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The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has received a $287,500 project grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support the development of a Chester Made Exploration Zone (CEZ). The Exploration Zone is a creative, cultural space in the heart of the historic arts and culture district that will bring people together to revitalize Chester. The CEZ will give community members the chance to engage with one another, learn more about the city’s cultural assets and history, rebuild their downtown and change perceptions about Chester. “This grant is transformational,” said PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will inform dialogue—in our region and beyond—about the role of the humanities in inclusive, resident-driven creative placemaking. Wonderful things can happen when we come together and shape the character of a community around arts and cultural activities.” The project will engage the Chester community in the collection, interpretation, and animation of underground history—both physically and metaphorically. Much of Chester’s history is literally underground, where newer foundations were built around walls of colonial basements to create labyrinthine passageways accessible today. For years the walkways served as storage areas; now local artists are retrieving artifacts and repurposing them. Chester’s rich history is also metaphorically underground—neither explored nor archived—and the Chester Made Exploration Zone aims to engage community members in that history. Through hands-on learning with leading practitioners in history and creative placemaking, this project will continue work begun by artists and entrepreneurs in Chester’s downtown to map the city’s cultural assets and increase capacity for civic participation in community development. PHC will lead the Chester Made project along with the City of Chester, Widener University, and The Artist Warehouse. “This project builds on the work that we've been doing with Chester Made and our Boundaries and Bridges project with The Artist Warehouse,” said Sharon Meagher, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Widener University. “In the latter, we utilized arts and humanities methodologies and activities to build new collaborative partnerships and engage Chester residents.” Widener University will contribute extensively to the project, with faculty leading efforts to engage the community in research and community-led programming. American History faculty will integrate the project into their courses; students will participate in archival research and oral histories and engage community residents in that work. English, Creative Writing, Theater, Anthropology and History faculty will work to develop community-based programming collaboratively with the greater Chester community to unearth Chester's buried historical, cultural, and arts heritage. “The Chester Made Exploration Zone will provide an opportunity for youth to connect Chester’s historical and cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland. Devon Walls of The Artist Warehouse will provide artistic direction for the project, leading and engaging Chester-based artists, including The Butcher Shop Rehab, which specializes in repurposing overlooked or discarded items. Expanding on work in Chester funded by a recent National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant, project planning for the Chester Made Exploration Zone will begin this fall through a peer exchange with a Chicago-based group of artists. The project is expected to end in the early summer of 2018 with a community celebration of underground history. Related Content About Chester Made Chester Made Humanities Camp Tactical Urbanism Community Conversation and Workshop The Building of a Block: Community Archival Workshop Chester Made Exploration Zone Launch--and Butcher Shop Rehab Reclaim . Rebuild . Repurpose Workshop Chester Made #TheBuild Chester Made Artist Exchange
With a Civic Engagement Grant from PHC, and training in the Orton Family Foundation's Community Heart & Soul™ process, Carlisle residents are strengthening their community through the humanities. Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul team members participated in many community events to gather stories from residents this spring, and they have collected more than 600 stories to date! The following photos were taken May 28, when the team held a dedicated storytelling event at Bosler Memorial Library to collect audio and video interviews, as well as written and visual submissions. Story gathering can vary from deeper or “thick” questions such as, “Tell me about your experiences with your community park” to more simple or “thin” questions like “Name three characteristics that describe your community.” Regardless of the level of engagement, what is critical is close listening and dissecting the story to find the “data” or important key points that the storyteller is relaying. In order to sort through data more quickly, the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul leadership team has developed story categories that identify common themes, including outdoor spaces, economics, and local business. These emerging common themes will be vetted with the community and, if they ring true, become Heart & Soul Statements that will inform the actions that follow. Additional project information and collected stories are available from Greater Carlisle Heart and Soul. Photos by Rachel Seitz.
From Chinese Shadow Puppetry, which tells tales of moral lessons and reinforces cultural customs, to Griots in West Africa who use anecdotes to conserve family and cultural histories, stories communicate ideas, share lessons and carry tradition. Today, one of the most popular blogs and best-selling books in the United States, Humans of New York, comprises stories gathered from residents on the streets of New York City. Similar to the way that stories can shape an individual’s outlook on life, sharing stories about your community can help to transform it. Storytelling is an excellent tool for successful community planning; it can help to engage those voices that are unrepresented and bring to light the values and interests of those living and working closely together. In April 2016 the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Orton Family Foundation held a workshop titled “Stories to Action” in Harrisburg. The workshop reflected PHC’s and Orton’s shared view that, by tackling community issues through a humanities-based approach such as storytelling, residents are more likely to become engaged. In fact, Orton’s nationally proven Community Heart and Soul™ method provides a framework for PHC’s work with Pennsylvania Heart & Soul Communities, and the workshop was developed primarily to serve as training for them. Additional participants included staff from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Orton staff made presentations on how storytelling and story-gathering can help communities build brighter futures, as well as best practices to follow during the process. In broad strokes, gathering information in story form can provide insight on hard-to-answer questions like “What does it mean to be a resident of a given community? What unifies the community? Why don’t all residents get along with one another?” And help find common ground around questions like "What do you love about your town?" and "What would you change?" The relevancy of the humanities becomes even more apparent during the data-analysis process, in which stories are examined, relevant data is extracted, and patterns highlighting what matters most to residents emerge. Finally, the analysis leads to a plan for action based on what matters most to everyone. “Storytelling can strengthen a community,” said Sara Lightner, senior associate of programs training at Orton. “If you don’t share those stories, you’re missing chances to build bridges.” The goal of Community Heart & Soul is to involve as many residents as possible, including those who are underrepresented and have not typically had a voice in their community planning process. Story gathering is the first step in engaging those missing voices and learning what is important to the community. The next step, identifying core, shared values, called Heart & Soul Statements, is key to setting the stage for meaningful and transformative plans for action. As Lightner and other Orton staff members explained it, gathering stories can be intentional, which means targeting a certain group/demographic and asking specific questions, or it can be broad, just to get a general consensus. Story gathering can also vary from deeper or “thick” questions such as, “Tell me about your experiences with your community park” to more simple or “thin” questions like “Name three characteristics that describe your community.” Regardless of the level of engagement, what is critical is close listening and dissecting the story to find the “data” or important key points that the storyteller is relaying. The common themes that emerge are vetted with the community and, if they ring true, they become Heart & Soul Statements that will inform the actions that follow. “If you don’t share [stories] you’re not going to get ideas, and ideas lead to action,” Leanne Tingay, senior associate of programs at Orton, told the group. In efforts to increase understanding and avoid biases, some best practices for the story gathering and listening include the following: encourage individuals who were not formally involved in the process to listen to the stories for data; explain to the community what the data means and where it came from; and verify the data with the residents in the community. “Make sure data points are rooted in individual stories and not ideas projected onto the story,” advised Lisa Jo Epstein, co-director of Our Germantown Heart & Soul. After the storytelling/story gathering process is complete, a Heart & Soul community’s leadership team and residents come together to brainstorm ideas about how to protect and reinforce the community’s values. These ideas then become options for action, and once these options are prioritized, they form an action plan that represents the shared values of all residents. “Through this process, the humanities are helping residents to revitalize their communities,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of PHC. “By sharing stories, residents are opening pathways for learning and sparking dialogue that will result in the actions needed to transform their communities and public processes.”
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) has been approved for a $45,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and will use the money to support a Creative Exploration Zone (CEZ) in the City of Chester’s Historic Arts and Culture District. This zone, to be located in the 500 block of Avenue of the States, will test methods to temporarily animate public outdoor spaces using local creative energy and talent. It will bolster the cultural assets and evolving creativity within the city’s arts and culture district by developing a series of design-and-build events that involve the community's youth. “With this project, Chester’s youth will have the opportunity to connect the city’s cultural identity to their personal lives and hopes for the city’s future,” said Laurie Zierer, PHC’s executive director. “We’ll also have the opportunity to explore the role of the humanities in creative placemaking and socially-engaged revitalization.” This project will be led by PHC and the City of Chester, as well as The Artist Warehouse and Widener University; other partners include The Public Workshop and City of Chester youth organizations. The organizations will bring together local artists, community leaders, and youth to animate public outdoor spaces in ways that capture the community’s imagination, distinctive identity, and creative expression. “To see everything come to fruition with arts and culture in Chester is amazing, and we are really excited about it,” said Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland. “I believe we can be the art hub, not only of Delaware County, but of Pennsylvania.” In addition to strengthening civic engagement among the community’s youth, the Creative Explorative Zone will raise awareness about the revitalization of the city’s downtown, facilitate and expand entrepreneurial investment, and inform and guide policy as it relates to land-use and design of improvements. “I hope this opportunity will allow us to engage the youth and show them the power of working with a diverse team to accomplish goals,” said Devon Walls, owner of The Artist Warehouse. “It’s exciting that they will be able to use their creative expression to make an impact on their community.” PHC is one of 64 recipients of Our Town awards totaling $4.3 million in support of projects across the nation. The Our Town grant program supports creative placemaking projects that help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core. For a complete list of projects recommended for Our Town grant support, please visit the NEA web site at arts.gov. Related Content About Chester Made
