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May 22, 2019

In 2010, a 7-inch long LEGO® space shuttle rocketed out of Earth’s atmosphere aboard the Discovery, a tiny plastic symbol of the big, new partnership between The LEGO Group and NASA and their shared effort to bring science education to a new generation of young people. Uncommon alliances between expressly different organizations, like a space agency and a toy manufacturer, can happen at those curious places where missions dovetail. Think: Burger King and Mental Health America, Hyundai and Prada, and UNICEF and Target. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council’s (PHC’s) partnership with the Vermont-based Orton Family Foundation looks similarly implausible at first glance. The latter was founded in 1995 by Lyman Orton of the Vermont Country Store, and is best known for creating the Community Heart & Soul model of community development. State humanities councils are traditionally focused on giving grants for cultural events and to historical societies, art centers, libraries, and other local groups. “At first we thought it was a bit of a head-scratcher,” said David Leckey, executive director of the Orton Family Foundation. “Why would a humanities council want to work with a nonprofit focused on community development, like comprehensive plans and downtown plans?” The path to the unusual relationship was paved by PHC’s strategic shift towards civic engagement and education initiatives in 2013. “We decided to take the humanities back to their classical roots, connecting the pursuit of knowledge to action,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director.  “We wanted to change the conversation about the humanities, demonstrating that they are relevant to everyday people for making change in their communities and building up assets and relationships.”  Since joining forces, PHC and the Orton Family Foundation have brought the Community Heart & Soul model to small towns and cities across Pennsylvania -- with more on the way. Everyday people are coming together to participate in the life of their community at local events.  They are sharing their stories and hopes, helping to steer planning and development efforts towards more inclusivity. In Carlisle, Heart & Soul volunteers re-discovered an historic African American church, leading to a preservation effort that has rallied the community together. In Williamsport, city officials are relying on the shared values developed during storytelling workshops to guide planning efforts. Pennsylvanians are starting to feel their voice actually matters and that they are empowered to make a real difference. The two organizations found common ground in the model’s emphasis on involving everyone, especially those who are often missing or overlooked in community conversations, to shape their community’s future. “Our missions were similar,” said Zierer. “We both wanted stronger, healthier, more vibrant towns. Community Heart & Soul has a large story-gathering component and that aligned with our humanities work.” After its initial strategic shift, PHC began branching out into applied humanities work, most visibly with its successful Chester Made arts and culture based community revitalization program in the city of Chester. At the time, one of PHC’s consultants for its Civic Engagement grant program suggested contacting the Orton Family Foundation to learn more about their storytelling-based community development approach. The recommendation was prescient. Fast forward to 2015 and the board of the Orton Family Foundation were on a plane en route to Pennsylvania to develop a strategic plan and a vision for how to work with PHC. It was a rare moment for both sides.  “I was amazed how quickly they bonded, how quickly they spoke the same language,” said Leckey. “From then on, when we speak about the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, my board intimately knows the people, the effort to structure the missions that we both share together.” Staff from PHC later journeyed to Vermont and have since joined together for regular meetings, trainings, and site visits. Zierer and Leckey have a monthly scheduled phone call and program staff are in almost daily communication. “As I was putting budgets together for my board, I called Laurie and said, ‘You know, as I’m looking at our travel budgets I’m thinking about just opening up an office in Pennsylvania because it will be cheaper for me,’” joked Leckey. “The benefit of working with Laurie is how well-connected she is.” "Together we leveraged each other’s strengths and collective talents,” said Zierer. “We were able to cross sectors and form new partnerships and new funding collaborations -- it opened doors for us.” The remarkable synergy has piqued the interest of humanities organizations in other states and at the national level. Zierer and Leckey were asked to share insights about their partnership in a highly attended Humanities Council Master Class webinar organized by the National Endowment for the Humanities,  PA: Forging Strategic Partnerships. But there were challenges too. Boards needed to be convinced. The case for the partnership needed to be made to funders and communities. Co-branding had to be ironed out. All are issues that both organizations look at as learning opportunities.  “We’ve learned to let go of some of the control we thought we needed,” said Leckey. “Our program and our approach is even better by making sure that we’re conscious of how much we think it has got to be done our way instead of the way best for communities in Pennsylvania.” For Zierer, it is all about the bigger picture of changing the conversation around the humanities, positioning them as something relevant to everyday people to make meaningful changes in their communities. “As a state humanities council we are the voice for the humanities in Pennsylvania,” said Zierer. “We see our programs, particularly Heart & Soul, as a way to demonstrate the difference they can make. With our work with Orton, people are seeing themselves -- and their stories -- as the very fabric of their communities, and they are building the humanities skills, ability, and motivation to make a difference.”  The curious partnership between Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Orton Family Foundation may not have resulted in anything so dramatic as rocketing a LEGO shuttle into space (yet). But by helping communities tell their stories, uncover lost history, and articulate new visions for the future, they are showing Pennsylvania residents how to reach for the stars. Related Content Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities Orton Family Foundation Chester Made

