When Carl Rush gathered in a room with teens at the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center to discuss books recently, he was encouraged by what he heard.
“I read a lot. I read like every night before I go to sleep,” one of the teenagers said.
The teen went on to describe one of his favorite books, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. Though it was published in 1967, he felt a connection to the characters and found their story relatable.
“I didn’t know books could be fun to read,” he said. “A lot of people really don’t read books, but I read books. I read.”
The conversation was happening with two Cedar Rapids Public Library staff members, librarians Meredith Crawford and Molly Garrett, participating via Zoom as part of “Be Heard,” a new partnership between the Library, Linn County Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services, and Fresh Start Ministries.
Rush is program coordinator for Fresh Start Ministry’s RISE Program (Reintegration Initiative for Safety and Empowerment), and is a chaplain at the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center.
He connected with the Library when Crawford asked him to do a virtual Read Woke program about the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people. That led to further conversations about how the Library could collaborate on Rush’s work at the Juvenile Detention Center, which houses teens ages 12-18.
One challenge he identified was the need to build up the Detention Center’s library, so teens like the young man mentioned above could find more books like The Outsiders. In response, every two weeks since mid-March, Crawford and Garrett have dropped off a collection of 10 to 15 books for the center to keep, each focused on a different Read Woke badge.
Read Woke is a program encouraging people to read and share books from different marginalized voices. So far, the team has dropped off collections of books featuring African American, Latinx, and Asian American voices, as well as “fearless females” and inequity and poverty collections.
With the Detention Center closed to visitors due to COVID-19, Rusch brings in a laptop and facilitates the Zoom book discussion for any kids who want to participate.
“This program is important to me because I feel it checks all my librarian boxes. It’s something we can offer to a disenfranchised population to empower them. It helps community groups like Carl’s,” Crawford said. “It’s being able to continue to provide these services and have meaningful collaborations in a time we couldn’t be in person.”
The kids can talk about any books they like, not just those the Library team have dropped off. The audio of those conversations is then edited to remove identifying features of the teens and shared on the Library’s YouTube and Facebook pages as part of virtual Read Woke programming.
“So far they’ve given us very honest answers and feedback on what they’re reading and into. They’re kind of eye opening, honestly,” Garrett said. “We hear over and over again, ‘I want books I can relate to’ … I think that is incredibly important, because I want to make sure these kids have characters and people they can relate to in books … I want to make sure they have books they actually want to read, to look at, to pick up. It’s so important that they can see themselves in the characters and make that connection.”
Rush said the kids seem to enjoy sitting in front of the camera and having their opinions recorded.
“It’s showing them they haven’t been abandoned, they haven’t been discarded,” he said.
“We want to empower youth to see themselves as part of other systems,” she said. “Because the Read Woke program is designed to elevate voices, we hope it helps them understand their contributions to the community are valid and valuable as well.”
Rush said the program is ultimately about helping the kids imagine life beyond their current situation.
“It’s giving them the option to be able to explore outside, it’s showing them a world outside their experience,” he said. “That’s what we want for our youth – we want to give them a different outlook and different experiences.”
Garrett said she’s taking their conversations to heart as she thinks about what books are in the Library’s collection and which books to highlight.
“When these kids are ready to come to the Library, they need to walk in and find the shelves are full of characters and books they want to look at,” she said. “If all the outfacing books are white people or girls in flowy dresses, that’s not relatable. I really push to make sure there’s a diverse grouping of books they can look to, they can see. Everybody needs to be represented, no matter who they are or how they identify.”
Another teen who participated in the book discussion echoed those thoughts, telling the librarians he gravitates to books he feels he can connect with.
“I try to grab stuff that looks interesting to me and that I would find joy in reading,” he said.
Garrett said, ultimately, she hopes the program does more than just introduce the teens to new books. She hopes it helps them feel seen.
“These are kids that probably haven’t had a chance to be heard. It’s so empowering for them to be able to share their thoughts and opinions on books,” she said. “We’re listening, and it informs what we do, and that’s a huge thing, not just for these kids … Connection is really what teens need, I think, and we want to show them the Library is a positive place for teenagers and a welcoming place for them.”
Find the Read Woke: Be Heard programs on the Library’s YouTube channel.
What is Read Woke?
School librarian Cicely Lewis created Read Woke in 2017. She determined a “Woke” book must meet one of these criteria:
- Challenge a social norm
- Give voice to the voiceless
- Provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised
- Seek to challenge the status quo
- Have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group
Ready to start reading woke? Sign up through Beanstack to start earning badges in the Read Woke challenge, watch our Facebook events for future book discussions, and find more conversations on the Library’s YouTube channel.
This article is from the summer edition of Open+ magazine, available at the Library and metro-area Hy-Vees or online: fliphtml5.com/homepage/rofy.