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Libraries Help Make Communities More Humane

By Jeannie Russell

One of the newer programs HEART has embarked upon in the last year takes place in a different setting from our usual school-based classes, reaching out instead to bring humane education into the community through the New York Public Library system. In addition to the public school programs we offered in a group of community libraries last year during breaks, we began a weekly library after-school program this fall in one of the neighborhoods where we’ve had a long-time engagement. HEART is committed to creating compassionate communities – to inspiring empathy and activism in youth by connecting with all the living beings that make up their world – and our library programs reflect the kind of flexible, inclusive curriculum that can reach young people wherever they are.

This semester the weekly program focuses on being a good neighbor. The participants are learning how to ‘treat your neighbors right’ through interactive, project-based activities that examine topics like bullying and respect, the right to be different, and an “elder wisdom” project that helps kids engage with and appreciate our older residents.

Students also discover that the people in their neighborhood are not their only neighbors: we share our streets, parks and backyards with a diverse set of non-human neighbors, Activities around being a responsible guardian to our companion animals, as well as learning about our wild non-human neighbors and their needs, enhance animal welfare and expand students’ capacity for empathy. People and animals are then framed as being part of a living neighborhood, an urban habitat that sustains us all if we respect its complex interconnectedness. Activities that help city kids feel the ‘nature’ in their neighborhood and understand how they can protect our natural systems round out the program.

Each unit of the program ends with a ‘celebration’ class where the kids use a variety of media to create a teaching instrument that can be shared with others who visit the library: we might create a group mural, a set of poems, a mini-play, or some inspirational t-shirt slogans to take our message out into the neighborhood. Last week our kids made life-size cut-outs of themselves. Inside and around their figures, they wrote all their special qualities as well as the ways they show respect for others Then, we decorated our activity space with these images of diverse and caring neighbors.

One of the special aspects of this new after-school program has been seeing students from the local school I teach in, who have graduated from a classroom-based HEART program and are using the library for homework, greet me excitedly. They tell me about all the things they remember from HEART and how they are doing now in middle school or beyond. Many of them have joined our group and helped me teach about issues they remember, functioning as mentors and ‘big sibs’. This is the kind of long-term integration of humane education, within a community, that makes real change and demonstrates the importance of our public institutions’ support for kind, vibrant neighborhoods.

Photo Credit: San José Library/Flickr

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