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On the Podcast: Libraries as Healing Spaces with Heinemann Fellow Julia Torres and Janet Damon

dollar-gill-O-8uehnvlM8-unsplashToday on the podcast we’re handing things over to Heinemann Fellow Julia Torres.

Julia is a librarian within Denver public schools who works to make her library a place for students to seek answers to questions that intrigue and excite them, and to reignite a love of reading through developing rich, culturally and linguistically diverse reading lives.

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

In this episode, Julia sits down with Janet Damon to talk about how libraries can be healing spaces.

Below is a full transcript of this episode. 


Juila: Hi, my name is Julia Torres and I'm a Heinemann Fellow. I am also a librarian on the Montbello campus in Denver Public Schools. I work with students in grades six through 12. And I work with language arts teachers to help develop culturally responsive curriculum through librarianship. So a lot of my work is around supporting students in the development of positive reading identities and helping to reverse some of the trauma that happens to them in this school system specifically as it connects to the development of a reading identity and a relationship with language and words. So today we're going to be talking with my friend Janet Damon. She is a librarian as well. 22 year librarian vet. She's going to be talking to us about libraries as healing spaces and here we go.

Hi, my name is Julia Torres and I'm a librarian here in Denver Public Schools. I bring you Janet Damon. Today she is the library services specialist for DPS, has worked in library services for 22 years. She focuses on family and community engagement, and culturally responsive librarianship. She also supports students in the development of reading identities through literature. She is the founder of Afros in Books which partners with librarians within community organizations to bring programming that centers black families and children. Janet is one of my very favorite people. She is a personal friend of mine. I am a librarian today in Denver Public Schools primarily because Janet approached me one day and she said, "Girl, we are thinking about opening back up the library. Would you be interested if it were to happen?"

And it was in my classroom on a day that I was just exhausted, tired, feeling beat down by the whole system of things and I needed some hope. And she brought that to me and she continues to be a person who lights that flame of hope within a lot of members of our community. So I'm really excited to share her with the Heinemann Podcast listeners today. Janet Damon.

Janet: Hello. I'm so excited to be here with you.

Juila: Thank you for being with me.

Janet: Of course, of course.

Juila: What can you tell us about community engagement and the different community and environmental factors that might impact students' experiences in the library space?

Janet: When I think about some of our libraries and some of the communities and students that we hold dear and that we love and that we serve, we do see that there's challenges that students are facing that we want to make sure the library is centering those students' lives and supporting those students. When I think about some of the youth violence that has been happening in some of the schools, and around some of the schools that we currently serve, you know one of the things that we talked to our librarians about is how do you center and listen and listen deeply? And provide nurturing spaces as well as generative spaces for students to gather in. And how do you adjust your programming to really center their lives. I think about a couple of years ago we had a number of students who had committed suicide and we created some library programming that was celebrations of literature for children and little ones.

We partnered with Project Proud Fatherhood and Black Child Development Institute and we did an entire, You Are Loved series so students and families get to come and while students were hearing these stories and seeing them read by these fathers in the community, parents got to visit three different tables that had resources around what do you know what to look for, what are the signs, let's talk about some of the needs that students might have and how parents can provide support. And we did that with the Black Psychologists Organization here in Denver as well as the center for African American Health. And it was healing, it was powerful. Heavy Hearts, Heavy Hands. This boxing gym also brought speakers out and talk to students about if they're ever feeling bullied, how these huge boxers were like, "I felt that way and this is how I overcame it and these are the partners that my family partnered with." And it was just like those moments where we take library services out of the library, and we go right into the community and boots on the ground, making sure that folks know we're here to support them.

Juila: Well, I definitely knew that you were here to support me and I definitely felt it. I know that there were days when you were driving books around in the back of your car to different library spaces because we didn't have librarians or working libraries in them. And it's not easy to be a secondary librarian these days when people are closing libraries. And when folks have to defend their positions on the regular. And they have to defend the need to have a library on the regular, which ultimately connects to our topic of the library as a healing space. When you're trying to defend the right to have that space and hold that space for students. So let's talk a little bit about creating libraries that are psychologically and emotionally safe spaces that can foster connection between the students and the communities they live in.

Janet: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think that takes us into this conversation. Can you be psychologically safe if you are not seen? If you are invisible if your lived experiences are not presented in the classroom, in the school, in the collection? What creates psychological safety? It's being seen, it's being heard, it's being loved, it's being respected, it's being honored. And how do you do that? Well you listen, you promote books that say, "I see you and I see this as happening and here are the ways that we can serve." And when we think about how sometimes literacy instruction and what reading is and who is a reader that students can internalize a lot of negative ideas around who readers are.

Well, if the successful readers in my school, in my class, all look like this and maybe I'm not a successful reader or if people who aren't reading on grade level like you're not as successful reader. Those are really negative connotations and it really reduces what it is to be a reader. We read to connect, we read to celebrate, we read to soothe ourselves. We read to see the humanity around us and all of those experiences help us to develop a reader identity, who we are and who we see ourselves as in the world. So I think about just how having a strong librarian who is promoting and excited like I think about you and how when we reopened this library, students hesitated. They were like, "I don't know if I'm allowed to go in there because I might know a book."

Juila: Can I take the books?

Janet: Right.

Juila: Can I take them home?

Janet: Can I touch the books?

Juila: Yeah. And then people were taking like ten at a time.

Janet: Right?

Juila: Yes.

Janet: We think about what was the experience historically? Well, historically, right, the libraries were closed in their building. There were no librarians in their buildings. So there wasn't this opportunity to grow and flourish and develop your own reader identity and to feed and nourish yourself through the literature. And so it really is about how do we make sure that all of our actions align with what we're saying? If we're saying no students, we want to see them thriving as readers. Well then what are the kinds of books and what are the kinds of experiences they're having in those spaces? So that's a big piece of it.

Juila: And I also want our students to... I know that DPS and a lot of libraries across the country have been abolishing fines. I like our students to feel like this is their library. This is not my library. These are not my books. Even though I might refer to it that way, sometimes I definitely want them to feel like this is their space. This is their collection. I may have used whatever resources I have to help develop it, but it's deliberately constructed and run and built for them. So I want that. That's really important to me that they feel emotionally and psychologically safe in here because the classroom often isn't a space where they can feel that way. Some of my Heinemann research is about supporting students in reclaiming their reading identities, but also reclaiming the way that they grow as readers. So they move along a trajectory of reading complexity, by going from one text in elementary school, so to speak, to gradually more increasingly more complex texts. But who is the one who's deciding what's complex? It's usually the teacher.

So the library, we have that ability to have a little bit more wiggle room or fun space where all books belong to all readers. And so students have the ability to choose what they want and to get excited about books that will, as you said, show their lived realities and identities, but then also represent experiences where can feel a little more free or safe to talk about things like suicide, like being displaced. They can talk about these experiences with other students and with their community in a non... I don't want to say a non academic setting because the library is still an academic setting, but it's one where they don't have the pressures of evaluation tied to whatever happens. So can you talk a little bit about ways that libraries within the district have connected with community engagement to create programming that supports students in feeling emotionally and psychologically safe?

Janet: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think that who we partner with says a lot about who we are. And I think that one of the things that we've done is really start a process of partnering with people who are doing the work in all the spaces that they're doing this work. So whether it's a summer literacy camp with Black Lives Matter 5280 or whether it's a year long programming that we've done with BCPI Denver, it's called Sankofa Storytimes. We are really intentional about making sure that we're partnering with groups that are affirming, liberating, and truly capture the social justice work that we think is so important. That goes hand in hand with equity when we think about the lives of our students and the challenges, both the structural challenges as well as the ways that limiting beliefs can be put onto schools and communities in terms of... You know when I think about some of the schools that didn't have their library spaces staffed or open for students.

For students, they take a message from that. They hear that loud and clear, right? And so when it came time to do those popup collections, students created their own book clubs. And it was through that spark that turned and the adults had to pause and they had to say, "Are we honoring these kids?" And so to see those pop up collections turn to spaces where there are libraries now that are growing and they're still figuring out staffing. I think that that is that piece that we promote strongly that every kid needs a champion who is advocating fiercely for their right to have this intellectual and liberated life of the mind. And so I think we have to think about the difference between educating so that students have survival skills in the workplace versus educating so that students are liberated and have a life that they are intentionally curating for themselves.

