Nashville Library Gives Incarcerated Teens the Freedom to Create

January 05, 2017
By Natalie Orenstein

How a local public library in Nashville is using digital media to help teens see themselves as readers, and much more.

It began with a simple library lending program.

When funding for the library at the Woodland Hills Development Center in Nashville, Tennessee, was slashed in 2015, the staff there reached out to their local public library for help. The Nashville Public Library (NPL) got the teens at Woodland Hills set up with library cards, which they use often.

Woodland Hills is a youth development center for teens ages 13 to 19 who’ve been committed to state custody by the juvenile courts.

NPL teen librarian Raemona Taylor admits she didn’t know what to expect when she began the partnership with Woodland Hills. She was worried the teens, who typically spend six to nine months at the facility, would not be receptive to library programming. But when she saw how eager they were to take advantage of the library’s services, Taylor began thinking about how to deepen the partnership with the center. How could the library, in line with its broader mission, help the young readers there become storytellers and creators themselves?

NPL is the recipient of a 2015 LRNG Innovation Challenge grant supporting digital media production programming at Woodland Hills. The LRNG grants stem from a partnership between the National Writing Project and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign to help educators extend time and space for connected learning.

The project at Woodland Hills mirrors, in many ways, the work the library does with other young people in the Nashville area. Through its program Studio NPL—part of the YOUmedia Learning Labs Network—the library offers daily workshops and programming to help visitors age 12-18 gain 21st century skills. Content includes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning, digital literacy, art, media production, and career preparation.

Studio NPL has sites at seven library branches as well as mobile programs outside the system. By bringing in mentors with expertise in various fields, Studio NPL not only guides youth in building their own community but also facilitates connections with the community outside of the library.

The new partnership demanded that the library staff adapt that program for a very different environment.

“When they’re in a facility such as Woodland Hills, how do we create those community connections?” Taylor said.

NPL has set up a program to offer incarcerated teenagers an outlet for self-expression, and to equip them with practical skills that might help prevent recidivism or lead to a job once they are released. Twice a week, NPL staff visit Woodland Hills, teaching one class during the school day and one outside of those hours. The lessons focus on digital media production and storytelling. Through projects, students explore the theme of freedom. Recently, they wrote songs about their personal experiences, then filmed and edited music videos.

The LRNG grant has supported the purchase of iPads, microphones, and video cameras. The program offers the students a rare chance to interact with technology while at Woodland Hills, where computer use is otherwise limited to test-taking.

While the NPL program is optional, nearly all students have chosen to participate.

“Any creative outlet is important to people, especially in an environment where someone’s freedom to choose is otherwise restrained,” said Zach Duensing, Studio NPL technology coordinator.

The project is “looking at the whole person, not just behavior rehabilitation,” said Taylor. The goal is to encourage students “to express themselves, and sometimes delve deeper into the experiences that got them in there. It is an opportunity to look at yourself and your choices in a safe way and be vulnerable.”

Programs that get incarcerated teens and adults to reflect on their behavior have been found to reduce recidivism by up to 50 percent. With young people in particular, these programs may improve mental and behavioral health outcomes.

For example, one student wrote a song titled “Momma I Love You,” about realizing his mother loved him when she visited him at the detention center, despite their historically tense relationship:

“Laying in my cell, I’m looking at the walls. I’m thinking about the things I did that took me away from y’all. Phone calls once a week and I ain’t feeling that. My momma came to see me. How real is that?”

In another song, a group of teenagers reflect on the benefits and pain of being separated from their friends and family. The project gave them a chance to consider their individual identities and what constitutes a true friendship, Taylor said.

Staff at the detention center say the media program encourages student growth.

“These students have limited exposure to new ways of learning and technology because of their current circumstances and their past,” said Rhonda Chandler, an English teacher at the school who helps facilitate the NPL program. “Most have not been in school for years and have come from abusive and neglectful homes. This type of learning encourages their creativity and talents.”

The NPL staff works to ensure that the teenagers’ experiences have a lasting impact.

“The focus on having real skills is at forefront of what we do at the library,” Taylor said. “It is very important that they’re walking away with something.”

Taylor said some of the students have talked to their judges about the work they have done through the program, as evidence of the progress they have made while at the center. Once released, some have sought out teen programming and employment help at NPL. The library staff also occasionally brings in professionals who work in media production to Woodland Hills to work with students.

With the mentors, the teens can “engage with adults in positive ways, which for some of these young men is the first time they’ve had that opportunity,” said Niq Tognoni, Studio NPL coordinator in a podcast.

The mentors demonstrate to the students how their interests in digital media can become careers, and what those careers entail.

Reducing recidivism is a central goal of the production program. People incarcerated as children are more likely to be incarcerated again as adults, and young people who are released from detention facilities are at risk of dropping out of high school. A recent MIT study found that individuals in juvenile detention are 23 percentage points more likely to end up in an adult correctional facility than other youth who have committed the same offenses but avoid incarceration.

NPL hopes some of the young men at Woodland Hills will leave the digital media program with the tools and motivation to pursue further education or a job in the field.

Not all of the young men immediately embrace the program, however. When new teenagers arrive at Woodland Hills, it can take them some time to warm up to the NPL staff and mentors, Taylor said. They are wary of even more adults telling them what to do.

The relationships can be challenging for the educators as well. Many of the young men have experienced trauma, difficult family situations, or drug and alcohol abuse. Working with the young people can take an emotional toll.

“You can’t ask them to be vulnerable and self-reflective without opening that door,” Taylor said. “As mentors we’re very cognitive of our role. I’m not a therapist.”

Yet it is meaningful for the students to feel that their experiences and opinions are valid or deserving of a platform, she said. That dynamic plays out in all the Studio NPL settings, where young people are eager for the chance to become creators, not just consumers, of media and stories.

Photo/Raemona Taylor