YA Strike Zone October 2016
Flaming Youth has Become a Flaming Question
In the spring of 1936, in the jaws of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the Young Democratic Club of Baltimore, Maryland. No one was even envisioning the horrors of World War just around the corner. Roosevelt began:
“You are the symbol of young men and women living in every State of the Union, affiliated with every political party and belonging to every so-called stratum of society. The world in which . . . you have come of age is not the set old world of your fathers . . . You are measuring the present state of the world out of your own experiences.”
Roosevelt acknowledged what he called youth’s “flaming questions” about the world they inhabited and characterized adults as responding with “unmerited pride” in “the mere fact that they are adults.” He further acknowledged how adults would, “put on their most patronizing smiles and pat the young man or young woman on the shoulder,” in cynical smug assumptions that youth’s energies and ideals would fade. “You have a right,” Roosevelt resolved, “to expect something better than that.”
During this recent political cycle, we have seen a great deal of “unmerited” adult pride. Presumptuous, pompous, and patronizing positions flowing from both the political left and right about all manner of youth concerns, from the youth-initiated Black Lives Matter through immigration reform and soaring college debt, and yet the trumpeting of chimerical rising “youth crime” and violence claims continue all the while ignoring how actual youth crime and violence stands at historic lows.
Today, however, some evidence suggests that libraries at least have been striving to develop a broader and more respectful regard for their young adult users, trying harder to value more of what young adults can contribute to the culture than trying to “save” them from this or that moral panic as predominated in the past. I have referred to this gradual shift elsewhere, in VOYA and other publications, as an emerging vision of young adults as cultural citizens of their communities.
Libraries talk now more about “partnering” with and involving youth in “making” much more today than when I graduated from library school. Yet, while there is evidence of a gradual re-envisioning of young adults, it is also true that library science in general still has far to go to institutionalize this new citizen vision in daily practice and associational expressions.
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), for example, continues to produce aspirational statements, “new paradigms,” guidelines, and white papers, among other proclamations defining YA services, thus reflecting a particular vision of the young adults presumed to need them. Most all of these products emerge merely from committee deliberations rooted still in a discourse of how to “improve” young people, “develop,” “prepare,” and “empower” them – synonyms of the “save the youth” presumptions of unmerited adult pride.
Daily practice, too, frequently exhibits the “save the youth” sensibility as well as engages a heavily top-down adult agenda regarding, for example, “skill development” and curricular support, both activities better placed with educational professionals.
The question about how we got here, from a president calling forward an entire generation to help the nation solve the damage done by grinding poverty to today’s tinkering with duct tape programs and STEM workshops, is anyone’s guess. It certainly eludes me.
But for libraries to envision young people as the active citizens contributing to the well-being of their communities and the development of the culture as they have been throughout history, then it stands to reason that a dramatic and institutional re-orientation is yet required.
I have written elsewhere in this column about the initiative young people in San Francisco have mounted to gain the right to vote in local elections (August 2015). That campaign gained the support of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the local Democratic Party, and unanimous approval of the San Francisco School Board which has already redesigned the required government course curriculum in anticipation of the expanded franchise for youth. The degree to which that initiative is successful will also be the degree to which sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds will vote on the next library bond measure. Across the bay, in Berkeley, they may soon be directly voting for school board members.
At the level of daily practice, I’d like to recommend the work of celebrated author and YA services course instructor Jennifer Velasquez. Her recent book, Real-World Teen Services (American Library Association, 2015), calls for libraries to stop asking “how” questions (how to attract or improve or save young adults) and to start asking “why” questions: Why do libraries serve young adults? Her answer to this most fundamental, deceptively complex, and thus radical new why question is simple: “always trust teens.” Trust young people, as FDR did, to bring their own experiences, desires, and talents to answer flaming questions, contribute to the community, and indeed, help save the nation.
At a broader level, we need only turn to the work of Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, whose organizing work (beginning with farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s) established how the stories of ordinary people could constitute powerful cultural and political resources. Ganz’s advocacy of storytelling informed Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2008. [Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Workers Movement. Oxford University Press, 2009]
Libraries can trust teens much more than they currently do. Libraries can trust them to bring their own stories into the library to record and document their experiences. Libraries can organize and preserve and curate and make their stories accessible for the broader community. In this way, libraries can thus help answer the call issued first over eighty years ago by a visionary president – they can help call young people forward to respond to, question, and contribute to the issues so alive across the land.
But first, libraries must begin to surrender their top-down adultist agenda, give up their unmerited pride, and listen to young peoples’ flaming questions.
Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State University’s School of Information where he conducts research, teaches, and publishes on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and veteran administrator, he is a former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, served a four-year term on ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA), and published a Festschrift honoring VOYA co-founder Dorothy M. Broderick in 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, and rides a BMW R1150RT.