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Review of Why Aren’t We Doing This

Review of Why Aren’t We Doing This

By Anthony Bernier | October 2023

Adults love writing so-called “non-fiction” books about young people. The most popular of these books indulge cliched and unsupported claims based on moral panics-of-the-week. This week’s panic is about “the teenage brain” and depression. The next week it’s about overindulging an energy drink, a new social network application, or teen mental health. Such moral panics historically reach back to the morally corrupting influence of AM radio.

In 2022, a popular example was You Are Your Own Best Teacher, by Claire Nader, claiming youth to be helpless apathetic victims to the always nefarious “tyranny of peer groups.” Authors of these titles receive lucrative, immediate, and un-scrutinized national notoriety. Few such authors’ claims or opinions percolate from anything more than a handful of instances – from psychologist or social worker caseloads or a journalist’s random field observations. Fewer still actually include young people in their assessments.

On the other hand, Why Aren’t We Doing This: Collaborating with Minors in Major Ways, pushes back on such books lining the nation’s library shelves, with the direct question of its title. Co-authored by the intergenerational team of 19-year-old youth advocate, Denise Webb, and veteran radical youth advocate, Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, they invert the legacy cliches found in conventional and popular non-fiction about today’s young people.

Scrutinizing over 80 interviews with a wide array of highly involved youth service providers and young people, Webb and Lesko present a vision of youth as something other than innocent & hapless victims or marauding criminals.

They answer their title’s question.

Webb and Lesko imagine young people as already capable, active, and contributing agents in many nonprofit organizations and governmental institutions. Their findings urge the rest of us to see young people this way, too, as intergenerational collaborators.

In an inspiringly accessible narrative voice, Why Aren’t We Doing This teaches the topics and addresses the concerns skeptics simply accept to justify why incorporating young people is just too hard.

Webb and Lesko illustrate how it’s not.

Their well laid-out Table of Contents usher readers through six logical arguments and strategies for disrupting legacies that exclude youth through inducting and infusing youth into the operational and strategic fabric of our organizations. Along the way Why Aren’t We Doing This shares real-world insights from their interviews as well as offers practical resources, such as the “Ladder of Real Vs. Token Youth Participation,” to help guide organizations away from superficial manipulations of young people through to genuine influence and power enhancing collaborations.

While Why Aren’t We Doing This inherently criticizes conventional “youth development” theory’s outdated indoctrinations and “colonialist” aspirations, something long overdue(!), this reader would like to have seen a more direct confrontation. This, however, perhaps says more about my own agenda than the authors’. I would also have appreciated a bibliography of the resources the authors drew from in mounting this important guide.

That said, as someone who teaches youth service professionals, I particularly appreciate the detailed content about appropriate on-boarding, coaching, and co-piloting techniques leading to authentic youth influence building.

Youth advocates, political activists and campaign strategists, social workers, teachers, and civic officials of all kinds will find Why Aren’t We Doing This an indispensable and practical guide to acknowledging how, as the Forward reads, young peoples’ lives “have value NOW.” [emphasis in original]

Order your copy here:

Order your copy here:
https://www.amazon.com/Arent-Doing-Collaborating-Minors-Major/dp/B0CJ49HL5S

Librarians Punch Down on Teenagers

Librarians Punch Down on Teenagers

By Anthony Bernier | October 2023

How can I continue doing this work? I teach future librarians about serving teenagers professionally and equitably. People find it odd that librarians need this teaching. The behaviors of national library leaders, though, demonstrate they do.

The hottest issue in libraries today pits libraries against “book banning” zealots challenging intellectual freedom. Librarians find themselves defending books and materials their professional ethical commitments require them to make available to everyone.

Most of these disputes constitute what we know as “cultural war” issues particularly as they pertain to books for young people. Attacks include charges of promoting anti-American themes, “wokeness,” and “deviant” sexual, gender, and racial identities.

Librarians rightly defend intellectual freedom. If you don’t like a book or an author’s writing, don’t read it. One of my own librarian heroes, Dorothy M. Broderick (1929-2011), gained notoriety by posting a sign: “If you don’t find something offensive in this library, see the librarian.”

Toleration for difference, unfettered access to contrary opinions, and the promotion of free expression number among the institution’s core values. This is especially true as libraries continue to adopt policies and practices promoting DEI and LGBTQ rights. Presumably, it is these values that keep libraries among the nation’s most trusted public institutions.

So, it’s all the more disturbing to continually discover national library leaders punching down on the very young people they purport to be defending in these pitched battles.

During the last month alone, the president of the American Library Association indulged in unqualified negative characterizations of youth (an entire demographic) not once, not twice, but three times! Each instance includes peeks into what is also clearly a challenging domestic situation – for which a teenaged son is held accountable in front of a large social media audience.

And in the latest issue of the Public Libraries, the president of the Public Library Association, in an otherwise cliched attack on library schools, also punches down on youth. The essay’s only mention of youth characterizes “unruly teenagers” numbering among the topics library schools allegedly do not address.

Among the worst aspects of these anti-youth screeds, aside from the fact that they
contradict the profession’s own ethical aspirations, is that these national leaders feel entirely confident that their bigoted assertions appeal to large and sympathetic audiences. Unfortunately, my own studies of the profession’s legacies and practices tend to support these assumptions.

Another odious aspect of these behaviors manifests in how they distract from more pressing concerns about young people. During our current effort to emerge from pandemic, many claims surface about the crisis in youth mental health. Librarians enthusiastically participate in the campaign – producing columns in national media, at conference presentations, in classrooms. This enthusiasm spreads even though librarians are not trained or equipped to identify, assess, or treat mental distress.

Yet, as YouthFacts’ own Mike Males points out in his 15 July 2023, article in Salon.com, the crisis originates not in schools or among peers but at home.