Earlier this year fifteen libraries across the state launched a special Teen Reading Lounge pilot. The goal was to provide ways for teens to meaningfully contribute to their communities and participate in civically focused activities, with a special emphasis on reaching youth from diverse backgrounds, including low-income youth. Throughout the eight-week pilot, librarians and program facilitators worked tirelessly to intentionally reach and engage youth who may not normally have the opportunity to participate in this type of programming. The result? Preliminary data from our program evaluators suggest that teens who participated in this round of Teen Reading Lounge have become more interested in volunteerism and leadership opportunities in their libraries and communities. What impact did Teen Reading Lounge have? Through this Teen Reading Lounge pilot, we’ve learned that the humanities help to build community among young people. Teen Reading Lounge provides participants with the opportunity to discuss topics and issues that are relevant to them; by having these conversations, teens are better able to build relationships with one another, and this connectedness builds a sense of community. For example, Leslie Stillings, director of youth services at Pottstown Memorial Library, structured her library’s Teen Reading Lounge so that the upper middle school and high school students acted as mentors to younger youth. The older teens facilitated the discussion, which helped younger teens to feel more comfortable and created a strong sense of community. Teens who hadn’t known each other before began to mesh and form friendships; as these friendships developed the teens became more confident and began opening up more during discussions. Empowering the older teens to organize and make decisions about the program also aided in the development of leadership skills. The program also helped teens to build confidence in themselves and in their reading abilities. “Many of the participants have low self-confidence, but now they have a place to come and feel welcome,” said Stillings. “Teen Reading Lounge has definitely helped to build their confidence by finding a comfortable space within the library.” At Priestley Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, Kim King, the youth services coordinator, was surprised at how all the kids had taken a liking to reading –not just the strong readers, but also the kids who had been less interested in reading at the beginning of the program. “The older, stronger readers have been motivating the others, and kids who had challenges with reading have stuck with it and stepped up their game,” said King. Successes and Challenges Aside from learning that the humanities can help build community among teens, librarians and facilitators also observed that low-income youth may face many more challenges than their peers. “A lot of stereotypes about these students [from low-income backgrounds] being just uneducated wasn’t true,” said Carla Christopher, program facilitator at Martin Memorial Library in York. “Our students were holding down jobs, providing childcare for siblings and running households in support of their working parents. Their intelligence just wasn’t able to be traditionally measured.” Many program facilitators also learned that the best way to grow their program was by word of mouth. “Those who signed up definitely bragged about Teen Reading Lounge to their friends,” said Christina Patton, librarian at the Greater Olney Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Lansdowne Public Library and B.F. Jones Memorial Library in Aliquippa had similar experiences of increasing participants when teens enjoyed the program. Baden Memorial Library drew a population from four different school districts –all by word of mouth. So what’s the secret? How did librarians and program facilitators make their programs so intriguing that youth wanted to tell their friends? “The teens seemed to be more engaged when the books we read were culturally reflective and they found that they could relate to the situations or characters,” said Marcela Franco, manager at the Kensington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Other librarians noticed that once they created a special space for the teens, it made them more comfortable and more likely to hang out at the library. “More teens seem to gravitate now that I am creating a dedicated space,” said Julie Mulcahy, library director at Laughlin Memorial Library in Ambridge. “It creates a safe space to gather and a sense of community among the youth.” Although these programs were successful, it wasn’t an easy task. A few program facilitators mentioned challenges in engaging participants. “It was important for us not to focus on the book for too long –once we moved into discussions it became easier for me to break barriers down by making connections with the teens,” said Keville Bowen, program facilitator at Lansdowne Public Library. Bowen also mentioned that discussing topics that everyone had some familiarity with made for easier and more impactful discussions. Sites participating in this Teen Reading Lounge pilot program were most successful when librarians and program facilitators took time to think about the program design and link it back to concrete skills. Dawn States, teen services coordinator at Martin Memorial Library, noticed that at first some teens were unable to articulate their skills and determine what they were good at. But by discussing themes of overcoming obstacles to success, they were able to name their skills and include them in visions for their future lives. Librarians and facilitators also learned that creating a more intentional connection between books and activities really brought the humanities into focus for the youth. At Lansdowne Public Library teens read Japanese comics that featured black characters; to complement their readings, facilitator Bowen worked with teens to help them draw and create their own comics based on their personal experiences. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council and participating libraries will continue to explore how Teen Reading Lounge can help youth from all backgrounds build essential life skills through the humanities. Final data on this first Teen Reading Lounge pilot will be available soon. And a second round of the pilot will launch this fall.
