Pilot program centers Memphis teens in library decision-making

 For Zahra Chowdhury, a 17-year-old senior at Pleasant View High School, being a part of the pilot Comeback Stronger Youth Council has been an eye-opening experience. 

“Having a seat at the table of influence means everything,” Chowdhury said. “As young people, we have specific needs, and it’s nice to have a platform to share these ideas.”

Memphis Public Library and BRIDGES, USA partnered to create the youth council with representatives from across the city. The CSYC is aimed at increasing awareness of the unique needs of young Memphians and lifting their voices in MPL’s decision making. 

Youth will have greater input in programming, offerings, and design of physical spaces. 

Twenty total students participated across five branches: North, Poplar-White Station, Raleigh, South, and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. Chowdhury represented Benjamin Hooks. The youngest member was 12 years old and the oldest 18, but most were 14 to 16. 

“The program is really inspiring because the adults are now the listeners,” said MPL South Branch Manager Terrice Thomas. “The council sought input from their peers and are now representing them and speaking on their behalf about what they need to be successful.” 

Thomas helps facilitate a group of three young South Branch council members every Thursday in a mix of virtual and in-person meetings. They began meeting last school year. 

“The pilot program’s council recently presented their final recommendations to the MPL administration, board, and Memphis Library Foundation to great applause and appreciation,” said Thomas. 

Thomas said the council’s top program recommendations centered on decreasing teen violence, anger management, and mental health support. They also highlighted a need for career prep, ACT and SAT prep, and opportunities for interns and mentorships. 

With the pilot wrapped, the partners' next steps are to interview and choose a new council for the upcoming school year. Pilot council members will be a part of this selection process and mentor the new cohort. 

Click here for more information on this partnership and the full pilot program findings. 

A screenshot from the pilot youth council's recent findings presentation shows top priorities for programming, offerings, and support. (Submitted)
Totally Teens 
The Comeback Stronger Youth Council is rooted in a larger MPL vision to redesign its libraries to better serve youth in their neighborhood branches.

There is a current emphasis on technology, furniture making, and art. Teen Innovation Centers, similar to Cloud 901 at Benjamin Hooks, are under way across the system.

“It’s been a real rewarding experience to see these kids view the library in a different way,” said Thomas. “Many students had never even been to the library, as they thought it was old, boring, and not for them.” 

Memphis Public Library reached out to the BRIDGES Youth Action Center to support training for MPL’s teen service leaders and create powerful Comeback Strong Youth Councils rooted in authentic youth-adult partnerships. 

Mahal Burr, BRIDGES Youth Action Center Director, believes youth have the answers. 

“When adults intentionally seek young people’s perspectives in efforts to shape the city’s future, we create a more inclusive community,” Burr said. “Youth-adult equity in decision-making spaces like our public library system also ensures the decisions we make that directly affect the lives of youth are better informed and more effective.” 

The CSYC focuses on three tenets: gathering youth input and amplifying youth voices across the city, creating innovative solutions to persistent community challenges identified by youth and adult leadership, and increasing youth engagement across Memphis Public Libraries

In Their Own Words
The following quotes are from members of the pilot council reflecting on their experiences and can be found in the full council report:

“I feel like currently I don’t have a lot of control over what is going on in my city even though it affects me... and I feel as if that isn’t exactly ideal for youth in the city of Memphis. The youth need to be more involved and I feel that being engaged in decisions that affect us will help reach that goal.”  —Amaya Green, 14, Benjamin Hooks Youth Council

“Being a part of the Youth Council will not only allow me to voice my opinions of the community, but also, the opinions of my fellow peers. There is a need for youth acknowledgement. Providing youth with programs...will allow us to learn more about our community and ways in which we can make it better.” —Shelby Williams, 13, Raleigh Youth Council

“I have a true passion for improving life in the city for youth. I know so many teenagers who never made it to their 18th birthday, and who do not have a safe space to be themselves and explore their talents outside of there home. I can’t help but think that maybe if they had been exposed to more opportunities or had a positive environment to turn to, they would still be here. They are my ‘why’. I want to create a safe space where Memphis’ youth can be exposed to endless opportunities, have peers and mentors to cheer them on, and where they can gain everlasting friendships with people they otherwise would not have met.”  —Jaila Hampton, 16, Poplar-White Station Youth Council
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Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters.