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DC Public Library
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Innovation Leader: Rebecca Renard, Teens of Distinction Program Coordinator, rebecca.renard@dc.gov

Problem Statement

At DC Public Library, two groups coexist who are often at odds: the homeless and teens. There is a huge gap of understanding between the two, which leads to lack of tolerance at best, and physical abuse at worse. A 2007 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) found that more than 60% of all violent crime against the homeless is committed by teens. As the rate of homelessness in DC continues to spike, and as DC Public Library continues to attract more teens, awareness of the condition of homelessness, and humanization of the homeless is critical—especially for teens, but also for the larger general community, to help protect and advocate for this vulnerable population.

Innovation

DC Public Library teen employees were trained in professional portrait photography and oral history interviewing techniques, and undertook a nine-month project collecting the stories and images of DC’s homeless residents. In partnership with the NCH, current and former homeless people (many of whom are avid library patrons) opened their lives to the teens. Their stories and portraits were captured for a large culminating exhibit and for the library’s permanent collection of DC history. In addition, monthly panel discussions for the general public were held about intersecting issues of homelessness (mental health, veterans’ issues, affordable housing, etc.). These panels were led by representatives from local community-based organizations doing work around those issues.

Progress

Teens conducted nine powerful interviews, shot hundreds of photos, and coordinated a moving exhibit of portraits and stories for the public at our central library. The teens documented their experiences and wrote reflections on the library’s website. Community organizations helped lead five panel discussions that brought out more than 140 people from very diverse groups—youth, social service providers, teachers, etc. The archived oral histories, available to the public on CD in the library’s Washingtoniana division, have drawn many patrons—one of whom returned the CDs to the archivist with tears in her eyes, remarking that they were some of the most raw and honest stories she had heard. A web gallery of best shots (selected by the teens) lives online.