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.

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