And so I think especially the work at the Urban Peak, that's a youth shelter where students are unhoused and who have really lost a lot. And we think about families and support and stable housing. And when I go there to do our book clubs and students are unpacking for me, all the books that are helping them to navigate that space or pulling books out of their pocket or saying, "Here are the authors who are speaking life to me."

And Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. And I think about what is it that can't be taken from you? Everything else at some point, what we stored inside us, our ability to read and to find solace and liberation in the books that we read that has the most crucial skill. And that's the biggest reason why we read, right?

Juila: And I think we read to see our own stories and selves reflected, but we also read to connect with other people, right? We've talked a lot about how reading and discussing stories is one of the oldest things that human beings have done. Sitting around a campfire and telling stories, that's nothing new. That's something that you do as a child. And you learn that oral storytelling tradition that is something rich that is a part of every different culture. So one of the things that I guess I really value in this district is the ability to make those choices to have texts in our collection that might be banned or censored other places.

So our students have a rich catalog of books to select from. So they're not being censored by me. I'm not over here using the excuse of selection to limit the types of lived experiences and realities that they can read about. You have talked before about how through reading we can build empathy and we can connect with other human beings. Can you tell me a little bit about what you've seen in terms of empathy and compassion and how reading can help us navigate trauma?

Janet: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, the research is really clear that people who read, especially reading a novel, it allows a person to, for a time period after they've read this book or novel, to have higher reported empathy for others. Right. And so when you think about students, and especially... There have been some research around how students and are experiencing loneliness right now, especially just how social media has maybe changed the nature of the relationships that students have.

But having a space where you are cultivating more empathy through the act of reading. And then I think partnering that with a book club. One of the book clubs I'm really excited about is our Pirates football team. So here we have a ton of, right now in the Pirates is predominantly little boys and predominantly African American and Latino youth. And it's been phenomenal to partner with these coaches and to listen to them and form us of the books that are meaningful in their lives. And then to train them to be these literacy partners and literacy mentors for the young children in the program, but also the parents and families so that they can look and see themselves also reflected in who is encouraging you to read?

Janet: And when we think about cultivating community around both the books that were, affirming text, enabling texts of powerful books, .but also the rich conversations that people see themselves and the community around them and they make connections and all of a sudden when a coach and a six year old love the same book and it's a picture book, and they are cheering this book on, like really the powerful moments that literature can bring everyone together.

And so I think about just how are we also cultivating communities? So it's the books and the spaces and conversations that we nurture across both generations. We have an intergenerational book club that's beginning, and it's youth led youth. They're selecting the text and then elders are like, "Wait a minute, you've read this thing? That's the book that you chose? The Skin I'm In. I read that when I was in high school." Or, I read this book. And those conversations, all of a sudden we're seeing where our common humanity lies. So that is a healing space, right? That all of a sudden we're deconstructing what it is to be a reader, what it is to be a man who loves to read. What it is to be an elder who loves to read, and a teen who loves to read and we're connecting over books that are framing our lives. These are touch points. I think of Doctor Alfred Tatum's work around reading for their lives.

It is important to have these stories that help us navigate real and true dangers in our society, in our community. And these texts provide the path right? They're like that illuminated pathway to success and, and delighting. In spite of some of the different challenges they may face.

Juila: I love what you said about an illuminated pathway, because I can see lights on both sides and I can think about some of the earliest books that shaped as Alfred Tatum said, the literary lineage that we all have. Some of the work that I'm going to be doing in the future does have to do with literary lineages and how some of our students, for whatever reason, there'll be in the school system. Everybody will nurture them in elementary a little bit through middle school and then all of a sudden it becomes this really intense experience where all the books that they have as part of their academic life are these painful experiences.