Males cites the Center for Disease Control’s statistics documenting, for instance, 400-600% increases in physical and psychological abuse among girls perpetrated by parents or other household adults.

The crisis, nearly universally blamed on youth behaviors, emanates instead from home.

Males’s point deserves wide readership among policy experts as well as library leaders hell-bent on punching down on young people.

In answer to my opening question, about continuing my work,” I’ll borrow from Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

At least part of the responsibility for the rollback on reproductive choice rests with an unlikely culprit: liberal Hollywood.

At least part of the responsibility for the rollback on reproductive choice rests with an unlikely culprit: liberal Hollywood.

By Anthony Bernier, July 2023

Isn’t it nice to blame it all on Trump? Trump’s reactionary political base. Trump absconding with the Supreme Court. Trump repealing “Roe” – a women’s right to abortion. While true, of course, these things do not tell the whole story. At least part of the responsibility for the rollback on reproductive choice rests with an unlikely culprit: “liberal Hollywood.”

When looking back at the films preceding the Trump era, to the period giving rise to the Obama Administration, more complexity emerges. In popular films of that period, while baby boomers enjoyed choice, popular films denied it to younger women.

Intergenerational hypocrisy is not unique to boomer political ethics, of course, especially when it comes to public policy. What we did to advance our reproductive freedom was world historical.

Gee. Weren’t we great?!

You kids just have to suck it up. Too bad. So sad.

Among the period’s most celebrated films about youth were Juno (2007) and Twilight (2008). In the first, Juno puts the baby up for adoption; the second film’s master narrative reclines on un-reflexive sexual restraint: the male lead, vampire Edward, doesn’t even have a bed in his bedroom! 

When you see one or two treatments avoiding reproductive choice, you take it in on one level. But when you see it over and over again without exception it’s time to start connecting the dots.

In addition to Juno’s adoption option and Twilight’s tortured “Just Say No” abstinence regime, a long list piled up well before Trump.

Natalie Portman in Where the Heart Is (2000) portrays a 17-year-old in Oklahoma struggling to rebuild her life after being abandoned by the boyfriend. She insists on raising her new baby alone.

In another, Drew Barrymore portrays a boozy high school girl in Riding in Cars with Boys (2001). Barrymore’s character arc gets pregnant (of, course, what else do boozy high school chicks do?), has the baby, and raises it to become the “adult” in the family.

In Waitress (2007) Keri Russell plays a young woman disconnecting from yet another unreliable (and in this case dangerous man) who parlays taking her baby to term as a metaphor for becoming “empowered.”

As with Twilight and Juno, these films all depict young women’s culture, community, and endurance. Under different circumstances this might be a welcome counterpoint to otherwise predictable anti-youth screeds found in adult non-fiction, mass media, public policy, and popular culture.

But when viewed against a larger and consistent backdrop these films become a de facto Hollywood anti-abortion campaign.

I’m not a fan of abortion. Who is? But the very idea of “choice,” as a right and a viable option, in all these representations, “option” means only carrying the baby to term or abstinence.

Correction. There is one exception.

In Coach Carter (2005) Samuel L. Jackson plays a self-righteous high school basketball coach teaching an inner-city school how to turn boys into men. The girlfriend of team’s African American star terminates her pregnancy to preserve his collegiate aspirations.

Well, so long as the kids are Black and it’s for the right reasons…

The coming on of the “Obama Moment” promised a new narrative about young motherhood – perhaps even young parenthood. We hoped that a new narrative might extend all the choices to which citizens are entitled. While boomers did enjoy that moment, younger women were left adrift.

How convenient to blame it all on Trump. But anti-choice vampires were there first.

Still Believe in the ‘Undeveloped Teen Brain?’ Well, don’t.

Still Believe in the ‘Undeveloped Teen Brain?’ Well, don’t.

By Anthony Bernier | June 2023

 

The theory of the “teenage brain” purports to explain young peoples’ “impulsivity,” “volatile” emotions, and “risk-taking” behaviors. It’s a notion emerging from the 19th century’s concept of “Youth Development” and more recently advanced by some in the neuro-science field based upon interpretations about the human brain’s prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hypothalamus, and how their “plasticity” renders them more immediately influenced by experience.

But a theory must account for facts.

Real theories emerge from rigorous examination over long periods of time under varied and different circumstances. Theories are refined over time to include new data, new interpretations, and undergo strenuous peer-review. More authoritative theory undergoes further testing through reproducing the same or similar results in subsequent trials. Ultimately, a theory should reliably explain and predict outcomes.

The “teen brain” theory can claim few of these.

Nevertheless, the “teen brain” theory has been adopted and promoted by many professional and interest groups claiming specialized knowledge, skills, and abilities in working with young people. Modern education uses it to segregate youth into finely sliced “grade levels” on the assumption that brains of a certain chronological age, not capacity, can handle only certain content. Psychologists and social workers use it to specialize by segregating young people from children and adult clients. The justice system uses it both to justify the “juvenile justice” system and to segregate (i.e. “protect”) youth in separate specialized institutions. Mercenary popular non-fiction authors made it a cottage industry. Even librarians use it to rationalize (i.e., “defend”) behaviors the institution otherwise feels “unacceptable.”

The teen brain theory is commonly deployed to “explain” youth behaviors that adults define as anti-social. It is often used as a defense against otherwise prevailing adultist assumptions: all teens are potentially dangerous and emotionally explosive, especially if they are not receiving careful and professional oversight and supervision. It appears in phrases like, “Oh, they can’t help it, their brains are just not developed.”