Today, as the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for the 100th time, we find ourselves in an increasingly challenging environment of funding cuts in education and public services, angry civic dialogue, and communication dominated by sound bites and 140-character "messages." But, as PHC executive director Laurie Zierer writes in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, the humanities and the skills they teach offer hope and focus in challenging times. Read the op-ed.
How well do you know your community? How diverse are the residents? What issues are they facing? Questions like these inform the work of PHC’s Pennsylvania Heart & Soul™ communities, and the answers are sometimes surprising. Each of the four communities—Carlisle, Meadville, Williamsport, and the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia—has carried out a community network analysis (CNA) to identify population segments, social networks, and the links among them. The CNA is a critical part of the Community Heart & Soul® method, which PHC has brought to its grant communities through a partnership with the Orton Family Foundation. Community Heart & Soul embodies PHC’s belief that people’s own stories should be at the heart of community development. Using the humanities-based Heart & Soul method, team leaders aim to uncover what matters most to their communities by gathering stories from and engaging as many residents as possible. One of the first steps is to develop a more comprehensive understanding of who comprises the community by conducting a CNA. For example, by digging deep to learn more about residents, Carlisle’s Heart & Soul leadership team unearthed small populations of minorities and immigrants they weren’t aware of. “Many of us found it interesting that some groups living in the region were not represented in the census data,” said the director of Greater Carlisle Project, Lindsay Houpt-Varner. “For example, there is a small Bosnian community in the region, but their representation in the data was not there,” she explained. The Carlisle CNA also revealed that 26.7% of residents are living below poverty level, and economic and racial segregation are the community’s largest challenges. The leadership team found that there are huge variances between the rich and poor, with 4% of the population making under $10,000 a year and 4% of the population making over $200,000 a year. “It was fascinating gaining a greater understanding of the urban and rural parts of our region and how they are interconnected through services, schools, culture and recreation activities,” said Houpt-Varner. Participants in Williamsport’s Heart and Soul project, known as Heart of Williamsport, found the CNA similarly revealing and valuable. “[The community network analysis] was helpful in understanding who we know in our community, who we don’t know in our community and who we can engage with to better understand how to make our initial connections,” said Alice Trowbridge from the Heart of Williamsport leadership team. Work around the Williamsport CNA has helped to bring various leaders, groups, and stories to light; it has also revealed the severity in the number of residents living in poverty. On average 42%-60% of Williamsport residents live below poverty level, however, in certain neighborhoods that figure grows as large as 88%. “We were shocked by the high levels of poverty in so many neighborhoods surrounding our downtown,” said Trowbridge. Poverty levels also surprised Meadville’s Heart & Soul team, which is focused on bringing together a community that has been fractured. Project leaders had been aware of the very homogeneous (90.6% white) population and that minority voices were missing from public processes. What they didn’t realize was that nearly 40% of the population lives below poverty level, and 60% of residents rent their homes. These issues cannot be solved overnight, and the project leaders know this. “It takes time for a program to invest,” said Jill Withey, the executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Meadville. Withey suggested that the city government's tendency to target a new project every two to three years contributed to the lack of change accomplished. Germantown’s Heart & Soul leadership team also found through their CNA that residents of the historic neighborhood tend to distrust their community and political leaders because of failed promises and inconsistencies. The large community of about 75,000 residents has a median household income of only $30,535; this is nearly $21,000 less than the median household income in the U.S. Contributing to these economic issues is the unemployment rate, which is about 5% higher than that of Pennsylvania overall. But while Germantown Heart & Soul team members were aware of poverty in their community, what surprised them was to find wealth. “Data on income levels in Germantown piqued the most interest from our participants,” said Emaleigh Doley, the corridor manager of Germantown United CDC. “We’ll be taking a closer look at the census tracts within Germantown that feature high concentrations of particular income brackets, including areas of the neighborhood with concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty.” PHC believes the humanities can inspire people to come together and make a difference in their communities; Community Heart & Soul—which is based in the humanities—provides a path to increase residents’ participation in public processes. “On our site visits to each community, residents told us not only about the rifts in their communities, but about the need to motivate more residents and new leaders in making decisions and taking action for their community,” said Mimi Iijima, director of programs and special projects at PHC. A thorough CNA can help community leaders engage all populations and prepare residents for the next step in the Heart & Soul process, but what else do leadership teams expect to come from this? Christian Maher, executive director at Crawford Heritage Community Foundation (a partner of Meadville Heart & Soul) says, “The promise of making leaders of people who didn’t previously have a voice.”
