Teenagers and Community Engagement: The Developmental Picture

In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students on our campus at Harvard Westlake and at schools across the nation have come together in solidarity. Challenging the stereotype of the self-absorbed teenager, these students are engaging with their communities in order to organize for positive change. They are marching, writing to their representatives, walking out of school, and speaking out in the media. Teenagers are actually quite well positioned to reach out and advocate for others as part of their process of identity formation. Librarians and teachers can help students make connections with other activists and encourage them to work for social change.

As you no doubt remember from your own experiences, or perhaps are witnessing in your children’s experiences, the space between childhood and adulthood is a difficult journey, one that is different for each person. Libraries can play an important role in nurturing teens through that journey; not by protecting them but by empowering them, giving them the resources to become resilient, flexible, and engaged.

Teens are in the process of identity formation. They are absorbed by questions of who they are, what ties them to others, and what makes them unique. In many ways, we are all involved in a process of identity formation, because adults continue to ask themselves these questions throughout their lives. What’s different for teenagers is that they are asking these questions and exploring identity for the very first time. They don’t have the experience or the resources that an older person might have. Therefore, they are in need of communities that support this journey. Libraries and other community institutions can play a role in shepherding teenagers through adolescence by meeting them at various turning points in their journeys.

How do teenagers explore their identities? One of the most powerful ways is through stories. Teen readers might see themselves reflected in a book for the first time. Or, they might see people unlike themselves that challenge them to expand their vision of what it means to be human. For teenagers, who share books among themselves and often read the same books together, reading is social. By reading books in common, teens create and discover community. As YA author Chris Crutcher writes of the power of literature, “I am not alone is powerful medicine.”

Teenagers also find themselves by finding others. In the age of social media, teens have been able to connect with other teens and adults who share their interests and passions. In Mizuko Ito et. al.’s Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, we learn that one of the benefits of online communication is that teenagers can find resources and guidance through maturity by connecting with others. In another study titled It’s Complicated, danah boyd explores how teenagers use social media to enhance and advance their offline relationships, and how the elaborate mechanisms of self-fashioning they present online help them to better understand themselves in relation to others. Though the stereotype of teens is that they are self-absorbed, in actuality exploring one’s self depends on exploring and testing the boundaries of community ties.

As teens begin to understand themselves and to nurture their identities, they have the potential to both be helped themselves and to help other people. Part of identity formation involves not simply understanding oneself in relation to others, but of understanding one’s role in society. By learning about themselves, teens are in a better position to evaluate what kinds of service they can offer others. Becoming an adult means not only finding out what you need from your community, but also what you can give back to that community. This is where libraries and schools come in. By guiding and encouraging teenagers to connect with something greater than themselves, librarians and teachers can offer teens an opportunity to better understand themselves. Thus identity formation and community engagement go hand in hand.

Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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