Politically, the teen brain theory is used on both the left and the right. For political conservatives, the concept is used to promote harsh anti-youth punishment regimes: curfews, “gang injunctions,” and so-called “zero tolerance” policy. Liberals likewise do not question the assumptions at the base of teen brain theory, but instead of punishment, prescribe a wide array of professional interventions, such as programs “to keep kids off the street.”

Both interpretations assume the inherent flawed and “underdeveloped” nature of youth. Both defer achieving “full development” to some far-off future and magical moment when “maturity” suddenly appears. And aspiring only to that magical future “mature” moment, teen brain theory also implicitly dismisses youth experience in the here and now.

While there are many ways the teen brain theory is susceptible to critical thought, exploring just a few should lead at least to skepticism of what it advances if they do not discredit it entirely. Most recently, the highly respected magazine Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), reported that up to a third of some 5000 peer-reviewed neuroscience papers published in 2020 were likely plagiarized or entirely invented from whole cloth.[1]  And beyond exposing these stunning fabrications of clinical science, which should alone render confidence in teen brain theory problematic, additional questions make it worse.

First and foremost, most teen brain research is conducted on a very thin demographic slice of the youth population (mostly middle-class white youth from wealthy countries). This fact alone should make us stomp hard on the brake pedal in indulging sweeping generalizations about all youth – particularly when considering working class youth or youth of color – both of whom are routinely singled out as “behavior problems.”

What possible single generalization can explain an entire demographic – to say nothing of predicting behavior as real theory does? What possible generalization could, for instance, explain all women or all people from a particular faith tradition?

As an historian, I am also compelled to acknowledge that teen brain theory purports universal application. Really? All youth, in all cultures, in all places, for all gender identities, for all time, exhibit the same “lacking” brain development manifested in the same ways?

Moreover, the “measuring stick” or criteria for characterizing youth as “un-developed” is the equally fictitious notion of the “mature adult.”

Now there is a notion worth scientific study!


[1] Brainard, J. (9 May 2023). Fake scientific papers are alarmingly common: But new tools show promise in tackling growing symptom of academia’s ‘publish or perish’ culture. Science 380, no. 6645, [https://www.science.org/content/article/fake-scientific-papers-are-alarmingly-common]

Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents―and What They Mean for America’s Future By Jean M. Twenge

Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents―and What They Mean for America’s Future By Jean M. Twenge

Reviewed by Mike Males | June 8, 2023

2 Out of 5 Stars: Leaves Out Huge Issues 

Generations sounds at least the hundredth alarm in the last hundred years proclaiming a “new mental health crisis” among teenagers (did you know 75% of 1930s “Greatest Generation” boys tested mentally defective “due to anxiety”?). Alan (Closing of the American Mind, 1987) Bloom lambasted Jean Twenge’s and endorser Jonathan (Coddling of the American Mind, 2018) Haidt’s 1980s Gen X as mentally disturbed, intolerant, and pop-media warped (plus uneducable and unemployable), Now, Twenge and Haidt find Gen Z troubling.

Still, Twenge is right: “Gen Z is different.” That signals caution in how we clueless old folks assess it. Her and others’ traditional interpretations of Gen Z’s self-reported depression, anxiety, social media use, etc., risk serious misunderstanding – just as Twenge’s 2006 Generation Me misinterpreted narcissism scales (they now track social disadvantage) and confused pop-culture quips with “evidence,” producing disastrously wrong forecasts. Twenge-2006 predicted youthful epidemics of social disorder, school failure, disconnection, “hooking up,” dishonesty, and “dangers that were once unknown.” Twenge-2023 now admits these never happened.

Generations is much better, with interesting generational surveys (which can dictate answers that may not reflect respondents’ true choices) and detailings of Gen Z’s gender fluidity and rejection of traditional milestones. Unfortunately, Generations suffers from Twenge’s usual refusal to engage major facts that challenge her thesis. “No other plausible culprit has emerged,” Twenge declares, for  the “very large and sudden changes in mental health” among teenagers other than “technology, especially social media” (p. 401).

Yes, culprits have emerged. Big, obvious ones, requiring much effort to overlook.

The same CDC survey reporting increased teenage depression and anxiety also reported a doubling in violent abuses and a quadrupling in emotional abuses – the latter victimizing a staggering 55% of youths– inflicted by parents and other household adults. Grownup violence and bullying toward teenagers at home exploded over the last decade to levels far higher than teens experience at school or online – all to deafening silence by Twenge, Haidt, and social-media blamers.

Additionally, depression tripled among parent-aged grownups to diagnostic levels higher than among adolescents. Among ages 25-54, deaths from suicides, drug/alcohol overdose, and guns soared from 35,635 (2000) to 110,184 (2021) as Gen Z grew up, a tripling in per-capita rates and an increase 1.7 times faster than among teens. By 2021, parents’ risks of dying from self-destructive causes increased to four times higher, and criminal arrest rates to twice as high, as among high-school-age teens; plus 130,000 more parent-age COVID deaths.

Generations spends scores of pages on mental health, yet “abuse” doesn’t appear in Twenge’s index. Twenge’s 515-page book dismisses sexual harassment and assault in scant sentences as something only celebrities or young peers do. In fact, household adults’ 1+ million sexual abuses victimizing children and teens substantiated by the Administration on Children and Families as Gen Z grew up argues otherwise. (Twenge’s Generation Me likewise deployed one idiotic Wavy Gravy quip to dismiss the mammoth Boomer drug scourge.)

Twenge, Haidt, and other academics and professionals – who should brand their own Xers and Boomers the “you can’t say that!” and “stay safe” generations – owe their popularity to ignoring and downplaying parents’ and grownups’ skyrocketing, widespread depression, addiction, self-destructive deaths, and violent and emotional abuses victimizing teenagers. While studies blaming social media are conflicting and methodologically limited, an overwhelming research consensus links parental abuses and troubles to teens’ depression, anxiety, and other ills.

