Perhaps you’ve overheard a teen say something was “so gay.” Maybe your books with characters of color never circulate. Or perhaps you’ve come across teens making fun of people with disabilities. In any case, as teen librarians it is essential that we become both allies and examples to our teens. Your teens from marginalized groups need you to stand up for them, and all of your teens look up to you, whether they admit it or not. So, how can a teen librarian be an ally and example in the library?
- Establish relationships first. Before you can be an ally or example for your teens, you need to know your teens and they need to know and respect you. Get to know their likes and dislikes; accept their input in programs. I made the biggest inroad to getting to know my teens simply by providing Hot Cheetos and Pop-Tarts at a program after they had requested them. I also have a fairly high tolerance for chaos, and my teens appreciate that I let them do silly things and only ask them to stop when I have a good reason.
- Identify homophobic, racist, ableist language. Think about words that teens like to use to describe things or people. Make a list of the words that you will not allow, and make a plan for the way you’ll talk to the teens about it. Consider involving your TAB in this discussion. For some groups, you could simply show them your list and tell them those words are not allowed at the library or in teen programs. For others, it may work to simply bring it up as it happens.
- Make your book talks, program fliers, and book displays diverse. Don’t include titles about people of color only during Black History Month or books about LGBTQ+ people only during Pride Month. Add these books to displays about romance or historical fiction or beach reads or whatever else you put on display. Make sure that all teens are represented.
- Make your office or desk a safe space. Do you have your own desk or office that you use? Post a sign that declares your area a safe space, and honor that sign. When I was a middle school librarian, I posted a safe space sign in my library and all of a sudden I had kids by the dozens stopping by to talk to me. They wanted to tell me about their friend or sister or uncle who was gay or trans* or whatnot. They knew that I was a person who would listen.
- Listen more than you talk. Sometimes working with teens feels like talking to a brick wall: you say a lot and you don’t get anywhere. Instead of doing all the talking, try listening to your teens, especially those who are from minority groups. You don’t need to counter every story they have with one of your own; it’s okay to respond with, “Wow, that must be really hard. How can I help?” Sometimes the only “help” the teens may need is a compassionate, listening ear.
- Get caught reading. Read outside of your comfort zone, and talk to the teens about what you are reading and learning. I am always in the middle of a book, and even though I never get to read at work, I do make a point to have a book or two on my desk as talking points when people stop by. Check out Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge for ideas, or read new diverse titles as they come into your library.
What other ways do you show your teens that you are an ally? Let us know in the comments!