Social Justice and Media Literacy: Using Data from and about Urban Teens for Library Decor

a guest post by Kelly N. Czarnecki

At the beginning of Power Lines: Connecting with Teens in Urban Communities, Dr. Jimmeka Anderson writes about the inequities of literacy and how “only 15 percent of black children in the eighth grade are at grade-level proficiency in reading in the United States” (p.10).   She goes on to show that interest in reading is high among marginalized students in urban communities, which are two things many people might wrongfully assume are not linked. Since thesea photo showing how the urban teen department of a library in Charlotte, NC has decorated its wall space with vinyl quotes students are already highly motivated to read, Dr. Anderson recommends that, “Librarians can use this knowledge to creatively ignite the interest of urban youth with literacy and seek ways to enhance their proficiency and skills through culturally responsive approaches.” (p.11) Tell me more, right?!

Several years ago, staff in the urban teen department where I serve in uptown Charlotte, NC had an idea to support community teen literacy. They wanted to decorate our wall space with vinyl quotes made using our vinyl cutter. While incorporating media from books was a no-brainer, I also wanted to include quotes from music with the vinyl as well. We certainly wanted to make teen voices part of the media quote selection process. With that in mind, we decided to invite teens that frequented the library to vote for quote selections. Staff that were best versed in music focused on that form of media to identify quotes for voting, while those that were more familiar with print materials identified quotes from print literature.

We didn’t set too many rules for the quote options other than that we wanted each quote to communicate a clear message independent of the media from which they were curated. In other words, the reader or listener did not have to be familiar with the story or song for it to make sense. We also wanted diversity in the form of artists and authors that were maybe not so well known. Over a two week period, the teens put stickers next to the quote(s), which were written on butcher paper, in order to determine which quotes would make it to the walls in vinyl. Ultimately, we ended up with a great combination of words that will live on through our library’s walls for years to come! People who walk through the space frequently take photos and read the quotes out loud, often remarking amongst themselves and to staff that they find the quotes very inspiring. While the actual placement of the words wasn’t an easy process—especially because it required circumnavigating fixed benches—this was a highly worthwhile project in the long run. 

book cover for Power Lines: Connecting with Teens in Urban Communities Through Media LiteracyWhile quotes on the wall isn’t the same as reading an entire book, they are culturally responsive to the community as they were chosen by our local teens in order to provide a space for them to be inspired into lifelong passions for reading. The quotes not only make great conversation starters; they also show the teens that their interests matter.  

If you’re wondering what some of the quotes are, a few are below. Come visit Charlotte, NC if you want to see the rest!

  • "I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” —Jay Z
  • "And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” —The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • "Better late than never, but never late is better.”  —Audrey Drake Graham 

Also, stop by our session at ALA in Chicago on Saturday June 24 at 2:30: How Media Literacy is Fundamental to Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice (EDISJ). Or pick up a copy of Power Lines: Connecting with Teens in Urban Communities Through Media Literacy at the ALA Store near the Library Marketplace to learn about some engaging programs and services to create a culture supportive of teens!