Twenge hints at but fails to present what a profound revolution younger Millennials and Gen Z are bringing. Remember the terrors teenagers traditionally were lambasted for? Crime, shootings, school dropout, “teen pregnancy,” stealing, vandalizing, all-around savagery. Gen Z has all but abolished that teenager. Using consistently reliable California statistics and comparing 2021 to 1995 and 1970 (that is, Gen Zers versus Xers and Boomers), the trends are astonishing: Rates of criminal arrest: down 96%, down 92%, respectively. Violence arrest: down 81%, down 83%. Gun deaths, down 35%, down 69%. Suicide: down 11%, down 18%. Juvenile probation referrals: down 93%, down 92%. Youth incarcerations: down 80%, down 88%. “Teenage” births: down 89%, down 84%.

A Gen Z that has sharply reduced its school dropout (by 70%), increased its college attendance and graduation rates (by 30%, despite larcenous costs), and sharply boosted political activism and voting is not “struggling with mental health,” as Twenge and others insist. A better interpretation is that the depression and anxiety expressed by today’s youth are logical, healthy, even motivating responses to the anxiety-driving conditions they experience.

Proof that external conditions, not internal mental processes, are paramount is the biggest reasons younger Millennials and Gen Z show such dramatic behavior improvements: the 75% reduction in child poverty fostered by increased tax credits for poor families, and the 95% reduction in children’s neurotoxic lead levels due to environmental regulations since 1990. When economic and environmental conditions improved, youth behaviors improved astonishingly. Imagine 16-year-olds with lower crime rates than 46-year-olds… that’s Gen Z.

The massive, definitive 2022 Pew study (more pivotal research Twenge fails to engage, possibly because it challenges her claims) found teens use social media to connect and find support during tough times. That liberal and (recently) more educated modern populations are more anxious and depressed indicates more realistic comprehension of the crises we face.

Twenge, Haidt, and others readily judge and prescribe even as they ignore younger Millennials’ and Gen Z’s most crucial features – their parent generations’ extraordinary troubles alongside youths’ spectacular improvements (are these related?). Teens were accused of growing up too fast and taking too many risks; now they’re growing up too slowly and risking too little. Like Bob Dylan’s “Mister Jones,” we older folks don’t know what is happening here, and fear and self-superiority fueled by works like these too easily resonate with us. We need to leave those kids alone and fix our own grownup problems.

 

Reviving “Rubin”

At a time when many make self-satisfied gestures at the notion of “alternative facts” that it looks like we’ll be living with for the next four years, I’d like to point out that we’ve come to live with a few alternative facts of our own.

A branch library I served at during the early 1990s attracted the patronage of a young man named “Rubin.” He was about fourteen then­­–the peak age identified by teachers, librarians, developmental psychologists, and administrators for “teen behavior problems.” From that point of view, Rubin might well have been labeled, incessantly hawked over, and routinely expelled from the library. This is an actual fact that happens every day.

The point I want to emphasize, though, is that there is no such thing as “teen behaviors.” This is an “alternative fact.”

“Teen behaviors” is just a cliché, a synonym, for staff who don’t understand, or know how to build relationships with others who don’t match prescribed and over-determined expectations.

Ruben was stretching and exploring his social environment when visiting the library. Who would accept him? Who would toss him aside? This is an actual fact of social life.

Here’s how this story developed. I asked him his name. I asked him who his favorite teacher was and acted like I knew her (“Oh, yeah. Ms. Patton, at Belmont, sure, I know her . . .”). When he asked me, I told him my girlfriend’s name. I gave him his own library nickname, “Screech,” (after the nerdy character in Saved by the Bell–the 1980s/90s TV sitcomthough he was certainly not a nerd–whatever that is!). I introduced him to e-mail and early online chat (remember this was early-90s!). Then I made fun of the people he thought he was communicating with when he was online chatting and flirting. He hated me for that! J

During this time, Ruben began to experiment with profanity. Not an uncommon fact.

Suddenly, everything was F… this and S… that.

Staff descended on him.

Frankly, I think that some staff came down on Ruben harder because he and I had developed a relationship–this was a cynical opportunity to prove that my approaches were naïve. This was not only an alternative fact. It was also counterfactual.

When I was not around, Ruben was expediently ejected from the library upon the inevitable next profanity infraction.

Adults use profanity all the time in the library. No ejection there. Fact.

Even before I’d encountered educator Ruby Payne, who has produced spectacular contributions to the work professionals do with clients from intergenerational poverty, I knew Ruben was reaching to broaden his horizons. His cursing was indeed selective and strategic (not compulsive) . . . he did it to express his growing power, familiarity, and comfort within our little library community.

One day I told him that I needed him to “help me do some stuff” and asked for his assistance. I invented a few tasks for him to do while I was on the reference desk . . . and told him that he needed to be within ear-shot of me while I was serving on the desk.

I wanted him to observe my interactions with library users.

After about an hour I took him aside. I asked him to evaluate what he observed of my interactions with the public. What did he think of my attitude in serving the people who came up to the desk? Why was I kind of dressed-up (buttoned-down collar on a pressed shirt, ironed slacks, and polished street shoes)? What did he observe of my phone work? What kind of language did I use and why?

Eventually, we got around to how those things were important aspects of serving the community. My language, dress, and manner reflected the respect I both gave and how I was received by library users.

Our interaction went something like this:

Anthony: Do I talk the same way with you that I do with other library users?

Rubin: “No.”

A: Do you think I talk “all polite like that” with my friends?

R: “No.”

A: With my girlfriend?

R: “NO!”

A: “Why?”

R: “Because you know them.”

A: “Right. I talk differently when I am representing the library.”

A: “When you (Rubin) use swear words in your own life you might be just relating casually with your friends or you might be disrespecting the people around you. But you make a choice, don’t you? When you cuss while you are volunteering for the library, though, you tell the public that the library doesn’t respect them. And when you do it around these children you are squandering the role model you represent to them.”

A: “Is this what you want?”

I will not say that Ruben stopped cussing overnight. He didn’t. And that’s a fact. But over the next few weeks, it dropped off to nearly nothing. And that’s a fact, too.

After our discussion, and building on our relationship, he modulated his language himself because he could see the implications and preferred to avoid them in the library.

Is this being a social worker? A psychologist?

No. It’s the kind of explicit and discrete role modeling you hear and read about all the time but rarely see in action. It’s modeling what community-based public service is about. It’s modeling what it means to respect and serve a real and actual community–a factual place and time. It’s modeling these things not simply for one young man who deserved just a little more attention but it’s modeling that behavior perhaps even more significantly for library staff that might otherwise feel entitled to impose their own alternative facts, privileging their alternative facts selectively on the head of young people.

While I don’t have any photos or evidence, you’ll have to just take my word for how this story ended. Ruben became a steadfast volunteer for the branch. He began demonstrating how people could use the computer scanner (new then). He started assisting the computer tutor with word processing instruction for Spanish speakers. He eventually served one-term as my appointed YA volunteer program assistant.

Rubin became, in Ruby Payne’s terms, a “homegrown leader.”

The other option would have been to institute alternative facts and throw him out every day.

YALSA’s Cynical Heart: Reproducing the Adultist Agenda

American Library Association’s (ALA) recent dog-piling on young people for their incapacity to discern “fake news” got me thinking.

In its 22 November issue of ALA Direct, that “tightly curated” e-newsletter, the association pointed uncritically to a recent Stanford study cherry-picking on young people for media skills that our last election cycle showed challenged adults as well – with far more dire consequences. Unfortunately, cherry-picking on youth appears endemic to ALA.

YALSA, too, continually and cynically “punches down” on young adults.

I’ve been doing some cherry-picking of my own. The same deficit vision of young people on display in ALA Directreappears in YALSA’s new “Summer Learning Approach.” This new programming recommendation indulges curricular goals unsuited for public libraries along with the always ill-defined “connected learning” agenda, as well as the desperate and equally specious “summer slide” cliché that remains contested among researchers. Further, a critical review of the association’s Core Professional Values statement yields the same deficit-based assumptions about youth: “responding to teen needs,” “builds and maintains knowledge of teens’ social, emotional, mental, and physical development” etc., etc., etc.

For all the professional capacity represented in these institutional documents, there is no attention to end user value. Moreover, the association’s current “Re-envisioning YALSA to Support Our New Mission” (see YALSA Blog 3 November 2016) reproduces what YALSA usually does – and says nothing about value for young adults.

But YALSA’s cynical punching down on youth gets worse than mere institutional aspirations. From another official blog post, we learn about “Bullying Prevention Month.” The cynicism is so deeply ingrained in this discourse that the conversation assumes only youth-on-youth bullying.

Teen birth rates have plummeted, crime rates are at all-time lows, and graduation rates are at all-time highs. Yet officialYALSA blog posts continue to sound the alarm about these tired moral panics. Some teen girls do get pregnant. But teen moms gave birth to both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. Can’t YALSA at least acknowledge that the rate has dropped?

Such official statements are not simply meaningless. They produce a dire, misleading vision of increasingly dangerous youth, self-destructive, and/or deficient – requiring all manner of “preventions” that libraries cannot prove they meaningfully address.

Why ALA and YALSA feel compelled to constantly regurgitate the “teen problem” wrapped in the same-old prevention talking points we’ve heard from pedestrian sources for decades is beyond me.

Imagine talking about any other social group this way.

Why don’t librarians just Google any of the thousands of sites dispensing these worn-out homilies over the last quarter century?

Librarians are supposed to be better than that. YA librarians, in particular, should be up in arms protesting anti-youth bigotry, not reproducing it!

Library professionals need to model using the best information, advancing innovative and critical thinking, not recycling clichés, stereotypes, and phony moral panics.

The most recent flavor of privileging youth incapacities appears in this November’s YALSA Town Hall summons. Come one, come all! Hear about how libraries can assuage the kiddies’ hurty feelings about what the adult electorate did to the country! Partisan politics aside; I can’t fathom YALSA calling a Town Hall had the other candidate won!

What evidence connects library service to demonstrably “helping youth cope with the challenges, stress, and even threats,” election or no. Further, the Town Hall promises resources to “build empathy and understanding among youth” – all easy to measures, right?

Wrong. Libraries are not positioned or prepared for these things. Nor do young adults need fixing from libraries.

Rather than chasing these indefinable emotional concerns or electoral politics, what if Town Halls punched up instead and developed audiences of professionals concerned with the widespread poverty more and more youth live in since 2008? What if YALSA concerned itself with collecting information for teachers about how schools and the FBI are eroding their students’ civil rights and intellectual freedoms? What about fortifying local organizations with information regarding youth immigration policy or defending religious minority rights?

Youth don’t need another do-gooding adult agenda punching-down on them.

Have you seen the news? From coast to coast youth are organizing in middle and high schools, in churches and synagogues, they’re marching in the streets and in the hallways, they’re on the radio and all over the Internet in creative and innovative ways connecting through their own interest groups – be they age, race, social class, sexual orientation, religion, or region.

bernier-1

San Francisco teens protest for their right to vote. San Francisco Youth Commission

In my region of the country, youth won their right to elect school board members (Berkeley). They gained 48 percent support for the right to vote in San Francisco elections. Just listen to them testify before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last May [http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=10&clip_id=25297]

“Sure,” you say, “That’s the Bay Area.” But there’s a national campaign growing to enfranchise youth from age 16 – from Broward County in Florida to New York. Two Maryland cities have already enfranchised youth (Takoma Park and Hyattsville) and seventeen states already allow seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries and caucuses. And this isn’t even to mention the twenty other countries in which citizens under eighteen already vote in national elections!

