Opinion: Community Safety Working Group Opposes New Young Adult Services Department At Jones Library

Photo: The Urban Institute.

by Brianna Owen, Tashina Bowman, Darius Cage, Débora Ferreira, Pat Ononibaku, Russ Vernon-Jones and Ellisha Walker

In 2020, the Amherst Town Manager and Town Council approved the charge of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) to pave the way for racial equity. Our charge was to (a) make recommendations on alternative ways of providing public safety services to the community and (b) to make recommendations on reforms to the current organizational and oversight structures of the Amherst Police Department through a racial equity lens. Our approach to community safety was centered around a holistic approach.  We unanimously came to the conclusion that we needed to go beyond designing the best response to public safety incidents, and to include recommendations for preventing the kind of situations that have led to calls for police involvement.  We need to enable all members of our community to feel valued, included, respected, and served.  This informed a number of our recommendations.

Our fourth recommendation for Part A of our charge was to create a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) led youth center. In our report we went into considerable detail on the statistics that illustrate that BIPOC youth in Massachusetts are victims to systemic failures, more than their peers using the disproportionality of the Massachusetts foster care system as a prime example.  We also noted how empowering it would be to give BIPOC youth a voice, a place to excel and a place to participate in after-school activities as was communicated to us by youth at community forums that we held.

Additionally, in our presentation to the Amherst Town Council, we explained that this center needs to exist outside of the Jones Library.  Regardless of its intentions, the Jones Library has long been, and continues to be, a white space – white led, and white dominated.  This makes it impossible for the library to provide the kind of space that BIPOC youth in Amherst need, and will feel comfortable. Furthermore, the type of space we envision for youth is one in which youth are free to make noise, play music, and be active—exactly the opposite of the type of quiet place for reading and reflection that libraries thrive on. We are speaking out to encourage folks to not invest in or move forward with a teen center in the Jones Library and to follow the recommendation that we made.

We urge the Town Manager and the Town Council to reject the Jones Library Director’s request to allocate funding from the FY23 Budget for the new Young Adult Services department. We ask that the community understand the complexity of the issues that currently and historically plague the BIPOC community and Amherst as a dynamic and growing diverse community. 

The CSWG was able to gather data, hold community forums, and put together two solid reports that make it clear that the BIPOC community in Amherst is able to provide invaluable information, perspectives, and recommendations that could not come from other bodies or leaders in town.  In 2022, the Committee for Community Safety and Social Justice was appointed with the charge of incorporating and continuing the work of the Community Safety Working Group. Included in its charge will be support for the work of the soon-to-be-formed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department; support of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service (CRESS) program; and working to address the needs of BIPOC and other marginalized groups including the disabled, immigrants, and LGBTQIA.

Jones Library Trustee Farah Ameen’s suggestion at a recent Jones Library trustees meeting that pro-development political action committee Amherst Forward might be a good group to engage in library project outreach, without collaboration with or consideration of the Committee for Community Safety and Social Justice, simply repeats the exclusion of the perspectives of the bulk of the BIPOC community.

Two years ago, the Town of Amherst published a Declaration to Dismantle White Supremacy, writing they would “affirm our commitment to eradicating the effects of systemically racist practices of town government and town-affiliated organizations.” Then let us start by supporting those closest to the issues and giving BIPOC youth and committees a chance to design the space that will best support us.  A teen center without BIPOC leadership, input, and consideration is history repeating itself through an intentional act of white supremacy.

The Community Safety Working Group

Tashina Bowman
Darius Cage (youth representative)

Débora Ferreira
Pat Ononibaku
Brinna Owen (co-chair)
Russ Vernon-Jones
Ellisha Walker (co-chair)

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Community Safety Working Group Opposes New Young Adult Services Department At Jones Library

  1. I certainly agree with and support the CSWG recommendation to remove both the “teen room” and the new Young Adult Services positions from the library expansion program. (I understand that only the new positions are on the table right now.). I don’t think the Trustees and the Library Director have been candid with the community about either the space or the positions. I fear that the intent is to provide more control over teenagers in the library rather than to provide more services to them. In no way does it sound like a Teen Center.

    I agree with CSWG that the town needs a Teen Center, and has needed one for a long time. The brief description in the opinion piece about the character of the Center seems appropriate. But I hope we can have further conversation about it, because this piece is not entirely clear about whether they are advocating for a BIPOC Teen Center or a town wide Teen Center in which BIPOC youth would have a major voice in leading and shaping its character and its activities.

    My own preference would be for the second alternative, but in any case I think more conversation is important before sides are taken on this issue.

  2. I agree, Michael. Furthermore, apparently young people of color have sometimes not felt welcome at the Jones. I can only report the experiences I have heard from others, but have heard consistent reports of young people being followed around and treated with suspicion by Library staff. Also, where is the programming that reflects the Library’s commitment to BIPOC interests and needs? The Trustees issued a statement 2 weeks before the town-wide vote on the library renovation stating the Jones’ commitment to becoming a welcoming place for people of color. But the timing and the lack of a credible track record made the statement feel opportunistic rather than a commitment to a DEI agenda.

  3. I agree with Meg that the Trustee statement was opportunistic. It was performative and typical of the library’s tactics of saying what people want to hear when the library needs our votes and then either not acting on their promises or reneging on them. They told the town council no new positions would be needed for the expansion and then immediately request the addition of a teen space director. They stated a strong commitment to sustainability and yet are already looking to cut many of the library building sustainable aspects due to construction costs. They issue a statement that they are committed to making the library a welcoming place for all and then don’t follow up that statement with any action.

    While the library needs to have a teen space to meet the MBLC requirements, that space should be for the young adult book collection with space for teens to read, work on homework, and socialize, which could certainly be overseen by the current young adult coordinator. Then there would be no conflict with a separate BIPOC youth center elsewhere in town, which could be led by BIPOC staff.

    Having resources and programs for teens at the library is important, but the library is not considered a safe and welcoming space for teens nor are many programs geared toward them. Most of the current programs are geared at what the library terms “tweens” and teen programs are often canceled due to lack of interest.

    The current young adult coordinator does a great job. The teen book collection is well used and the virtual D&D programs are very popular. My criticism of the library director’s choice to add a new position to the Jones while eliminating one from the branches is in no way a reflection on the current staff. If anything, the library needs of our teens are being met and resources should instead be directed toward a separate youth center in Town. With the escalating construction costs for all town buildings, the creation of a BIPOC youth center is going to be increasingly challenging.

    I urge everyone to attend the upcoming meetings about the FY23 budget and ask questions about how Town monies are being allocated for unneeded library staff positions when that money is needed to fund the branch library staff. The Jones Library doesn’t need to increase its number of positions when several remain unfilled. If the library can’t afford to fill all current positions, then it shouldn’t be creating new ones. Let that new position be a director of a separate BIPOC youth center so teens can have a space in town of their own. Ask Paul Bockelman not to approve the creation of a head of young adult services position at the library and instead redirect that money where it is most needed.

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