Former York poet laureate is Teen Reading Lounge facilitator working to engage youth in the humanities Martin Memorial Library in York, Pennsylvania, is one of the fifteen public libraries that will be launching Teen Reading Lounge this spring. Carla Christopher, a champion of the humanities who has already made an impact on youth in York, will be the program facilitator. Besides being the York poet laureate from 2011-2013, Christopher is a publisher, event producer and educator. She has won multiple awards for her work in poetry and has been recognized by the National Federation of Poetry Societies and the Pennsylvania Poetry Society. Christopher’s passion for arts, culture, literature and education will definitely bring humanities to the front and center of Martin’s Teen Reading Lounge program. Martin’s teen program coordinator, Dawn States, and Christopher worked closely together to shape the program to focus on personal motivation, identity and resilience. Participating teens will read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper as well as other novels that address social biases, overcoming obstacles and encourage a journey toward self-understanding. They will also have the opportunity to visit Studio 117 (a production studio), York City Pretzel Co. and The Rooted Artist Collective during the six-session program. Christopher hopes that by participating in Teen Reading Lounge, teens will gain hope and possibility as they interact with their peers, professionals and artists. In mid-March, we had the opportunity to interview Christopher about her experiences and her involvement with developing diverse humanities programming for teens. How did you first become involved with Teen Reading Lounge? I am a cultural educator with Martin Library, which lets me go into York City Public Schools to teach students about Native American, Black American, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander culture and arts. I also help judge the library’s literary contests and facilitate cultural programming like a recent Black History Month Arts & Culture series. Martin’s director of children’s programming, Paula Gilbert, is one of the most proactive and dynamic idea-having women I have ever met. When she heard about Teen Reading Lounge, she knew it would be fantastic for the library, and she approached me to see if we could brainstorm interaction and engagement-filled ways to bring the program to Martin. This session of Teen Reading Lounge at Martin Library has an entrepreneurial focus. What influenced that decision? It wasn’t enough for Dawn, Paula, and myself to have our students read and discuss books in a vacuum. We wanted to create an environment where our readers could see themselves in the books, could see how understanding and adapting the skills characters used into real-life situations made reading a practical, beneficial and worthwhile endeavor. Reading isn’t just fun, it's fundamental. We couldn’t think of any better way to drive that point home than to have students read books about inspiring characters that achieve incredible things despite extraordinary challenges and then introduce students to individuals from their own communities who have done the same thing – but in real life. When designing the program, what was discussed and decided upon in order to ensure that the program accurately reflects the needs, interests and development for the teens involved in the program? The most fabulous part of our Teen Reading Lounge team is that Dawn States, the teen services coordinator at the library, does tons of one-on-one work with City teens on a daily basis. Since both she and I have been in the city, every single day, working with these students, we were able to talk about what we observed first-hand; where our students struggled or gave up, and what kept them engaged or excited. We also, and I can’t stress the importance of this enough, took the time to ASK students what they needed. Too often, well-meaning but ill-advised program developers or facilitators TELL participants what they will be given, without asking those involved what THEY want and need. Investment and a feeling of empowerment and autonomy has been key to continued engagement for all of my work with middle and high school students. How do you think this program will help to improve interpersonal/social skills? We are interested in providing students spaces to discuss, interact, and ask questions on all levels. Book discussions encourage peer-to-peer sharing, and the field trips give students a chance to interact with all different types of professionals and artists. We want these students ready for higher education, the workplace, a diverse world full of social connections waiting to happen. They need to be able to navigate all of those situations with confidence to be successful in 2016 America. In what ways will teens be able to express creativity? Students will be painting, cooking, writing poetry or short stories, recording their own pieces at a professional studio, evaluating performances, making business plans for their own businesses and more. Can you tell me about your experiences working with low-income youth in the York area? As Martin’s cultural educator, I visit schools throughout the city. These students are talented, resourceful and full of energy…but not full