Given that high school students across the country peacefully protested November’s election – the assumption that YA librarians need to teach young adults anything about tolerance or empathy or civic engagement, if not blatant anti-youth bigotry and hubris, is at least deeply cynical.

Imagine that! The profession’s only association even nominally dedicated to serving YAs is institutionally cynical about their own users!

I say “nominally” because, first, despite our rhetoric about “serving young adults,” libraries historically seek to mollify adults more than young adults (in service development, execution, and evaluation). Despite lectures about “what we offer” it’s really been adults that libraries aim to please – to “help” youth “develop into mature adults,” “to succeed in school,” “to stay off the streets,” “to learn skills.” None of this youth development agenda speaks to their interests as individuals or as collective social agents in the here and now. Meanwhile, they are defining their own interests and exercising their own voices.

They rarely do it, however, within libraries. And, truth be told, they never have.

Second, while defining YA services through adult concerns, libraries have concentrated only on themselves. As YALSA’s aspirations document, libraries continue to count only self-reported “output measures” – how many books, computer stations, hours of tutoring, program head counts – but not young adult outcomes ­– their experiences, chances, meanings, and the value they derive using libraries. Instead, they go on creating their own meanings entirely independent of an institution presumably dedicated to serve them!

Despite all the claims libraries may feel forced into making, YA librarians really need do only two things:  1) contribute to the institution’s overall effectiveness with young adults — through ethical conduct, operations, and insuring delivery of professional informational services; and, 2) connect information and young adults based upon their interests.

And that’s hard enough.

Society does not and cannot hold libraries accountable for addressing large, ill-defined, or mythical social behaviors. It is not the responsibility of libraries to do so – the story is the same for school libraries (though here, curricular goals do matter). And libraries exhibit no small amount of cynicism claiming they can.

At some point libraries and YA librarians need to reconcile the difference between adultist agendas and rhetoric of assisting deficient young people in “growing up” versus the role they could play in enhancing and enriching the experience of youth people in the present.

One is about the library’s legacy; the other must be about its destiny.

No Safe Space Haven in a Public World

Few clichés promise to do more damage to libraries than claiming to be “safe spaces.” Libraries are not safe spaces. At the very least, such a claim perpetuates an immodest and ill-defined boast and, as with most boasts, this one can’t be delivered.

Recently, within the space of only one month, two west coast libraries witnessed tortured souls openly committing suicide during public hours. A third reported a fatal overdose.

What could library staff tell parents about the library as safe space then?  What can administrations tell staff? What kind of “safety” is that?

Touting that nothing bad will happen represents one kind of conventional claim of the safe space cliché. Of course, as we all know, other examples challenge libraries daily. Lots of these, while perhaps not so tragic or dramatic as these recent circumstances, confront libraries in myriad ways in how they function not as fantasy but actual public space. We tend not to think or talk about them, though, when engaging hyperbolic rhetoric.

Like on streets, however, or on public transportation, in large entertainment venues, or the recreational facilities we share, unintended things happen and happen quickly, no matter how many cameras or badges or lights we install.

Control is a myth in public space.

A second challenge is the myth of the intellectual safety space libraries frequently claim to represent. I hasten to remind readers that the VOYA co-founder herself, Dorothy M. Broderick, famously encouraged libraries to intentionally post provocative signs stating: “If you do not find something offensive in here please see a librarian.”

Libraries are thus not intellectually “safe spaces” either. Although these days one hears fewer complaints about “second-hand porn” (young people inadvertently exposed to dangerous screens) citizens can get into all kinds of dangerous situations bumping up against ideas and browsing titles and images unsuited for people with “safety” foremost on their minds. Ideas and art and creativity, by definition, defy “safe.” Libraries are chock-full of them all. And librarians are ethically bound to be proud of that.

A third and even broader type of challenge to the illusionary safe space claim is the ideologically reaching notion of libraries created and designed to elevate the human spirit. This notion claims to connect us to ideal concepts of democratic community – the idea that libraries are, for instance, “free to all” as old Carnegie buildings promise, in stone, above many a front door. In libraries, the story goes, all can safely pursue their interests no matter where those interests go . . . “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

History, however, indelicately calls us on such soaring lies. History tells us, for example, that white middle-class woman didn’t find libraries “safe space” (as users or professionals) until the waning moments of the 19th century. African Americans didn’t find libraries safe until struggling well past the middle of the 20th century. Disabled people required federal legislation, too, before they could consider libraries safe. With this history can there be much doubt, especially in today’s political climate, that immigrants (among others) might find libraries not particularly safe from insult, surveillance, and suspicion?

Young adults, our particular concern, may well number chief among the groups to question the library as safe public space. Momentarily set aside how libraries evoke the claim every day without serious definition, Young adult visitors might experience all three of these different kinds of challenge simultaneously. Young adults routinely find themselves “tossed” from libraries for minor or perceived behavioral infractions. This practice remains so common that staff only rarely document it – so, it can’t be studied or questioned. Staff receive no training in safeguarding library space for young people. Libraries frequently defer to security staff – affording them a free hand in interpreting both behavior and library policy. And this, of course, does not even address the ongoing systematic and institutional refusal of libraries to allocate an equitable share of library space for YA service. Libraries still devote less than .03 percent of total assignable square footage to YA space – much less than even bathrooms.

Space is power. The more space one controls, the safer one can make it. Claiming and controlling space, though, requires the assertion of private control, and private control represents precisely the opposite of what libraries offer.

