The Street Library has been happening in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, consistently since 2002. Now, after 15 years of having the Street Library, the community has started many of its own programs including basketball, dance, and computer classes. We at ATD Fourth World were curious about the journey that Ocean Hill and Street Library had taken together over the years and wondered what impact the Street Library has had on individuals, families, and the community.
In the fall of 2016, we began exploring the impact of the Street Library with the community members. At the end of the evaluation process, we created a photo and memory album to celebrate our history together. It can be viewed here. The detail of the evaluation process is written at the end of this article.
Evaluation of the Activities
The reading and creative activities were named as something new in the community that gave children something to do and kept them from being bored and getting into trouble. One of the adults from the Street Library said, “I liked the fact that they used to sit down and read stories together, that’s something different that never happened in this community because really nobody has time to sit.” A former child of the Street Library shared, “As long as they have something to do, we’ll stay out of trouble. Because the Street Library was here, we were too busy drawing, having fun to even think about fighting or doing things like that.”
Working on activities as a group teaches children to work together and communicate with each other. The current children’s handprints were also filled with comments about the activities. The Festivals of Learning, or “parties” as people called them, were highlights among current and former participants alike. The activities made learning fun, gave children a chance to use their creativity, and in turn helped them in school. They also learned that having fun doesn’t have to be expensive. The trips that Street Library facilitators took children on were also a highlight, as it gave kids a chance to get out of the neighborhood and see something different.
Spirit and Adult Influence
Street Library had a very positive atmosphere. Many people said that it was a safe space where parents could send their children and not worry about anything happening to them. Adults talked about how joyful the facilitators were and how peaceful the overall feel was. Former children talked about how they were inspired by facilitators to stay positive because that’s how the facilitators were. One earlier participant commented on the drive and determination that the facilitators have.
A former volunteer and a former child participant both talked about the consistency that the facilitators showed. One former child said, “From the beginning you all cared, you all showed that you all cared. And caring means more to a child than anything else. Showing that you care, that you want to be involved… and even when they’re not coming outside you’re knocking on the door, like come on! What are you all doing! Let’s get dressed! Come outside! We’re doing this! And make them feel wanted.” The consistency showed children that facilitators cared about them always, not just when they felt like it. This stability and trust made Street Library a safe place for children.
This connection between children and the facilitators was something that was evident in the experience of the former children. Children get attached to the facilitators, and one former child talked about how painful it is for children when the facilitators leave. That same person recommended that more people from the community itself get involved in the Street Library so that they are more likely to stay for a longer time.
Changes in Ocean Hill
There were a few distinct changes that occurred in Ocean Hill due to the relationship that the community had with the Street Library. The most commonly mentioned change was the opening of the community center. Opening the community center was something that they wanted for a while, and the Tenant Association president was inspired and motivated by the Street Library to get it open so that children could go to the Street Library in the winter without sitting in the freezing lobbies.
People were empowered to speak up when they didn’t like something that was happening. One former child described this by saying that Street Library “gave a little life to the neighborhood.” An important example of this was when Evelyn Sanchez, Tenant Association president, spoke at the United Nations about the poor relationship with the police in their neighborhood. As she described it, the police only came around when someone had committed a crime. After that speech, police activity in Ocean Hill changed. Evelyn was empowered through voicing this issue to develop a relationship with the local precinct. Now the precinct regularly has officers mingling in the neighborhood and getting involved with all that is going on in the neighborhood. The Street Library came to Ocean Hill when there wasn’t much going on there, and now the community has its own power to do things.
As people looked through the photos provided during the interviews, they were able to point out a number of children who had gone on to college or gone on to get jobs. These seemed to be stories that members of the community were proud of telling. One former child of the Street Library talked about how her younger sister is pursuing a teaching degree because she was inspired by the Street Library: “She was a part of the Street Library since she was about six years old. So I believe that made her feel like she can grow, no matter where she came from and where she was going, that she could get out of the neighborhood and become better, and it inspired her to keep on pushing.” This same former child also talked about the children’s own inspiration to become more involved in the community and work toward starting their own non-profit because of this experience in the Street Library.
What to Change about Street Library
When asked what pieces we should leave behind as we start a new Street Library in Brownsville, we were faced with a resounding “nothing!” Adults said, “don’t leave anything out.” Former children said, “There’s nothing else you can do… Don’t fix it if it’s not broken.” We were encouraged to keep reading with the children and to do activities, that there shouldn’t be a limit. We need to keep the same drive and determination and do everything just as we have. The only suggestions were about the people who should be involved: we need more younger kids who are 7 or 8 years old, and we need more adults from the community participating. But as far as the content of the Street Library itself, they stressed that we should make no changes.
The Evaluation Process
ATD Fourth World entered into an appreciative inquiry with the president of the Tenant Association, three other adults – both from the community and from ATD Fourth World – who have been involved with the Street Library, two young adults who used to attend as children, and four children who are currently involved. Kara Maurer, Guillaume Charvon, Donna Haig-Friedman, and Karen Stornelli developed the following questions to ask in interviews with adults:
1) What was your experience with the Street Library like?
2) What is most important to you about Street Library?
3) How has the Street Library changed your family? Ocean Hill?
4) How has Street Library changed since you first started?
5) What did you like about Street Library that we should take to a new Street Library? What should we leave behind?
6) If you could change anything to make Street Library even better, what would it be?
7) What do you see as your role in Street Library moving forward?
Transcriptions of these interviews are available at the New York ATD Fourth World office. Quotes that represented the key thoughts were taken from these interviews and combined with photos into an album that the Ocean Hill community can keep to remember our years together. At the beginning of the album is a timeline showing important moments of the Street Library. The current children also completed an evaluative activity to include in the album in which they traced their hands and answered questions in the respective fingers: