21 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2007
Male-2-Male Mentoring Is Working in Chicago Libraries
Kelley D. Nichols and Lori J. Wilcox
We can boldly say that, to the black community, librarianship is the best-kept secret in the world, and we were lucky to discover, embrace, and share this great profession. Now we want to share some of what we’ve experienced and learned.
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Earlier this year, Lori Wilcox won ALA’s Diversity Award (with help from Kelley Nichols) for her Male-2-Male Mentoring Program. It is not ironic that young black female librarians would win an award for catering to young black males, it just validates the need. Anyone who’s having trouble reaching this segment of the population can emulate what we’ve done to pull more young men into their libraries.
The two of us have been best friends for more than a decade and have shared clothes, apartments, cars, army bunks, and now ideas in the same profession. Kelley has been working in the library arena since 1991 and is now the director of the University Park Public Library District. University Park is a small (6,000), predominantly black, middle-class suburb about 30 miles south of Chicago. It is a fairly new (40 years), close-knit, residential community where everybody knows each other and everything is within walking distance. University Park is very different from Chicago, where Lori works. Lori has worked in various fields (K–12 school media specialist, community center program director, and 12 years as a soldier for the U.S. Army Reserve) but ultimately chose librarianship. She is the teen/young adult coordinator at Wrightwood–Ashburn in Chicago, which serves a very diverse population of about 46,000.
Being best friends, we share great ideas, contacts, and successful library programs, and we support each other. We refer our speakers to each other, which is great because we get the full benefit of a program with just half the work (of the setup). Although we work in very different communities, we were able to have the same successful programming because the need to educate and enlighten youth is the same.
Our Backgrounds Led to Ideas
We noticed that boys were not physically present in the library, maybe because of our family backgrounds. Kelley is a single parent with two sons (12 and 8) and Lori has seven brothers plus a father who works two jobs. Although Lori’s family was raised in the suburbs by both parents with a strong spiritual background, several of her brothers had been to jail before the age of 18.Most of a teenager’s life is spent at home and school, and if the male figure is often absent from the home and if the schools are not teaching about real-life issues, when and where are these boys learning responsibility? And most importantly, who’s teaching them and is it the correct information?
The need for male mentorship has always existed, and as public librarians in male-oriented families, we were in the perfect position to contribute. Our work began in spring 2005 when a $14,000 grant for boys’ programming was awarded to the Richton Park Public Library District where Kelley worked as the youth service librarian. She and a co-worker came up with several programs for boys but the most successful was Go AWL: Animation Without Limitation, Richton’s first graphic novel book club. Kelley was impressed by the boys’ interest and consistent attendance, and later that year when she was the director of youth services at Grande Prairie Public Library District, she formed a new Graphic Novel Book and Art Club. Seeing the large group of boys gave Kelley the idea to have scheduled workshops and to invite various people to speak about real life and social issues surrounding today’s youth. This program was called RENEW with RLEW: Real Life Educational Workshops and she formed a related Gamers’ Club to guarantee attendance. The boys would compete in Dance Dance Revolution, Xbox, PS2, and Game Cube video game systems only after attending the RLEW workshop.
Meanwhile, Lori was remembering how her brothers had gone astray, and she formed her own mentoring groups with a police officer and local artists and authors. She called it Break-4-Boys: Male-2-Male Mentoring in the hope that it would help teenage boys and put them on a positive path. As time went on, Lori would refer these mentors to speak at Kelley’s library and vice versa.
What Won ALA’s 2007 Diversity Award
The Male-2-Male Mentoring program is where we get men to speak and do activities with tweens and teens (ages 11–18) on a consistent basis. Mentorship is performed free for males by males. These male mentors are concerned citizens of the communities, such as policemen, firemen, pastors, and members of the Black fraternal organizations, specifically the brothers of the Omega Psi Phi. Break-4-Boys is what won first place at ALA’s 10th Annual Diversity Fair, sponsored by Demco. Lori won a $400 Demco gift certificate, which she used to by a digital camera (to create a teen newsletter), a DVD player (to show movies during our “Book Alive” programs), and other supplies to enhance the program’s objectives.
The boys join the group simply by attending, participating, and following the guidelines of the workshops and meetings. In addition to learning the importance of education and college, the boys hear about real-world topics like good and bad credit, the competitive work force, unemployment, and what to do when pulled over by the police. The mentors do not kill dreams, but they do stress the reality of not becoming a professional athlete or rap star. They candidly discuss issues about puberty, jail, drugs, drinking, and dating, and they tactfully give truthful answers with helpful words of advice.
We find that boys are more open to talking about these types of things with other males who are not their parents, relatives, or teachers. Although education and college are important, puberty, drugs, alcohol, and dating are real-life issues that teens deal with every day that can alter the course of life. The boys who attend overcome their shyness, discover new talents, and embrace creative activities like drawing, poetry, spoken word, dance, and music. Many boys have hidden talents and secret interests and are not as embarrassed to show them off in a closed group where other boys have the same interests. The boys are praised and rewarded for their efforts and they often come back with a friend who wants to join. They have enough freedom to be expressive while the mentors guide them in the right direction by being truthful and nonjudgmental.
How We Get Boys Into the Library
For most programs we found that consistency, commitment, and accountability are the keys to success, especially for teenagers. Between extracurricular school activities, household duties, and part-time jobs, teens have busy schedules, and it’s easy to forget a voluntary program at the library. However, we stress the importance of attendance by making phone calls, serving refreshments, having door prizes and raffles, and having sessions where we need their individual input (for personal choices of books, DVDs, CDs, and magazines for the YA collection). We schedule the programs in trimesters of 4-month blocks, and we sometimes list the most interesting activities (like anime drawing) even further in advance. To establish consistency, we always hold the same programs on the same days of the week and at the same time.
We’ve had many successful library programs, but the three that have attracted the most boys are the Gamers’ Club, the Graphic Novel Book Club, and the Anime/Superhero Drawing classes. The Gamers’ Club kids play card, board, and video games after attending the day’s scheduled mentor workshop, and sometimes they compete against other libraries’ clubs in Dance Dance Revolution. Members sign the Gamers’ Club Guidelines which basically state that they must attend the workshops, volunteer at the library at least 1 hour a week, and make an effort to pay on their library fines. Some rewards and summer reading club prizes are 50-cent or $1 library coupons that can be used for fines and the copy machine. These coupons are very relevant to teenagers who have limited funds but still want to participate in programs and check out materials.
We discovered that most gamers can draw, and they know the histories of comic book characters from which the Graphic Novel Book Club and Anime/Superhero Drawing programs were derived. In these clubs, we read all kinds of graphic novels (fiction and nonfiction) and have book discussions, and they create their own graphic novels complete with story line, original characters, and paneling. (Paneling is a comic book technique that allows the creator to convey the desired mood of the story by strategically placing or misplacing the panels. Panel placement subliminally makes characters weak or strong, among other things.) Seeing that we had a consistent ready-made crowd of boys, we reached out to the community to come and speak with them.
Another favorite program is the SAT/ACT Prep seminar, which focuses on test-taking skills for high school students. It’s another free service offered by teen services groups and the concerned educators of the communities. Participants in the SAT/ACT Prep are tested, tutored, and drilled on standardized test taking. They are required to join a monthly teen book discussion and are rewarded at the end of the 12-week sessions with a trip to Six Flags Great America. (This trip is sponsored by our local nonprofit agencies and neighborhood block clubs.)
Signs and Stats of Our Success
Over time we’ve gotten validation from students, parents, and community members.
Great attendance: Boys bring friends because the program is “cool.”
Circulation boost: Graphic novels and drawing books have become 25 percent of circulation, second only to DVDs.
Teen volunteer mentoring: Teens mirror mentors with younger kids.
Chain reaction: Males contact us asking for a chance to speak with the teens.
Parent participation: Parents urge their sons to join.
We’ve found concrete ways to recognize the young men who participate. We give club members certificates of achievement and professional letters of recommendation, and many receive school credit for library volunteer work. Right now we have these programs going in four libraries in the Chicago area. That might not seem like much, but it’s been working across different demographics and socio-economic classes, so it seems safe to say that the need for Male-2-Male Mentoring is widespread.