Should libraries stop claiming to be safe spaces? Of course. But the better question remains why they make the silly claim in the first place.

Libraries are not designed for safety. Safety is not in the library’s mission. Library services cannot even clearly define what “safety” means in any generalizable or measurable or defendable way. Nor should they try.

On the other hand, as architect Jan Gehl writes:  “Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.”

Good quality public space is something we can design, define, and ensure in meaningful ways. Quality public space resides within the purview of professional responsibility. Quality space connects the library’s role with the provision of trusted (as well as suspect) information. Libraries uniquely offer the opportunity to inhabit a public space designed not to construct consumers but citizens. Quality public space comports with the library’s mission to contribute to the well-being of a democratic community.

The renowned urban planner, Jane Jacobs, got it right over a half-century ago when she advanced her “eyes on the street” thesis. The more people in a public space, Jacobs advanced, the safer that space. Quality public library spaces designs can assure many eyes in the building. The more eyes in the building, the safer space becomes.

YA Activism: Thunder from the Left (and the Right)

How much more time must pass before libraries realize that young adults don’t need any “youth development” agenda to recognize them as active participants and contributors to the culture?

While libraries wring hands in moral panics and exaggerations over “youth crime,” “peer pressure” (it’s always peer pressure), and developmental needs (and it’s always needs) – things libraries actually can’t do anything about–the youth go forward without permission from some institution claiming to “empower” them with “community assets.”

It’s too easy to characterize recent youth activism as coming from the cultural or political “left.” Still, it’s difficult to ignore the progressive impacts that the DREAMers or the Black Lives Matter movements are having on national politics and policy (see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Lives_Matter, and Walter J. Nicholls, 2013, The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate).

More recent, and less difficult to place on a left/right political spectrum, is the growing national campaign to expand local voting rights for youth. Witness last November’s 48 percent of San Francisco’s electorate supporting the measure’s first attempt (http://vote16sf.org/). Many other campaigns achieved even more successful victories that now allow for youth to participate in the election of school board members and other local matters.

There is not, however, anything new about youth activism. Youth activism goes back too far into history to allow for serious treatment here. But let’s just stick our toes in a bit, shall we?

Indeed, in January 1961, the just-elected John F. Kennedy anticipated a coming groundswell of youth activism. In his inaugural address, he called a new generation of Americans forward, issuing some of the most quoted words in American history: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” the young president implored, “but what you can do for your country.”

Shortly thereafter, in 1962, the Port Huron Statement founded the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “We are people of this generation,” they declared, “bred in at least modest comfort… looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Huron_Statement]. Even then youth had to overcome adult cynicism and dismissal. “Fine,” they said, “we’ll change the world by ourselves.” Nearly did, too. As did the thousands of youth activists who desegregated Jim Crow’s  public schools, pools, recreation centers, and many other public facilities.

Within library history, however, “youth activism” appears recognized only when ALA stages it. Long before the recent exaggerated performances of conservative provocateurs on college campuses, ALA found it useful to stage weighty debates over free speech and intellectual freedom within a high school setting. The association actually commissioned the production of The Speaker, in 1977, a 42-minute filmed dramatization that set ALA aflame in controversy and recrimination for the next generation: Should the school host a reactionary speaker or not? High school activists are portrayed as working through the dilemma with the librarian, of course, portrayed as the wise arbiter. The point here is that ALA elevated representations of high school students to address important ethical challenges the adult professionals were fighting over.

Actual history, however, portrays librarians in a much less positive light. Less acknowledged, largely even unknown today is the history of black teenagers who, as early as 1939, protested racial segregation of all-white public libraries. One of the first incidents appears to have taken place at the Alexandria, Virginia, Public Library. Many years later, in the spring of 1960, even anticipating Kennedy’s call, thirteen black high school students in Danville, Virginia, filed a successful federal lawsuit to desegregate their library. In response, the library shuttered its doors. That incident sparked many years of black youth pressing for library integration through “read-in” protests in other Virginia towns, in South Carolina, in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Nearly a quarter century after Alexandria, in 1962 Montgomery, Alabama, an African American teenage girl filed a lawsuit in federal court to desegregate her public library. Instead of obeying the court order to desegregate, the library removed the building’s tables and chairs. Some of the youth reportedly brought in their own folding chairs from home.

In the words of historians Shirley A. Wiegand and Wayne A. Wiegand, whose new scholarly treatment, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South, (forthcoming in 2018), “Hundreds of young public library protestors have gone largely unrecognized for their acts of courage.” What little we know of the history of library services to Mexican-American youth would add many more names to that list.

Why don’t librarians know more about young activists even within the context of their own institution? Could this fact lend credence to why they don’t appreciate youth’s capacities for activism today?

But neither is youth activism the exclusive cultural property of the political left. Along with the last half-century’s rise of mega-churches, communities of faith have cultivated youth activism across a wide spectrum of activity. Southern California’s suburban Harvest Crusades, for example, draw huge youth-oriented festival-like crowds. These revival concerts, promoted by young, informally dressed, multi-colored hair-died youth, advocate for the moral and religious agendas of their respective faith traditions.

This, too, constitutes youth activism. Indeed, communities of faith cultivate and respect youth activism comparatively more than the secular community. Faith charges them with purpose.

Youth have never needed “empowerment” by libraries as many claim. Indeed, librarians need youth activism more than youth need libraries to become activists. Librarians need youth activists to secure equitable library resources (staff, training, materials, space). Librarians need YA activists to defend their intellectual freedoms and access to information. Librarians need YA activists to ensure they’re treated equitably by library staff, security staff, and administrations. Librarians need activist young adults to infuse user perspectives into planning, program development and delivery, and service evaluation.