And so a lot of the work that myself and my colleagues do is trying to reverse the pain associated with reading and to have it be a more pleasurable experience through which we can also learn. And so we want to help continue that literary lineage so it doesn't start in elementary and then skip 10, 20, 30 years and then pick back up again. But that the students are liberated as you mentioned, and they're able to have freedom of intellectual thought, but then also freedom of expression as they talk about these books and the ways that the books have shaped their lives. Speaking of this, we have some awesome visitors coming to the Montbello library this semester we've got Minh Le, is also going to come with his picture book called Drawn Together.

Janet: I love that book.

Juila: And our Latinos in Action group of high school juniors, mostly juniors. They're working with some first graders. And so Minh Le and Drawn Together and first graders and upperclassmen what could be better? So that's happening. And then Eugene Yang is going to be here talking about graphic novels. And he used to be a teacher. So I always love listening to him talk, because I always learned something every time. So I think that will be a really fun experience for our community to be able to just think about more than the written word on the page. But also pictures as stories. So, and then we have Elizabeth Acevedo coming.

Janet: So excited.

Juila: Later on this semester. I know.

Janet: All if it. I was here for all of it. That's so exciting.

Juila: It's so exciting. We were so lucky to have Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds in one year, Skype into the library last year. And Jason came in person as well and was at the Tattered Cover and some students got to meet him in person.

So we have had a lot of love from the literary community.

Janet: Yes.

Juila: Which has been incredible. Nic Stone, donated a bunch of copies to our library. She was here in person as well, signing copies of Dear Martin. And we've just, we've experienced a lot of love from our community of authors and we are very appreciative of that. I know it has made a difference in the reading culture community, and just the way that our students see reading. Because there was a time when, I swear there were tumbleweeds blowing through this library. And there was a time when they just didn't see this as a space where they could come and find nurturing or community. And now I see them supporting one another and my student assistants, one of them last year complimented every single sixth grader as they came through the line, checking books out and just witnessing that and watching them give book talks to each other.

That only happened in a year and a half. So that gives me so much hope and fills my heart with a lot of joy because yes, I may have had something to do with it, but it's the way that our community of students came together to support one another. So there's no shaming. We now have assemblies where people are given all kinds of certificates for their reading. We send out lists all the time.

Janet: Love it.

Juila: Of our top patrons and the titles that they're selecting. There's always a Manga among the selection of the top 10 titles. So I know that Montbello students are reading, and I know that Montbello students love to read and for communities of color that are intentionally, we have our libraries removed, we have our schools co located and then we are underfunded or defunded. And so then what winds up happening is our ability to have that connection with each other and with culturally diverse or culturally responsive texts that is taken away, that ability to have that is removed from us.

And so it is one of my greatest hopes that we can start to reverse that trend and that people can get libraries back and have them staffed by teacher librarians who are as passionate about the work as some of the people that I work with. Such as you. So can you tell me just a little bit about a book that you are reading that you think folks should know about?

Janet: Well, I think most people do know about this New York Times best selling author. But I have just finished Children of Virtue and Vengeance, by Tomi Adeyemi. and took me through all of our emotions. I love her writing. I love that book. I'm also reading right now, Breathe by Imani Perry. And I think that there's his piece where you think that some emotions that you feel are so deep and so complex that it's almost hard to just put it into language. And then along comes this author who takes all your feelings, all your emotions and just so poetically breathes this life into them. And so those are some books that have definitely taken me on some journeys. How about you?

Juila: I am reading River Solomon, The Deep, which is about the transatlantic slave trade, but it's about some slaves that were pregnant when their ships went down in the Middle Passage. And they gave birth and the babies that were born formed a new kind of civilization of mer-people under the surface of the sea. And the most interesting part of it to me is that there's one member of their society that is sort of like the memory keeper. So at the same time that she hold onto the memories, the collective memories of the people, she also holds onto a lot of that pain from the Middle Passage of being a slave, being taken from your home and all of that. So I am really processing right now how books can help heal collective trauma that some people say is stored in our DNA. And just doing a lot of thinking about that and how not only the truthful stories that we write with the people such as Kiese Laymon who was, he wrote Heavy, I mean out here just putting it on the page for us.

