“Members” Now: Citizens Later?

“Members” Now: Citizens Later?

America does not appear in the mood to broaden its notion of “citizenship” for the next while. This fight doesn’t end here, of course, but the current environment is a minefield of political kryptonite and recrimination.

For several years, however, I have been urging librarians to define YA users (within the context of the particular work librarians do) broadly and locally as citizens–not as psychologists (who define youth as “patients” or research subjects) or the different ways in which police officers, school counselors, or social workers variously define young adults for their own institutions.

I previously argued that libraries adopt and redefine the notion of “citizen” to include young people in localenvironments, outside and beyond the reach of formal or legal definitions, as citizens of their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. I advanced this argument to help libraries (as local institutions) become more mindful about youth in the here and now, instead of how Youth Development’s Grand Agenda does, fixated upon distant futures mired exclusively in privileged middle-class aesthetics and aspirations.

A recent study of African American youth demonstrates that a broader citizenship vision of youth may be asking too much of this adult culture. The study documents young people in public space peacefully observing a live performance. Immediately they became characterized by police, journalists, and judges as a flash mob, as terrorists.  These American citizens, exercising their right to a non-violent public gathering, their rights to their city, facilitated by the very digital tools we want them using, attract ire and punishment for simply raising anxiety.

“Citizens are afraid,” the sentencing judge proclaimed, “to go downtown because [name of city] children are terrorizing them.” Note who gets referred to as “citizens” and who gets denied. “I’m removing you from civilized society,” he said.

These are not unique circumstances, attitudes, or even consequences.

Perhaps I’ve chosen my recommendation poorly. Perhaps my timing is off or out of phase with national trends. In any event, this nation does not appear in the mood to explore more expansive or subtle definitions of citizenship. It’s certainly not in the mood to extend the idea for its young people.

If advocating an LIS definition of young adults as citizens appears untenable at present, then what vision ought the field create to represent its young adult users?

It’s an important question.

Fortunately, the work of Roberto Gonzales comes along at the right time. Gonzales, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, recently published a provocative new study, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (University of California Press, 2016). Similar to the fears illustrated by the civil authorities referred to above, Gonzales explores the consequences of a society entangled in fear: this time it’s fear of immigrants. Another judgment follows: the destruction of the life chances of the 2.1 million youth permanently trapped, “undocumented,” by careening public policy.

Gonzales’ thesis is clear: a “double-edged” existence for youth without papers. These young people grow up in the United States. While they’re young, he finds, they experience a fairly normal community life – they attend school, practice their family’s faith, and develop social capital.

About the time they turn sixteen, however, due to no fault of their own–their worlds split in two. Without “those nine digits” (a Social Security number), and regardless of school success and staying out of trouble, they’re forbidden from enjoying the benefits of citizenship and encounter exclusion from legitimate employment, housing, and many realms of well-being, including obtaining a driver’s license. For these millions “illegality” assumes the defining feature of their lives.

Gonzales opens up something libraries can use in meeting their “free to all” responsibilities and professional obligations. While he rather conflates formal “citizenship” with “community membership,” libraries don’t need to. His key point highlights the fundamental unfairness current immigration policy holds for undocumented young people living in permanent uncertainty and instability–constantly vulnerable to being identified and deported to places they have never known.

Libraries do not need to reproduce “illegality” as the master narrative in serving young people locally. Libraries can define the notion of “membership” wide enough to include all youth, embracing even those reviled by national policy.

On the one hand, as public service agencies located in nearly every community, libraries can build upon this notion of local community “membership.” Library cards and access to materials and services don’t require “those nine digits.” Libraries don’t play favorites about where one’s parents were born. Libraries don’t place youth in untenable betwixt and between positions–sifting out only the native born for access to resources and respect.

On the other hand, however, neither do libraries appear interested in evolving away from constructing youth as “students,” or as undeveloped pre-adults (“Youth Development”), ever requiring the acquisition of particular and discrete “skills” for some distant future. Libraries currently do not exhibit any more interest in defining young people as present members of the local community than they did in exploring the notion of them as entitled citizens.

Community membership roots itself in the here and now, not in the speculative future. A community member contributes their current experiences to their local environment and is not ignored because they’re “only” a teenager. A community member participates in current library affairs such as serving on a Teen Advisory Group (TAG), for example, or on a library’s new building design team, or serving as a Summer Reading Program volunteer or library page.

These opportunities offer young people access to membership in ways that our nation’s immigration policy currently forbids.

We’re not likely to see our national organization provide the necessary leadership to wean libraries from viewing young people as developmental projects. So librarians at local, regional, and state levels must think through these questions themselves.

Envisioning young people as entitled and valued present members of their local communities offers a good place to start.

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