What young people could use from libraries, however, is information to inform, direct, and energize their activist impulses. Young people should value the library as an institution supportive of their contributions to their social and cultural concerns, not a temple of “youth improvement.”

Libraries are all too often mired in their own legacy practices and preconceived programming models geared toward simplistic headcount tabulations, printed flyers, and sign-up sheets.

When libraries successfully contribute true information support responsive to local youth experience, they won’t need flyers. The youth will organize themselves and just take over! They’ve proven they can do that time and time again.

In the current print version of this June’s VOYA, I offer an authoritative list of recent adult non-fiction titles that take up youth activism in a serious fashion.

Beyond the Celebrations

 

Beyond the Celebrations

The disturbing things LIS students find out about real YA programming and professionals’ ethical obligation to improve YA experience

It becomes more difficult each year to convince LIS students that they need to demonstrate service impact on YAs.

It is especially difficult when they see so little professional commitment to it coming from practitioners in the field. Why is it that so few YA librarians exhibit curiosity about the outcomes their users derive from their professional interventions? It certainly is a rare instance in which librarians demonstrate this curiosity to their future colleagues.

Before you get too angry at this revelation, however, let’s establish a few basic definitions. First and foremost, let’s differentiate library inputs and outputs from outcomes.

  • Inputs count the resources libraries offer their users: number of public access hours, number of computers and staff and programs, size of collections, and so on.
  • Library outputs are things libraries traditionally count that occur as a consequence of inputs: visitor or “gate” counts, log-in hours on library computers, program attendance or “head-counts,” circulation statistics, etc.

Inputs and outputs help the library keep track of the resources it uses – something comparable year after year, for example.

Neither, however, address nor reflect . . .

  • The degree to which actual users value their visits, benefit from computer use, enjoy programs, or grow from borrowed materials. These are Outcomes that reflect impact and illustrate what users feel was useful to them. Outcomes document the quality of YA experience.

During the more than ten years I’ve been teaching graduate LIS students interested in youth services, I have assigned a field experience in which students evaluate a YA or youth services department or program. Students from all over the country take these classes – so we’re not targeting a particular region. What students find during these examinations of “real-life” YA services is that in only very rare circumstances are young adults asked about the degree to which they value, benefit from, enjoy, or grow from what libraries offer.

How, libraries are increasingly asked, do they know they’re throwing “strikes” (offering successful services)?

Yes, students collect, review, assess, and incorporate input and output measures into their overall analysis. Not all libraries willingly share these normally public statistics with LIS students, however; something already of a concern. But most do. Thus, students analyze such things as the number of professional staff hours a library assigns to YA services, the number of summer reading program sign-ups the library records, perhaps YA-specific circulation. These are not unimportant details, particularly when compared meaningfully across several years.

Nor does ignoring the degree to which young adults enjoy, value, appreciate, and grow from their experiences necessarily mean they do not enjoy, value, appreciate, and grow from them. They very well may do so.

But it also means, however, that few libraries exhibit curiosity about these questions. It means libraries seldom collect evidence about them. To be blunter, it also means that, during the past ten years, overwhelmingly few libraries even ask their YA users about their experience. How do libraries know they’re throwing strikes?

Moreover, it means that when next year’s planning comes around, those same libraries possess no YA user data upon which to help modify and improve the services they offer. Are these the best service offerings the library can offer their YA community? How would they know? Are the appropriate resources (staff, skills, time, funding, space, planning, etc.) aligned to support the success of the services they offer? How would they know? If they don’t, what steps are necessary to better align resources with programming objectives? What other service/programming options might be better? Again, how would they know?

These questions cohere into one: To what degree do young adults value library offerings?

This is the question libraries must constantly engage to deliver professional-level YA services. Professionals must exhibit curiosity about the degree to which their interventions are valued. They must produce evidence to support it and the evidence must be easily understood by the library’s many constituencies – especially the public.

Are there obstacles to asking/answering these questions? Yes, of course. But if YA services are ever to be regarded as a professional specialization and add meaningful public value to the library and to LIS, then professionals must pursue them.

My students must assess the obstacles their example libraries face when confronting their lack of user-centric evaluation. These obstacles are familiar to any paradigm or organizational shift – such as the change from an institutional reliance on input and output measures to user evaluation in outcomes.

Students properly assess, for instance, that libraries do not align sufficient time for such evaluations during their service/program planning stages. They assess that staff do not possess sufficient skill to evaluate their own offerings – a skill set these students will certainly not lack. Another common assessment is that organizational culture would reject user-centric evaluations.

In most instances, I would suggest that these issues form common information needs or requests. How do I/we better align planning stages to demonstrate program value and effectiveness for our users? What skills do I/we need to evaluate professional services? How can I/we change the organizational structure to adopt professional-level service evaluation?

Project Outcome

Although this is a column, not a workshop, I’d like to serve temporarily as a reference librarian. In addition to several books and articles on outcomes, the Public Library Association is currently in the midst of offering Project Outcome (https://www.projectoutcome.org/) in response to these issues. The Project, free to all U.S. and Canadian libraries, addresses many of the obstacles about outcomes that practitioners face in everyday practice: how measuring outcomes can help demonstrate community impact; a Project Outcome Toolkit; examples of how to apply the toolkit in the library.

PLA’s Project Outcome is not intended simply for the otherwise privileged service profiles of adult and children’s services but is as applicable (and urgent) for YA services. During this period in which public services of all kinds find themselves under ideological and fiscal attack from so many quarters, YA services (already limping from a weak basis in research) must find a way to document the value YA users find in what libraries offer.

Libraries can begin by developing curiosity about what our YA users experience in library services, in developing evidence about those experiences, and using that evidence to improve library offerings to sharpen our strike zones.