The Youth Social Justice Conference on Saturday, October 21, planned by library staff and youth coordinators, was “an amazing experience” that drew a multigenerational crowd of more than 70 adults and teens to confront challenges that marginalized populations face daily, said Middle School Services Librarian Jose Cruz. “We hope it reignited young people's desire to get involved.”

Hope in the face of history

The daylong event kicked into high gear with a stage reading of an original play that took participants through the 1960s to the present. Performed by A Leading Man Productions, the play explored race and American history, touching on the Black Power movement, the FBI surveillance of black activists under J. Edgar Hoover, the War on Drugs, and the Iran-Contra scandal, all through the eyes of Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur.

“What Marvin Gaye was singing about then, it’s still going on,” one audience member observed in a Q&A.

“We feel like we’re living in a state of emergency,” responded Daryl Satcher, the play’s writer. “If we keep looking to the same solutions, it’s going to keep repeating.”

Is there any hope? “It’s about us. We can make that change little by little every day,” Satcher said. “It’s important to surround yourself with people who want to make a difference.”

Actress DeZhané Rouse added: “As long as God continues to give me my voice, my passion, I have hope. Every day that you have breath, you have a chance to change the world.”

Bringing the heat, speaking truth

After a soapbox session led by the library's artist in residence Jon Veal, plus breakout workshops diving into hip-hop, foster care, sports, coding, and student handbooks, the conference closed with an open mic hosted by award-winning poet and library staff member Vann Harris.

One performer stood before the crowd and shared that the day’s discussions of issues affecting young people, especially people of color, made her feel empowered. With parents from Ethiopia, she said she’s often been told, “You’re really pretty for a black girl.”

One of her hopes for the future? “Someday, someone will say you’re really beautiful as a person,” she said. “I wish we would all appreciate the beauty of the world. There are beautiful people everywhere.”

Participant Phyllis Duncan said the library should hold the youth conference every year. “It has really brought awareness, and opened hearts and minds,” said Duncan, who founded the support group Mothers of Murdered Sons. “I’m impressed with the job the young people did. Today we did not look at each other as black and white, we looked at each other as human beings.”