how an organization runs and have influence on policy and procedures. If they are the future of our communities, why can’t we start now? Why are the humanities -- and libraries -- so important to positive youth development? For some reason we’ve convinced ourselves that personal growth and development is only for the elite, that it can only happen in certain spaces, and that it needs to look a certain way for it to be valid or of good quality. I push back on all of those things, and challenge us to make the humanities a part of every young person’s developmental and educational experience – and to be open to the ways in which youth will change our perspectives about what the humanities should look like. This is important to development because this is how we signal to young people that they are cherished and valued. When we start to tell youth their contribution isn’t good enough or try to dictate what they are and aren’t capable of, we’re marginalizing their experiences and lives, which erodes their self-worth. The earlier this erosion begins, the more damaging it can be. The beauty of the humanities is that there is room for every story and experience. The humanities help us better understand ourselves and our worlds and there’s no limit to what that can look like. Showing youth that they have a place in the larger story, that they can contribute to their communities, can have a profound impact on their development and self-worth. Libraries are a catalyst for this work. They don’t have to follow the “rules” of some of our more traditional learning partners and that can be very freeing for both the staff and the young people. All of this work is about making our communities stronger by enhancing the assets of the individual. In my opinion that’s one of the most beneficial things a library does; libraries are actively supporting learning, self-reflection, and critical-thinking -- and preparing youth to positively contribute to community life. If that isn’t a reason to love libraries, what is? *** 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 Building Social Emotional Learning In Youth Through Humanities Centered Activities 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
“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. Related Content Teen Reading Lounge Program Info Building Social Emotional Learning In Youth Through Humanities Centered Activities 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
National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman Jon Parrish Peede has announced $28.6 million in grants for 233 humanities projects across the country, including $2.8 million for 16 projects in Pennsylvania. “These new NEH-supported projects will help shore up the nation’s most valuable assets: its history, literature, historic sites, regional traditions, and cultural institutions,” said Peede. The announcement took place at Christ Church in Philadelphia which will be receiving a $500,000 grant to to help restore its steeple and supporting brick tower. Other projects include the restoration of an historic African American farm, support for the construction of a new visitor’s center at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, and research into the role of compassion in art and literature. “Congratulations to the recipients of these well-deserved grants,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “With the support of the NEH, the humanities are being leveraged to strengthen our cultural and historical assets, as well as make meaningful change in communities across the state.” *** NEH GRANT AWARDS AND OFFERS, MARCH 2019 Library Company of Philadelphia Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions Program Description: Support for institutions to host scholars for advanced research in the humanities. Outright Amount: $225,000 Project Director: James Green Lancaster County Historical Society Historic Places: Planning Program Description: Support to enhance public programming at a historic site. Outright Amount: $75,000 Project Director: Thomas Ryan Historical Society of Pennsylvania Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Program Description: Support to preserve and make accessible a significant humanities collection. Outright Amount: $347,525 Project Director: Margery Sly Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Program Description: Support to preserve and make accessible a significant humanities collection. Outright Amount: $87,598 Project Director: Matthew Strauss Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Program Description: Support to preserve and make accessible a significant humanities collection. Outright Amount: $75,000 Project Director: Hoang Tran Swarthmore College Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Program Description: Support to preserve and make accessible a significant humanities collection. Outright Amount: $325,624 Project Director: Wendy Chmielewski Susquehanna University Humanities Connections Implementation Grants Program Description: Support for academic programs that integrate multiple disciplines. Outright Amount: $83,820 Project Director: Betsy Verhoeven University of Scranton Humanities Connections Planning Grants Program Description: Support for academic programs that integrate multiple disciplines. Outright Amount: $34,958 Project Director: Ana Ugarte Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grants Program Description: A matching grant to generate private support for a humanities project. Matching Amount: $400,000 Project Director: Denise Dennis Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grants Program Description: A matching grant to generate private support for a humanities project. Matching Amount: $500,000 Project Director: Sara Jane Elk Old Christ Church Preservation Trust Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grants Program Description: A matching grant to generate private support for a humanities project. Matching Amount: $500,000 Project Director: Barbara Hogue CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia Media Projects Production Program Description: Support for the production of a film, radio, podcast series or other media project. Outright Amount: $200,000 Project Director: Samuel Katz Duquesne University Summer Stipends Program Description: Support for advanced research toward a publication. Outright Amount: $6,000 Project Director: Faith Barrett Duquesne University Summer Stipends Program Description: Support for advanced research toward a publication. Outright Amount: $6,000 Project Director: Danielle St. Hilaire Lehigh University Summer Stipends Program Description: Support for advanced research toward a publication. Outright Amount: $6,000 Project Director: Yinan He Temple University Summer Stipends Program Description: Support for advanced research toward a publication. Outright Amount: $6,000 Project Director: Alex Gottesman *** Download the complete list of NEH grant offers and awards by geographic location.
