To thousands of teens, Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia is the only place where they’re allowed to be themselves.
A Free(ing) Space
Loud, messy, and teens running around, YOUmedia is everything a library shouldn’t be−at least not in the conventional sense. A group of teens huddles together, playing video games. A young woman joins her friends at the other end of the room to design a shirt. Another high schooler puts his backpack on a chair, picks up a book, then sits cross-legged on the floor.
YOUmedia reimagines what a library is, especially for teens. Instead of rows and rows of shelves coupled with hardwood tables and straight-backed chairs, this teenscape is a fluid space with activities blending in organized chaos. The band plays a few steps from a small group doing their homework. To the right of the 3D printer is the recording studio. The painters and screen printers share a long table. A few teens rearrange the furniture into a semi-circle for an impromptu discussion.
It can be overwhelming to any adult who wanders in and perhaps a tad confusing, but the teens are perfectly relaxed, at home even.
“Space is powerful − open space more so for teens. We don’t want them to feel constrained. We want them to be empowered to try any activity or be comfortable enough to hang around,” explains Jeremy Dunn, Director of Teen Services.
This element of choice is the game-changer for YOUmedia. Here, teens are not consistently being watched over like hawks. They’re not being kicked out for speaking above a whisper. They’re not even being obliged to participate. But they’re free and welcome to try whatever piques their curiosity or interest!
And there is no shortage of activities in all 17-teens spaces across the city. You could express yourself through painting or printmaking. You could find your voice at the recording and podcasting studios. You could dabble in video editing. Or you could simply sit in a quiet corner and get lost in a book or two (okay, maybe even three.)
Dennis found his passion project in train modeling. “I’ve always been interested in trains since I was a kid. When I started going to YOUmedia as a freshman, I saw this train station. Jeff approached me and asked, ‘Do you want to learn how to make the train move?’ I have been working on this project for three years now. I’m building the railroad and wiring the engines,” Dennis explains excitedly. He also plays the drums and helps with sound engineering in the studio.
It is this sense of freedom to create, learn, and try that teens learn about themselves and the world around them.
“Because I’m learning things on my own terms, I feel so much more confident putting myself in situations where I experience many new things,” Asya tells me.
Throughout her almost four-year stay here, Asya learned to sew, to code, and to sketch. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have learned all of those things if I didn’t stumble upon them at YOUmedia,” she shares candidly.
Stop; Collaborate and Listen.
Sound is yet another distinct characteristic that is uniquely YOUmedia. Boisterous laughter mixes with lively music. Footsteps scurry to the beat of the drum in the background. Animated chatter fills the space with teen energy too infectious to ignore.
Throughout the afternoon, about 30 teens visit the space. “Most of them stay until closing time. YOUmedia is the defacto extracurricular activity for most of these high schoolers,” Marcus, a YOUmedia mentor shares.
Teens head to YOUmedia for social interaction as much as they visit to check out the latest VR headset.
“You always meet new people and that’s what I like about it. I sit wherever and start talking to other teens. You have no idea how many times I’ve introduced myself to someone and then we start chatting, only to find out that we actually attend the same high school!” Asya laughs.
Dennis couldn’t agree more. “I got to know so many people with the same interests as mine. I met Erika, who is as passionate about trains. I’ve met my closest friends through impromptu jam sessions. It’s amazing to be around people who get you.”
What’s even better is that YOUmedia teens get to bond over their shared experiences. Dennis is still on cloud nine from his recent performance at The Little Italy branch, alongside YOUmedia’s resident teen musicians.
“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but it’s not what you do at YOUmedia, it’s the people you spend time with. I mean, performing at the different branches is cool and all, but I enjoy practicing together, recording songs together, and getting to know each other the most,” Dennis recalls.
The space has become a haven for collaboration. As I head to the train section, I bump into a group of young men—a singer, a rapper, a guitarist, and a video editor, working on a music video. At the far corner of the room are three friends inviting other teens for a study group. “People help each other out around here,” Daniel explains while he high fives some of the newcomers.
YOUmedia is also a safe space to talk and give your opinion. There are regular informal roundtable discussions that provide a platform for teens to speak their minds. “We talk about climate change, representation in the media, LBTQ issues, and thinking beyond high school,” Asya shares.
As I talk to the 17-year-old, a couple of teens chime in. “We feel heard,” one says. “Yes, we don’t always agree, and that’s okay. We learn to discuss our differences and see the perspective of the other side,” another blurts out. One comment gives me pause. “Some people think teens don’t care−that we’re just glued to our headsets, isolated in our own little world. But we care. We care a lot. We just need that avenue to express our thoughts and feelings.”
And these 14 to 18 year-olds found it at YOUmedia.
It’s almost six and true enough, the space is still full of teens. I’m gathering my things when I meet Jamal, the 2019 Rising Star Honor Roll awardee. He’s also a talented musician who performed for Chance the Rapper and jammed with Yoyo Ma! “I came from work and rushed here. It’s the least that I could do to show my support for YOUmedia,” he mumbles shyly.
“YOUmedia is a big part of everything good happening in my life right now. This is where I started. I’ve always played guitar reluctantly. I didn’t think I was good enough. The mentors and my friends here gave me the confidence I need to play in front of an audience. Everyone here is so supportive!” he shares.
“YOUmedia has opened doors for me, doors I didn’t know were available to me. This Fall, I’m starting my freshman year at Columbia College!” Jamal continues.
After we shake hands, Jamal runs to the group—fellow YOUmedia teens waiting for him by the exit. “We’re all going home together, probably get some snacks along the way,” he smiles. Watching them laughing and making plans on coming back tomorrow, I get it. YOUmedia is more than just another teen space. Yes, it’s a place where they can be themselves. But it’s also a haven that lets them see a glimpse of who they could become.
YOUmedia has been a safe space for teens to grow and express themselves with the guidance of librarians, mentors, and fellow teens. Join us as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this transformative program on September 28!
A special shoutout to BMO Harris Bank, Allstate, the James & Madeleine McMullan Family Foundation, the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, Comcast, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions Foundation, Museum of Science and Industry, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, and other generous supporters of the Foundation for their commitment to Chicago’s teens. You, too, can provide teens with a safe space to create, explore, and learn.