of hope or a sense of possibility. What they see around them doesn’t inspire that. I had the same experience working with the Strand Capitol Performing Arts Center to do a year-long creative writing workshop at William Penn Senior High School, York City’s local high school. The work these students created was insightful and mature, but often painful to read. I want to help them believe in more for themselves, and show them roadmaps, provide them with tools to get there. Why is it important to develop culturally relevant programming for youth? In America we still take a lot of pride in our communities or culture origin. From St. Patrick’s Day green to English and Welsh Christmas carols, we see the brighter side of European culture as part of our American life all the time. Most Black American students, because of the brutal cultural erasing of the slave trade, or my Native students, because of their tribe’s displacement and oppression, have no knowledge of their origins, and what history they do know is not a legacy of celebration but one of pain and subjugation. I am learning more and more how hard it is to have pride in yourself in 2016 when you don’t have pride in your past, in your heritage and your culture. I try to give that back to my students. By showing them the art, the music, the history of achievement, and the legacy of strength, I want to help students learn that they too have those abilities within them. They are more than the descendants of slaves, displaced immigrants and oppressed peoples – which is all they come to me knowing. Our Teen Reading Lounge program is using this same ideal, showing students the power of possibility, by providing examples of achievement through carefully selected stories and characters that we hope our readers will identify with. What is the arts and culture scene in York like? As a small city, there is a lot of overlap between different genres of art and different projects because artists often share venues or spaces and we hear about what other people are doing. We have a scene heavy with collaboration, improvisation and experimentation. I perform as a solo poet, as a spoken word artist, as part of a poetry ensemble that performs with a percussionist called Poetic Voices and as a singing blues/jazz poet with the ensemble Groove Ink. I have been the guest poet on a rock CD and a soul CD and written poems that have been turned into paintings for at least three different art shows. When did you first get involved in the humanities? [I’ve been] an avid reader and writer from as soon as I could hold a book. I entered and won my first poetry contest in the fifth grade and I was hooked from then on. Reading took me around the world, through history and showed me how things worked. I could make my own pace, determine my own focus…reading was very empowering for me as a young person. Tell me about your experience being poet laureate. Although being the laureate was a position of service, I learned so much from the position that it felt like a gift to me as well. I learned about York history in my research to write commissioned work, I met inspirationally talented students in my school visits, I traveled across the entire state doing performances as York’s representative, and I refined my teaching style and got lots of new ideas from the teen and adult participants in the workshops that I facilitated. It was a busy three years but ones I wouldn’t trade for anything! What skills do you believe one can build from writing, discussing and/or reading poetry and literature? To have insight, to be able to problem solve and envision solutions, to respond in a flexible way to disappointment or challenge. I believe it’s important to have examples to draw from; reading and discussing builds a mental bank of creativity currency for students who might have limited “real-life” experience and promotes comprehension and application. Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite poems? Tell me about your favorite book. I love Maya Angelou. I saw her once in Detroit as a high school student and her powerful presence, her slow and thoughtful voice and beautiful, accessibly worded poetry became a lifelong inspiration to me. I saw her again, as Poet Laureate, at York College, shortly before she passed away and I thought, if she could inspire this much in me, how many others did she have the same effect on? The power of one person following their dreams, working to perfect their craft and then being willing to share it, hit me then, in a way that continues to get me out of bed in the morning. One of my favorite phrases is “You will never know most of the good you do.” I love Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” as well as “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Leonard Cohen, almost anything by Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, although my favorite is “Song of Myself.” I also am a huge fan of Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Mary Oliver and lots of local poets. My favorite fiction books are The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1984 by George Orwell and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love intense character studies that offer prophetic or deeply insightful social commentary and time/place analysis though a single personal story.
