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'Their Opinions Matter': Library Program Empowers Teens to Find Their Voice

Young Activists Speak Out for Pride Month, an event on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Growing up, New Orleans-based activist Toni Jones said she always had people to look up to for inspiration, empowerment, and guidance. Now, Jones hopes to do the same for this new generation, which is why she partnered with the Library to present Young Activists Speak Out last July. 

M’issa Fleming, a youth services librarian at Main Library, organized the program in response to the rise in racial justice protests last summer and asked Jones to participate. The series was created to provide a space for teens to discuss politics and current issues, as well as to figure out ways they can use their own voices to empower themselves, Jones said.

“Young people are often dismissed or discouraged from thinking of themselves as potential political figures. And that’s just really not the truth, history shows that,” Jones said. “There are so many huge conversations happening right now that directly affect youth. But, so often, people are not listening to or asking for the perspective of young people. We hoped that by creating this space and opening these conversations, we could show our youth that their opinions do matter, and they do have a voice.” 

In February, Fleming and Jones hosted another Young Activists Speak session to showcase Black history in the making. They’ll meet again June 10 for a Pride edition of the program, which will highlight how local queer and trans teens are making their communities more fabulous, safe, and welcoming. 

Jones is a member of Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the co-founder of the Real Name Campaign. While most of her work centers on LGBTQ issues, she said it’s been a joy hearing young people get excited about their own work and what matters most to them.

“Activism isn’t just one set thing, and that’s why having these conversations are so important,” she said.

Toni Jones leads a march in New Orleans for the Real Name Campaign.
Toni Jones leads a march in New Orleans for the Real Name Campaign.

Aside from simply inviting young people to the table, Jones said hosting this program with the Library is a great opportunity to expand their sense of community.

“The Library is one of the few places that young people can go to and not be expected to buy something and are welcomed in without suspicion or hesitation. So with the Library opening its space for conversations like this, it adds to the real sense of community that young people are able to access,” Jones said. “The Library is for everybody. But, if you don’t usually go into that place, you might not know that. By hosting these events with the Library, we’re showing them that they are welcome there, which, in turn, unlocks a whole world of knowledge and resources that they otherwise might not have known about.” 

In addition, Jones said hosting with the Library provides unique opportunities to enhance the conversations themselves. 

“By having them in the Library, we can introduce a topic and then immediately be able to show them how to further their knowledge on it,” she explained. “That’s huge. We’re showing them right then and there how to empower themselves through knowledge, not just abstractly.” 

Jones said she hopes to continue the Young Activists Speak Out program into the future, which she said facilitates one of the most important building blocks of social change. 

“I think sometimes the most important part of activism might not necessarily be organizing a march or leading a sit-in or other type of protest but just having conversations and creating spaces where people can relationship-build,” she said.  “I think it’s great that the Library is helping to make that space for young people. Ultimately, this is about them. We’re here to guide them and answer their questions, but we want them to walk away from these events feeling like they have a place, they have a community, and empower them to build from that.” 

Young Activists Speak Out: Pride Month Edition will be held Thursday, June 10 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Zoom. Please note: This is a teens-only event, for ages 11-17, or up to 19-year-olds if still enrolled in high school. Click here to register. 

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