I am so grateful to authors that have the courage to write stories like that to tell their truth because I'm still coming into a place where I can do that. There's a lot that I've experienced that I'm not ready to talk about. So, yeah, I think that we, some of the work that I hope to do with our students is helping them see, as you have mentioned before, they're not the only ones who have lived through trauma. And this isn't the first time that a generation has experienced some of the things that we are experiencing. Because so much power and so much empowerment and so much liberation can come from looking at our elders, what they have been through and getting strength from that. So yeah, The Deep, River Solomon.

Janet: I love it.

Juila: Yeah,

Janet: I love him. He's one of my top books ever read. Something about that book.

Juila: Right. I read that one in one sitting, couldn't put it down. So.

Janet: I should listen to him read it. And listen to the audiobook.

Juila: Yes. Okay, okay.

Janet: And other essays also, they just will sit with me and my spirit. All the days of my life.

Juila: Yeah.

Janet: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Juila: This would not... I would not be me if I didn't shout out to poets as well. Of course, we've got Magical Negro, which is incredible Morgan Parker. I have to mention Lima Limon. Which is a book that talks about femininity, violence, masculinity, toxic masculinity. But also just delves into the female journey through relationships and self-discovery in a way that I have not seen a lot of people do through poetry. And I'm still growing in the poetry that I read. In my private life, I do read quite a bit of poetry and have written some too. I think that our students really are gravitating toward poetry right now as a way of healing. As they read them, I know Amanda Lovelace is really popular with students on our campus, so that's a way too that students can sort of... They go through these relationship ups and downs and in her books she really does a good job with capturing what the experience is to go through a painful relationship and come out onto the other side.

Janet: I have to shout out bell hooks too.

Juila: Yes.

Janet: I'm doing a whole like I just wanted to go back and reread some of her books.

Juila: Yes.

Janet: And so I am. I read her memoir for the first time this last couple weeks and just to see this intellectual life bubble up from having no access as a child. And also having a family that really did not believe in intellectualism. And did not believe... And have this incredible thought leader. Have grown up in that and also Teaching to Transgress, right.

Juila: Teaching to Transgress is one of my favorites of all time.

Janet: I needed bell hooks. I needed bell hooks a lot earlier than I got her.

Juila: Yes.

Janet: Because I got her in college with Ain't I a Woman. And I feel like I really probably needed her at 16.

Juila: Yes, yes. Amen to that. I did an Audre Lorde long before I found her, too.

Janet: Yes yes. Audre Lorde talking about our lives, our literary lineages.

Juila: Our literally lineages and the ways that we have healed through literature.

Janet: Yes. Just that whole... Thank you for this conversation. It's given me so much life.

Juila: Thank you so much for being here with me today. I'm so glad that we got to do this. Listeners, this is the second time that we're recording this conversation because we got so carried away. And Julia forgot to push the record button the first time. So this is very real. This is not in front of a studio audience. You are here in my office with Julia Torres and Janet Damon. Thank you so much. See you next time.

Read More from the Heinemann Fellows

juliatorresJulia E. Torres strives to empower students living and learning in historically marginalized or disenfranchised communities. Currently, she is a language arts teacher/librarian within Denver Public schools. Julia works to make her library a place for students to seek answers to questions that intrigue and excite them and to help reignite their love of reading through the development of rich, culturally and linguistically diverse reading lives and identities. She has served as a Regional Affiliate President for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and is the current NCTE Secondary Representative-at-Large. Additionally, Julia serves her colleagues as part of the Culturally Responsive Teaching leadership cohort within Denver Public Schools.

Follow Julia on Twitter @juliaerin80


Janet Damon etls (002)Janet Damon, Ed. S is the library services specialist for Denver Public Schools, and has worked in library services for 22 years. She focuses on family and community engagement, and culturally responsive librarianship. She also supports students in the development of reading identities through literature. She is the founder of Afros and Books, which partners with librarians within community organizations to brings programming that centers black families and children. 

Follow Janet on Twitter @MixxMomma

Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Podcast, Reading, Books, Heinemann Podcast, Julia Torres, Libraries, Janet Damon, Anti-Racist Education

Date Published: 02/09/20

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