When it comes to engaging teens and advancing literacy, a partnership between the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) and the Free Library of Philadelphia seems like a natural choice. Through branch-based Teen Reading Lounge programs, Philadelphia teens are able to build relationships and learn to communicate their ideas and opinions while furthering the Free Library’s mission of advancing literacy, guiding learning and inspiring curiosity. To date PHC has introduced Teen Reading Lounge in seven Free Library branches: Andorra, Philadelphia City Institute, Greater Olney, Haverford Avenue, Kensington, Wadsworth and Parkway Central. Each branch designed a unique Teen Reading Lounge program to reflect the culture of its specific neighborhood and the interests and needs of the teens that live there. Across the Free Library system teens have read books such as Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Gregory Neri, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano. These novels provided the opportunity for participants to discuss topics like social change, violence, poverty, alcohol abuse, bullying, self-love and self-discovery. Related activities have included field trips to museums, a “Steps for Success” workshop, a discussion with a World War II vet, a Skype session with author Neal Shusterman, and a visit to a cultural community garden. Philadelphia City Institute was an early adopter of Teen Reading Lounge among Free Library branches. In fact, this branch has led the way in Teen Reading Lounge programming and funding so much that Free Library Teen Services Coordinator Ann Pearson uses it as a model to train other libraries. Philadelphia City Institute’s first Teen Reading Lounge was held during the winter/spring of 2015 with funding and technical support from PHC. In the fall of 2015 PHC awarded the branch a continuation grant, and the following winter Philadelphia City Institute successfully secured outside funding to continue its Teen Reading Lounge program. During Spring 2016 teens at Philadelphia City Institute read Geography Club, a novel that explores sexual orientation, the dynamics of relationships, and acceptance. After completing the novel, program facilitator Erin Hoopes invited a group of young adults from The Attic Youth Center (an organization serving LGBTQ youth) to share their experiences with the teens. During an open discussion, teens and visitors from The Attic explored how to be advocates for the LGBTQ community, the significance of a support system and the importance of forgiveness. “We have so many quiet readers who come in to the library, but we don't always get the opportunity to engage with them on such a deep level,” said Hoopes. Teens at Philadelphia City Institute also tackled Renee Watson’s This Side of Home, which covers topics such as racism and gentrification. Following discussion of the novel, Hoopes invited a Philadelphia city planner to talk to the teens about conscious community building and institutionalized racism. The teens then broke into groups to complete an activity where they were responsible for allocating funds to municipal services such as energy and water supply, affordable subsidized housing, and parks and recreation centers. Through this hands-on activity teens quickly became aware of the difficulties of city planning and the inequalities in community funding. The Teen Reading Lounge program at the Greater Olney Branch had a slightly different focus; teens read three books that explored how suffering, empathy, personal heroism and perseverance shape our identities and history. “We hope they walk away from the program with a deeper understanding of themselves and their worlds,” said Christina Patton, the branch’s supervisor. Participants also enjoyed visits from Kenyon Parker, a World War II veteran who shared his experiences serving in a segregated army unit, and Cindy Little from the Philadelphia History Museum, who gave a lesson on the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia. The success of the PHC-Free Library partnership has led PHC to begin thinking through a more impactful Teen Reading Lounge model that would address inequality, ethnic identity and literacy needs of teens more squarely. Philadelphia ranks only 22nd out of the 25 largest U.S. cities in college degree attainment, and yet funding for schools and literacy programs in the city continue to decline. According to the Center for Literacy, 37% of adults in Philadelphia are “low literate,” causing them to have trouble with filling out job applications, reading doctors’ instructions, and helping their children with homework. PHC staff have seen how Teen Reading Lounge strengthens 21st century learning skills, and we are dedicated to doing more to bridge the gap of student achievement in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.
Spring Teen Reading Lounge programs are taking shape at fifteen public libraries across the state. All program sites promoted their programs to teens within their communities, with a special emphasis on engaging teens from low-income backgrounds. Below is a sampling of themes, selected books, and special activities planned at five of the participating libraries. Allen F. Pierce Free Library, Troy (Bradford County) Participants at Allen F. Pierce Free Library will explore the theme of diversity through the lens of young adult science fiction books (including The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey) and hands-on activities that highlight differences in perspectives, lifestyles and cultures. Kay Barrett, the assistant librarian, says, “I worked with our program facilitator Pam Mihalik to select this theme because space itself is so diverse and the world of sci-fi raises wonderful questions about humanity. We hope to expose our participants to diverse characters in hopes of helping them become more open-minded and accepting individuals.” In addition to peer-to-peer discussion, local teacher and artist Andrew Wales will lead a workshop on graphic art and storytelling. The library aims to incorporate science activities into its Teen Reading Lounge program as well with a visit to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and a workshop with a Mansfield University astronomy professor. Activities like these will effectively demonstrate how the study of the humanities can deepen STEM learning by building critical-thinking, literacy, interpersonal and communication skills. To close out its program, the library will hold an “Across the Universe” workshop with a local Brownie Troop during which program participants will present what they learned about diversity throughout the course of the program. Allen F. Pierce Free Library’s program will run from February through May. Lansdowne Public Library, Lansdowne (Delaware County) During its Teen Reading Lounge program, the Lansdowne Public Library will explore the