The Challenge


How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation? read the brief


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.
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


Join the conversation and post a comment.

Josh Meyer

April 11, 2014, 17:58PM
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.

Lee Fox

April 10, 2014, 10:45AM
First, thank you for the work you are doing to serve these youth. Like you, I have worked alongside organizations serving homeless and runaway youth, youth in foster care and under-privileged communities. In my experience, the barrier wasn't one of technological access., it was instead one of relevance. What reward mechanisms can you build in to the Free Library to motivate higher participation rates?

K-Fai Steele

April 10, 2014, 12:42PM
Thanks Lee! We are certainly hoping to build in opportunities for youth to publish their work on a wider level (local Philly news blogs, national blogs, etc), create their own blogs and websites. But we've found that the most meaningful learning and experience happens on the daily basis, in that youth's interactions and relationship with her/his mentor. Currently we have Maker Programming in 5 libraries, and although the kids are working on awesome projects (hoodies that flash lights and are responsive to sound and movement; a sci-fi film with youth-designed sets and props) it seems the thing they're walking away with isn't necessarily a polished project, but a better sense of their own interests, and the support system that results from engaging in conversations with cool, older adults around the things that they make together and the things that are important to them. We also have a pretty relaxed environment - if a kid comes in and only wants to hang by the periphery, that's fine - check out Mimi Ito's (UC Irvine) writing on HOMAGO, and the importance of honoring multiple levels of engagement.

Rebekah Monson

April 06, 2014, 22:55PM
We definitely need to get more underrepresented populations and young people involved as webmakers. Can you tell us if you plan for your model to scale up? Also, I would be interested to hear more about the partnerships you have established for The Library Bullhorn.

K-Fai Steele

April 10, 2014, 12:30PM
Right now our credo is "think big, start small, move fast" - the biggest challenge is getting these initial sites off the ground! Once we've established the model, we can spread to other sites. We currently have dedicated Maker Mentor staff who are in neighborhood libraries across North Philadelphia, and one in West Philadelphia, so the staff will be in place. We've found that staffing seems to be the most crucial element to scaling up.

In terms of partnership, we're talking to several organizations now, including 900AM WURD, a Philadelphia-based African-American talk radio station and organization. They've worked with us on several projects before, and we think this would be a great way for youth to learn about shaping their conversations into air-ready products.

Rajan Patel

March 28, 2014, 13:22PM
Amazing idea, keep up the great work! Empowering students to be makers and problem solvers is going to (enable them to) change the world!

Kevin Lee

March 28, 2014, 13:15PM
Love the idea. Hope you guys inspire a generation of curious tinkerers who are fascinated with machinery and grow up adding real value to society! Good luck!

Geoffrey Gevalt

March 25, 2014, 15:58PM
This is an interesting project. Providing youths technology skills training and the knowledge of how to use technology to express themselves is vital in the global, digital world. And those kids with little or no access to technology are falling further and further behind every day.

As an organization that works with kids it would be great to figure out how we might partner down the road -- should you get this grant -- to see how some of your training might be accessible to kids in rural areas who also do not have access even to well-equipped libraries such as yours. It would also be interesting to have the kids connect and learn about each other and learn to polish their work.

When you talk about a "platform" are you talking about a site or Internet location to publish what the kids produce? Or are you talking about a process for getting them published elsewhere? Or both? I think having real audience gives the youths a sense of purpose AND means what they produce will actually be heard/seen/read. This is what we spend much of our time doing -- finding external media audiences for kids' best work. We have a lot of media partners -- and will expand that when and if we get support to go national -- and feel it's key to motivating kids in their learning. It's great to teach them how to do all this, but who is going to see it?

I look forward to see how you progress. Good luck.


K-Fai Steele

April 01, 2014, 10:28AM
Hi Geoff - interesting question you raise about increasing access to youth outside the city. It poses a big problem, because we struggle to even reach youth in all 54 of our neighborhood libraries, nevermind youth outside the city. We've found that some of the most valuable work occurs one-on-one between a youth and his/her mentor in the library; making that personal connection, helping the kid identify her interests, fueling her inquiry, etc. It's hard to replicate on a MOOC, for example.

In terms of "platform" we were thinking certainly a combination of local (in the library) citywide (getting some of their work picked up by city newspapers) and global (a youth-created blog, getting their work picked up by something like the Huffington Post). I agree, it's deeply valuable for them to be writing for an audience they know is reading/watching it.

Rebekah Ray

March 19, 2014, 18:49PM
This project would be a great investment in the potential of our teenagers, The Free Library is already in every neighborhood, available to all, lets have the libraries in North Philadelphia offer this exciting opportunity to bring the teens in to become lifelong learners and community builders.

Sara Palmer

March 19, 2014, 14:58PM
I recommend the library partnering with youth-led groups such as Philadelphia Student Union (, Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project ( and others--working together with these organizations on their well-formulated concerns.

Kyle Davis

March 18, 2014, 21:54PM
Would urban youth in Philadelphia, as well as in other cities across the United States, be best served by leveraging the strength of the Free Library of Philadelphia as an institution, in creating real and actual revenue streams.

Instead of mentoring youth in blogging, web design, coding, video production, audio engineering, and writing through all of these workshops, as well as utilizing the Free Library's digital resources; assist these youth in monetizing these skill sets.

Otherwise, the opportunity is lost, to have meaningful engage in civic discourse, when their quality of life has not improved.

K-Fai Steele

March 20, 2014, 11:57AM
Hi Kyle, thanks for your feedback! I agree with some of your points, but I, as an engaged citizen, don't blog, read news articles, and engage in conversations about topics that I find meaningful because of the money it brings me (none). However, I certainly highlight these communication and technical skills on my resume, and they shine through in job interviews, which then leads to money. The Free Library's vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning. I think that the Bullhorn project could be a great example of this vision in practice.

Kyle Davis

March 20, 2014, 19:05PM
Ok... but We're speaking about the youth being enabled by these past and future workshops to generate an income.

And if your personal experience hasn't created a source of online revenue , you shouldn't close the door to what's available to these youth in publishing ebooks, movie scripts and storylines for online gaming content.

Don't forget... even that "Flappy-Bird" game was generating $50,000 daily as online content, which in other words - is a practical example of enabling a vision to be self-sustaining financially.
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