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Guest blog: Libraries can build college and career readiness in rural and tribal communities

By Guest Blogger

By Hannah Buckland, librarian at Bezhigoogahbow Library on the Leech Lake Nation in northern Minnesota.

Libraries can be dynamic partners in afterschool programming, especially in rural and tribal communities where poverty rates are often higher and children have fewer options for afterschool activities. As rural communities work toward strong futures, libraries are well poised to provide afterschool College and Career Readiness (CCR) services that support youth in exploring career pathways in a fun, informal community setting.

However, rural librarians may not have easy access to the training or tools needed to implement these programs. In partnership with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) addresses this need through Future Ready with the Library, a project funnded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and launched in January 2017.

As a participant in Future Ready’s first of three year-long cohorts, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to learn alongside a network of 15 rural colleagues and develop CCR services specifically for the middle school youth who live in our own communities.

Many of our conversations as a Future Ready cohort return to the universal importance of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in middle schoolers’ development. The phrase often used to describe these skills—“soft skills”—is misleading, as if decision-making and social awareness and empathy and relationship building are easy. Yet SEL is critical across all career pathways. As we build our Future Ready projects, we’re all thinking about how to center our work on helping middle schoolers develop these skills. At my library, the Bezhigoogahbow Library on the Leech Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, core cultural values have common ties with SEL: the seven Anishinaabe values include qualities like respect, humility, courage, and love.

My library jointly serves students enrolled in two-year degree programs at Leech Lake Tribal College as well as the greater Leech Lake community. Our library has been a community library for only two years, and in our early efforts to provide afterschool CCR services to middle school youth, we’ve struggled with barriers most rural and tribal librarians encounter: lack of funding (our budget is based on grants); lack of staff (there are three of us total); and a huge service area (Leech Lake covers over 1,300 square miles, about a quarter of which is water). The Future Ready curriculum encourages us to reframe these obstacles as opportunities to innovate, be creative, and try new things. Participants learn new ways to do a lot with a little and be open to experimentation on a small scale – making minor changes to every day processes and resources to face those substantial obstacles.

For our community, developing CCR services for middle schoolers goes beyond basic workforce skills, instead rooting itself in the reclamation, preservation, and celebration of Anishinaabe culture. Within the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, all career pathways ultimately circle back to culture, to tribal sovereignty, to Native nation rebuilding. Building a strong workforce is an important component of this process, and cultural expression, like SEL, is foundational.

Developing new library services in rural and tribal communities always involves risk-taking. The possibility of failure—of working toward something that never comes to pass—is strong, particularly for rural librarians who often lack staff and funding. But without risk, there’s no reward. Ultimately, the Future Ready project supports librarians who are willing to move beyond fear of failure to create services that truly benefit our communities.