hero’s journey and diversity through the story of Yasuke, who despite his lower social status became a powerful samurai in Japan. The group will explore Yasuke’s story and read several comics featuring black characters, including Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue. Ken Norquist, head of technologies and public services at the library, and Keville Bowen, program facilitator and local artist, saw the need to expand the minds and perspectives of local youth, particularly around the idea of cultural identity, history and possibility. The program is designed to get participants thinking about how media portrays heroes and challenges the idea that heroes fit a certain mold. Participants will relate this to their own lives as they work toward creating comic books based on their personal experiences. Norquist and Bowen hope to self-publish a compilation of those comics this summer. “By the end of the program, these young people will see their own stories in print,” says Ken Norquist. “We hope that participants see they are the writers of their own destinies and their stories should be celebrated.” A highlight will be a Skype interview with Thomas Lockey, assistant professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo, Japan, who is an expert on Yasuke and will talk to the group about the samurai’s unique story. Other activities include a manga drawing workshop and a Mural Arts walking tour exploring the history of notable African-American Philadelphians. Lansdowne Public Library’s program will run from March through May. Free Library of Philadelphia – Greater Olney Branch (Philadelphia County) Youth at the Greater Olney Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia will read three books (Maus by Art Speiglmen, Bruiserby Neal Shusterman and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson) that explore how suffering, empathy, personal heroism and perseverance shape our identities and histories. Over the course of eight weeks, participants will take part in book discussions led by Mercedes Walton-Mason, a teacher at Cedarbrook Middle School in the Cheltehham School District. The library has also planned a visit from a World War II vet and a field trip to the Philadelphia History Museum’s Quest for Freedom program, which focuses on the Philadelphia Abolitionist Movement. Christina Patton, the branch’s supervisor who also oversees adult and teen programming says, “We want to broaden the minds of participants and expose them to ideas and experiences that give more context to what they are reading. We hope they walk away from the program with a deeper understanding of themselves and their worlds.” Encouraging participants to dig into the program’s themes and reflect on them is central to the experience. The group will work together to define themes like perseverance by designing the “Survivor’s Award” which will be given to one character in the book that best exemplifies their definition of a survivor. Throughout the program, participants will synthesize what they are learning and document it by creating a Teen Reading Lounge timeline, which will be shared with the public at the program’s final session. Both activities aim to build trust and community among participants—a crucial component to creating an environment that welcomes different perspectives, ideas and experiences. Greater Olney’s program will run from February through June. Martin Memorial Library, York (York County) At the Martin Memorial Library in York, youth participating in Teen Reading Lounge will combine book discussions and hands-on learning to explore themes of personal motivation, identity and resilience. Using books focusing on these themes as a starting point for discussion (for example, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper), local youth will take part in peer-to-peer discussion facilitated by celebrated poet Carla Christopher. Christopher has been working with youth in the York area for years; helping them change the narrative of their lives is something that is especially important to her. Many of the youth she works with come from challenging backgrounds and they don’t often get the opportunity to participate in programs that allow them to discover their own history, culture and identity while building communication, literacy, critical-thinking and interpersonal skills. “Literacy is crucial,” Christopher said in an interview with the York Dispatch this past December, “You need to know how to research, read and process information.” When asked about the idea of building resilience, Christopher commented, “Our job is about giving students the strength to overcome (adversity) and the skills to get through it.” Dawn States, Martin Memorial Library’s teen program coordinator, hopes that connecting the program to the stories of young entrepreneurs will inspire participating youth to think about what they want from their lives and how to make their goals a reality. A series of visits to local businesses—like York City Pretzel so shop owner and York resident Phillip Given can speak to the group about his own success story—will highlight that determination, personal accountability and hard work can yield positive results. Martin Memorial Library’s program will run from April through May. Community Library of Shenango Valley, Sharon (Mercer County) At the Community Library of Shenango Valley in Sharon, participants will use three popular young adult novels (Reality Boyby A.S. King, Crank by Ellen Hopkins and In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang) to explore identity, decision-making and how choices shape our lives. In addition to book discussions led by Corri Hines, youth services librarian, participants will take part in a field trip to Gallery 29, an art studio in the Shenango Valley. Working side by side with artists, youth will create their own art that compares how they believe the world sees them and how they see themselves. Also planned is a poetry slam featuring participants’ writing, which they will record with the help of Mud-Hut Records, a local recording studio. The group will help produce the record while learning how to edit, mix and record as they work alongside Bill Dodd, the studio’s owner. According to the director of the library, Robin Pundzak, the library wants to attract more teens for similar programs. Robin says, “Our goal is to expand the number of teenagers that use our library for both education and entertainment. We hope to demonstrate to local teens that the library is a safe, fun, and enriching environment.” The program, which incorporates the humanities, arts and STEM activities to build communication, interpersonal, literacy and critical-thinking skills, will conclude with a public celebration acknowledging the young participants’ creative contributions to the experience. Community Library of Shenango Valley’s program will run from February through May.