For one Library Service Reading Coordinator the Library Journal article highlighting mover and shaker Nancy Evans , then the Young Adult Librarian at the New York Levittown Public Library Service, sparked an idea. And in March 2019 the Strong Girls Club was born.
There was already a group of teenage girls using the library as a place to meet up and when introducing herself to the group there were a number of topics discussed. Body image, mental health, gender bias and discrimination to name a few. They welcomed the idea of coming together one a month to form a regular club and encourage more local girls to the group.
In preparation for the first meeting library staff connected with Baseline, the local Council Youth Services group and the local outpost for Headspace, a one-stop-shop for young people who need help with mental health, physical health (including sexual health), alcohol and other drugs or work and study support. Establishing bona fide partners is essential when establishing a Strong Girls Club as no topic is ever off limits and library staff must know which local services and experts to connect with and to bring into the monthly meetings and to ensure that the right information was on hand for any subject raised.
The first meeting was advertised on Facebook, the Library Website, the Library What’s On booklet, and through the local High School newsletter. The unexpected surprise for our library coordinator was that the group who came to the first meeting were mostly non-binary girls. They felt supported by the library from the Drag Queen storytime event held even after a media enfuelled onlone backlash and that staff wear rainbow brooches. I have written about the library’s approach to the Drag Queen storytime and what we learnt here. The regular group is made up of 5 non-binary girls between the ages of 15–19 years and 4 other straight girls. There were also 12 year olds (tweens), sisters to the teenagers, who like to get involved in the making activities, such as jewellery and henna tattoos that are included in the Club meetings.
Initial conversations and meetings involved introducing the girls to the library — new Young Adult resources, the eLibrary, and our digital learning offer which includes Lynda.Com for video learning on topics such as resume writing. iPads were distributed and used to highlight the library’s digital offer. Headspace officers were invited to attend and they were able to offer one on one private and confidentional interviews for those girls who needed this.
Lots of information was gathered for the group, specifically rainbow (LGBTQI) information — also wellbeing / housing / mental health services. The rainbow girls needed a safe space where they feel accepted, did not feel intimidated and did not feel judged. Some had already been kicked out of their homes for being themselves so this was very important to them to feel like they belonged to a group. Some came a long way to participate in this group. Another real plus for our non-binary girls was the non-gender specific toilet in this library and because this library is co-located with a community center there is also a non-gender shower available.
It is very important to let the girls run the Club. The girls put their suggestions for topics that they would like discussed in the Problem Box and Library staff organised for the key services to be available at the next session. This was anonymous and no topic was off limits. Sometimes the conversations were facilitated by the telephone as the officers could not attend the branch. Library staff really saw themselves as the facilitator of this group and let the girls lead it. By the end of the year there were girls attending with disabilities as well, all making connections within the group, connecting on social media to support each other and connecting with the key local youth services that could support them with their needs. The group felt empowered and approached the local Council to develop a raindbow glitter parter with the local Youth Worker.
“You have changed my life, I can dress, chat and say what I like and I can’t do that at school”
Key partners who were invited into this program based on the topics of discussion included local health services, free legal services, mental health services and Council youth services. Sometimes this included arranging confidential tele-interviews with specialists and individual group members. The positive impact also reached the families of the girls.
“Strong Girls has brought great conversation to our family, it has encouraged us to seek advice from professionals and even gained support for our family”
Individual members of the group now visit other branch libraries and it was important to make sure other branch library staff know these girls were about to visit the new library. Gaining these girls trust was not easy and it was essential to them feeling safe in the library. They are also participating in many of the other programs offered and the regular meetings are a way to ensure they are aware of the full library offer. They also passed on their feedback regarding our collection of video games which did not include games that had strong girl lead characters.
So what makes a Strong Girls Club work?
- The girls run the show. The problem box is a confidential way for every Club member to put in suggestions for topics, concerns or issues facing them that they would like discussed at the next meeting. If the girls agree that topic is advertised for the group and then they often bring a mate who has a similar concern. The girls in our Strong Girls Club also decided on the timing — once a month from February to November.
- Partnerships are essential to the success of this program. You must know who your partners are and how to reach out to them. Telephone help is definitely okay and you may need to allocate an area for confidential one on one sessions.
- Library staff are facilitators only and reach out for expert help when needed. Library staff are not equipped to handle mental health issues, other health issues and legal issues facing some of the group. Keep the agenda loose. Add a making activity chosen by them as that is another way to break down barriers between the girls who do not know each other.
- Hot chocolate was a wish and always worked a treat to break down initial reluctance to engage. Food insecurity was also an issue with some Strong Girls Club members so Library staff connected them to the key services where they could access food.
- Keep it positive and solution focussed. Work with the girls to find their solutions and bring in expert partners when needed.
- Ask permission of the girls for everything. Build their empowerment to decide. There must be no sharing without permission.
Above all do not be afraid to give it a go. I want to thank Coralie Kouvelas, Program Coordinator, Yarra Plenty Regional Library, for sharing her thoughts and experience of the Strong Girls Club with me.