Liz Dow wants you to put down your phone and look people in the eyes again. The high-energy CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, named a “superconnector” by Fast Company, says the secret to getting things done starts with rethinking how we navigate our human relationships. Effectively connecting with others means listening more, giving selflessly, and taking ownership of your community’s challenges. Leadership Philadelphia is now celebrating 60 years of mobilizing and connecting the region’s brightest talent to better serve the community -- a mission that embodies Dow's ethos of philanthropic leadership. To honor the occasion, they launched “Move in Closer,” a year-long sweep of events and activities that "discuss our shared humanity and pulse those discussions out into the community." The series is partially funded in partnership with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council through a National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Grant. All Philadelphians have been invited to join in on the celebration through a recent collaboration between Leadership Philadelphia and Mural Arts Philadelphia to produce 12 mini-murals placed at high traffic locations throughout the city. The murals pose provocative, conversation-starting questions that reflect the open and collaborative spirit of the "Move in Closer” initiative. “Our intention is to cause people to pause and think more uplifting thoughts, and to discuss these questions with strangers or friends,” said Dow. The project is a natural fit for Dow who is a longtime advocate for the humanities and arts. She’s even an avid sculptor and her latest pieces focus on -- what else -- human connections. In this Q&A, we join in celebrating 60 years of Leadership Philadelphia, and take the opportunity to ask Dow about effective leadership, the power of storytelling, raising thoughtful children, and how to step out of our bubbles and think more like a “superconnector." *** Q: Over the last 60 years, Leadership Philadelphia has had the honor of inspiring some of the area’s most prominent leaders, including a former Mayor, the President of the Eagles, the CEO of PECO, Police, Airport, and Water Department Commissioners, and PHC’s own executive director, Laurie Zierer. What have you found makes someone a good leader and how can we apply the lessons of leadership to our everyday lives? I believe in the Connector model of leadership, meaning the trusted people who get things done behind the scenes. Their need for achievement drives them to be more concerned with getting results than getting credit. They play well with others and weave the fabric of the community together more tightly. Connector leaders behave the same way at work as they do at home and in the community. What you see is what you get. In daily life this means reaching outside your comfort zone to meet people who do not look and think like you; focusing on the other person (not yourself) in conversations; learning about what’s going on in the public, private, and non-profit sectors; behaving in a trustworthy manner, being optimistic; lending a helping hand; and expressing support and encouragement to those around you. According to The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, “The people who know everyone [Connectors] in some oblique way, may actually run the world… In a down-to-earth, day-to-day way, they make the world work.” Q: Fast Company distinguished you as one of the country’s 15 Top Superconnectors and last year the Philadelphia Business Journal called you “the ultimate connector.” How do those struggling to connect in the new digital landscape build meaningful relationships? Meaningful relationships require putting down your phone, looking others in the eye, talking to them, and listening. It’s important to remember that we’re in this together for the long haul, and that relationships formed now pay dividends for the people involved and the community for years to come. I tell my students to focus on paying it forward -- doing favors for others without expecting anything in return. This requires that they become attentive to the wants and needs of others around them. Helping others makes us feel better about ourselves and the world at large. I ended up on that “superconnector” list because I am constantly vigilant about helping others. I don’t just think about it, I take action and do it every day. Q: You once said, “Storytelling… creates the ties that bind us.” What role do stories play in your civic work? For our 60th anniversary we created a series of five Master Classes – on Empathy, Compassion, Connection, Common Ground, and Caring. At least half of each session involved sharing deep stories with strangers. The rooms of 100 people were intentionally diverse by race, age, and economic sector. The exercises resulted in lifts in feeling of connection ranging from 47% to 98% in workshops lasting two hours. Stories are the glue that binds us and the window into each other’s life experience. Sharing them builds bridges of compassion, empathy, and trust. Q: In an article you wrote for the Huffington Post you encouraged parents to inspire imagination in their children and teach them art and history. Why are the humanities and arts so important to youth development? The humanities speak to the human experience. They engage hearts, minds, and souls. Children need healthy outlets for their emotions. Art lessons provide a safe space for that. My father, who was trained as an artist, took me to art classes every Saturday. That is my favorite childhood memory. I, therefore, took my children to the clay studio every Saturday from ages 6-12. We had a Waldorf teacher, who understood that art is more about expression than technique. My son is creative in every aspect of his life. At age 30 after his day job he writes and performs comedy and, on the weekends, he paints and sketches. My daughter put those lessons to work creating a unique private equity firm. I’m in my 27th year of sculpting every Saturday morning. Right now, I’m making convoluted Mobius strips that to me, say “We are all connected”. Art allows us to mine what is unseen within us and enables others to see it. Understanding history grounds us geographically, in community, culturally, and in a civic sense. The humanities give us perspective to understand ourselves, others, motives, culture, behavior, the impact of our decisions, and cause and effect. They provide our youth with context and guidance for decisions and understanding. Q: Your book Six Degrees of Connection argues that “connectors” play an essential role in community development. How can nonprofits, community leaders, and regular folks harness this power for making change? One way to harness the power of connectors is to become one yourself. Be other-oriented. Understand that the challenges of the community are your challenges; use your curiosity to learn about unfamiliar people, places, and cultures and then reach out to learn more about them up close, face to face. Earn trust. Empower others by expressing passion and support. Act as if the glass is half full and be generous. Follow through and do what you say you will do every time. If you see a problem, insinuate yourself into the situation and help solve it. While you’re working on your own skills, look for people around you who already demonstrate them. Put them on your board or committee. Ask for their advice and ask them to introduce you to someone who can help. Find and befriend them. They’ll make your life easier. Watch what they do and follow suit.
We are currently looking for qualified applicants to join our Board of Directors. This is an exciting opportunity to be part of a diverse and committed team working to put the humanities in action to create positive change across Pennsylvania. For more information and to apply online, visit our Join Our Board page. If you have any questions, please contact Donna Scheuerle.
“‘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