May 14, 2019

Ogden, Twin Oaks, Boothwyn -- these Pennsylvania neighborhoods are distinctive enough that some of their residents are not even aware that they are all part of Upper Chichester township (Delaware County.) Judy Stang, an Upper Chichester Heart & Soul volunteer, recently found herself having to explain to skeptical students at a Chichester High School job fair that they were indeed part of the community. “We educated those students,” said Stang, shaking her head. “That’s why we need Heart and Soul, to get people in the community to understand that they belong.” Upper Chichester Heart & Soul is a local organization supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council using the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart & Soul method of civic engagement. It has a grassroots, humanities-based approach, looking to residents to identify their own needs and values rather than receiving something prescriptive from others. Carefully listening to the stories and ideas of residents is key to the process. Across the country, Heart & Soul communities are bringing people together, building connections and partnerships, with needed investment and growth in tow.  Sometimes, the stories themselves yield surprises. In Mt. Holly Springs, near Carlisle, an historic African American church was discovered by Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul volunteers during the story-gathering process, leading to a headline-grabbing preservation effort that has rallied the community together. Uncovering that lost history was made possible through deliberate efforts to bring all voices to the table, something especially important in diverse communities like Upper Chichester. “I think there could be some surprises because we’re going to be interviewing so many people,” said David Schreiber, a 14 year resident and Heart & Soul volunteer. “Every group has something to contribute, its own unique culture and heritage.” So far Upper Chichester Heart & Soul has held community forums, a career fair, and workshops. As it moves into the next phase of the process a team of trained volunteers will begin to collect stories. Although the groundwork is just being laid, volunteers are already seeing momentum. “I’ve seen people that have participated in the program thus far get excited by what they’re seeing,” said Reverend William M. Irons Jr. of St. Matthew CME Church. “They tell another person about what’s going on and another.” Hannah Hinkle, a library assistant at the Upper Chichester Library, is also optimistic. “It’s going to revitalize the town,” she said. “We’re on the right path with that –- it’s exciting.”  Residents are stepping up to help from all areas the township, drawn together by their shared love of their community. Agnes Tillery and Diane Henson are volunteers living in the neighborhood of Twin Oaks and have been friends for 74 years. They were together 1st through 12th grade, graduating in the first class of the Chichester Senior High School in 1963.  “We love Upper Chi, that’s why we joined Heart and Soul,” said Tillery. “We want to make sure that our community is involved.” “And what we can do to help,” added Henson.  Having taken on the role as chairman of Upper Chichester Heart & Soul, Judy Stang is not shy about admitting that the process is a lot of work, especially in a world with so many competing distractions -- but she sees change. “We have become such a society of go in, shut the door, get on your cell phone… but not get out and start to talk to neighbors,” said Stang. “Now people are starting to talk to each other.” A recent Heart & Soul event called “A Real Conversation About the Future of Upper Chichester” put an exclamation point on community networking. A facilitator mixed the residents up into small groups and tasked them with answering questions on poster papers affixed to the walls of the municipal building conference room. “What would you miss in Upper Chi if it wasn’t here?” one poster asked. “If you could have one wish for this community, what would it be?” asked another. As they moved from poster to poster, residents in the small, diverse groups opened up and shared their hopes and dreams for Upper Chichester with those they might not normally speak to -- and they listened to each other. Reverend Irons says the members of his mostly African American church are starting to feel as though community leaders are finally hearing their concerns and that’s inspiring them to get more involved.  “I love that people want to participate and have a voice,” said Irons. “It’s really about empowering people -- when people are empowered then they really will pick the ball up, so to speak, and run with it.” To learn more about Upper Chichester Heart & Soul visit their website and Facebook page. Related Content Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Volunteers Gather For Intensive Storytelling Training Upper Chichester Heart & Soul Community Profile Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities  

May 08, 2019

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

Apr 08, 2019

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

Apr 03, 2019

“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  

Mar 28, 2019

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.

Mar 12, 2019

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.

Feb 27, 2019

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.  

Feb 26, 2019

“‘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

Feb 19, 2019

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

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