Working with Youth Who Live in Poverty
I don’t want to talk about the statistics – they’re depressing. The truth is, unless you work in an extremely posh community, as a youth librarian you come into regular contact with patrons who are living in poverty. If you’re anything like me, you have never been, nor will you likely ever be, in danger of living below the poverty line.
|Infographic and Statistic from WorldVision.org|
All of my professional library experience has been as a school librarian, and I have a convenient gauge for determining what percentage of my population lives in poverty (relatively) – the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches can give me some indication. Many of you who work in public library settings are well aware of the percentage of your residents who live in poverty, although your regular patrons may be more or less likely to reflect those statistics.
Just for background, in my first position, in an inner city elementary school, 97% of my school population was receiving free breakfast and lunch. I learned a lot those three years. I liken it to the swimming lesson method of throwing someone in the water so they have to learn to swim. I did, eventually. At my second school, only 65% of our students qualified for free or reduced price meals, and it was a revelation. If I called a student’s name in the hallway, he or she would stop and look at me. It was miraculous! I was also trained with materials developed by Ruby Payne and centered on her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which I highly recommend. Finally, in my current location, we hover around 40% or our students qualifying for food assistance.
There are two main things I’ve learned about my students who are living in poverty that have led me to change or adapt the way I do things to better reach them. The first is that often they are automatically mistrustful of adults. In comparison to most children, who need to be warned about ‘stranger danger,’ a large percentage of my students who live below the poverty line start from the position of mistrust. Their trust must be earned – and it can take a while. I used to be discouraged when one of these students would rebuff my attempts to recommend books or help find information. I do still find it discouraging, but I don’t take it personally. Now I just assume that I haven’t earned their trust yet, and continue on. I had a student this past year who took two quarters to come around, but we finally bonded over our mutual love of the Klise sisters “Regarding the…” series. (She assumed that she was too old to like those types of books and that I would discourage her from checking them out.) If you have students or patrons like this – don’t give up!
|Infographic found at Educational Technology Guy|
The second thing I learned (very quickly) about my students who come from poverty is that they lack access to some of the basics in life that we take for granted. No, I’m not talking about books, although they often lack access to those. Think more basic…I’m talking about things like lotion, tissues, and bandages. When your parents are working three jobs to pay the electric bill and put food on your table, there some things a lot of people consider essentials that have to be sacrificed. I’m not sure how this would work in a public library setting, but I keep a large bottle of inexpensive, unscented lotion at the circulation desk (next to the ‘free pencil’ jar.) Several times a week I have students ask, “Why do you have lotion here?” I simply answer, “In case you need lotion.” I know the ones that proceed from lotioning their hands to doing their elbows and knees will be back for more, so I start by learning their names and interests so I have books on hand to recommend to them. I keep a stock of other items in my office – chapsticks, hair bands, etc., that I find on clearance. It may sound silly or obvious, but it was a revelation to me that this was a way into my students’ lives. If my goal is to encourage them to read, to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge for their own information, I will use whatever is at my disposal to become that influence in their lives.
The statistics of youth living in poverty in our country can be disheartening. There are many ways we, as citizens, should be working to eliminate this very damaging reality. Fortunately, as librarians, we have access to impact individual lives, and that is where I choose to start.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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