The Library Bullhorn: Amplifying the Voices of Youth in North Philadelphia

Young people from communities outside the dominant channels of communication need to be heard. They are deeply affected by decisions made outside their communities dealing with issues from incarceration to education to health, but they don't get to participate in or influence those conversations. These "non-dominant" youth are not adequately empowered with the tools to help them develop and express their opinions. Through mentoring youth in blogging, web design, coding, video production, audio engineering, and writing workshops that will utilize the Free Library's digital resources, we will give youth a platform to engage in civic discourse in a meaningful, informed way.

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The Library Bullhorn will provide mentors to guide youth through introductions to tools and technology (blogging, web design, podcasting, video production), critical conversations about topics that the youth select (e.g., juvenile incarceration, the public school system) and methods of locating and disseminating information through the internet, with youth creating their own thoughtfully produced and researched digital media on news topics with their unique and often under-represented perspectives across library locations in North Philadelphia.

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

This project strengthens the Internet by giving the under-represented voices of youth from non-dominant communities a place to speak and the tools with which to make their voices heard; it makes the Internet more representative of the full diversity of the real world, with a more robust forum for free expression and innovation.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

The youth who visit the Free Library will be the ones who benefit most immediately, though the wider community will be affected through their engagement with the library’s public space (interviews, conversations, their presence in the library). In many libraries, patrons are given access to new technological tools (free internet, digital resources) but many do not know the potential of what they can do with these resources. We hope to close this knowledge gap through The Library Bullhorn by showing youth how they can use tools and information on the internet and at the library to both gather information on topics that are personally meaningful and relevant to them, and to create their own new content to contribute back to the greater community via the internet. Beyond this group, we hope that decision-makers in Philadelphia and beyond will benefit from knowing the perspective of individuals who have not traditionally been "at the table."

What progress have you made so far?

The Free Library of Philadelphia has a lot of experience in bringing the Internet to all kinds of communities; through its Hot Spots program, it has brought Internet access and digital literacy programs to low-income communities throughout the city. In the summer of 2013, the Free Library’s Maker Jawn Initiative, along with researchers from the Education Schools at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, designed Connected Messages, an interactive DIY digital display mural that was created by youth in 5 library locations across North and West Philadelphia to facilitate conversations between the mentors and youth about their communities, and how they see themselves as contributors on a local, city, and national level. Youth then created physical blocks on a collaborative mural, whose images were individually uploaded to a web app, which enabled the sending of scrolling messages to their own murals, or to murals in different neighborhood libraries.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

A successful outcome for this project could take many forms, but might look like a blog post about public education in North Philadelphia picked up by the Huffiington Post, or a video about youth incarceration that would be used by the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of a news story. We want to give the youth in these communities the tools to build and research their stories, then to broadcast them out into the world.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

Our team will be led by K-Fai Steele, Teen Programming Specialist, and Khaleef Aye, Community Outreach Specialist. Both are experienced in project management informed by direct service with non-dominant youth in Philadelphia. Both were integral to the creation and growth of the Free Library Hot Spot Initiative (community-embedded, library-staffed internet resource centers). Together they lead a team of Mentors on the Maker Jawn Initiative ( who have backgrounds as artists, videographers, computer science engineers, writers, and researchers, and who are dedicated to supporting youth voice and vision through a Connected Learning model.

K-Fai Steele is a visual artist who started her library career at the Village of Arts & Humanities Hot Spot in North Philadelphia. She was a part of the Free Library of Philadelphia's IMLS/MacArthur Learning Labs grant, leading a team of fifteen dedicated teen Youth Design Council members to engage in Participatory Design activities and design-thinking fueled workshops to rethink library services and spaces for teens, answering questions such as "how can the library serve teens better?" and "what can the library do to guarantee that teens will love the library, and want to come in regularly?" Steele currently co-leads a Library Services and Technology Act grant, managing a team of Maker Mentors as they lead daily STEM/STEAM and media programming in four libraries in North Philadelphia, with projects ranging from eTextiles and fashion design to video production, podcasting and physical computing. Under her guidance, the Free Library has held two citywide Maker Celebrations, inviting over five hundred registered participants and over 100 youth presenters from across Philadelphia. K-Fai recently said, “There’s nothing better than getting youth engaged in a conversation on a topic they’re passionate about. They’re so idealistic, they are so willing to share their thoughts and opinions, and they have a very deep sense of justice. Many of them lack the voice or tools to develop and share their thoughts on these topics they have deep opinions on. I see my role as helping them to hone their expression, and take those tools and engage in lifelong learning, and become more engaged digital citizens.”

Khaleef Aye was named a 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. Having worked at the Free Library as a teenager through the Mayor’s Office of Community Service, Khaleef continued to work with the Free Library to provide media-based training to youth. With roots in North Philly, Khaleef possesses a deep commitment and understanding of Philadelphia as a city, a community, and a home. Aye is an award-winning audio engineer with a passion for radio, a sentiment that he conveys with youth in popular podcasting workshops. A group of youth he mentored at the Free Library Hot Spot at the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth (IDAAY) received an “Excellence in Library Service to Young Adults” Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and 13 of the youth travelled with Khaleef to the National American Library Association Conference in Chicago in June 2013 to receive the award. Khaleef also works as Production Manager for WURD radio Philadelphia 900AM; the only African-American owned and operated talk radio station in Pennsylvania, dedicated to be a gathering point and platform for diverse voices. In his words, “If I can engage youth where they are and get them to understand that they have an important role in their communities and then get them to the point that they are just hungry to create and express themselves…if that fire can be lit, their passion will guide them to take advantage of opportunities and increase the possible outcomes. Our job is to get them excited about contributing to their community, feed that excitement with opportunities and celebrate their accomplishments.”


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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K-Fai, thanks so much for submitting such a fascinating proposal and for taking the time to answer the comments and questions about it. Very interesting stuff.

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