Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beyond Books & Basketball

This week I was privileged to hear former NBA player John Amaechi deliver a speech on Corporate Social Responsibility. Since retiring from the NBA Amaechi has earned a PhD in psychology. He now works as a consultant, and runs the ABC Foundation which focuses on youth outreach.

Amaechi presented a few simple yet impactful ideas in his speech that I’d like to share. He was speaking to national sponsors who build their brands with CSR campaigns, but I feel like there are some major learnings from his speech that apply to the library world as well. When speaking to these sponsors, he communicated that companies and community organizers can’t expect things like a baseball camp or a junior basketball league to magically make kids better people. Amaechi made his feelings very clear, there is nothing magical about sports. People who assert that they learned leadership or team work from playing a sport were likely influenced by other people, not the sport itself. Sports and other activities are just vessels to deliver life changing content to young people.

Another major point Amaechi made is that we have to set tangible goals for youth programs. We can’t set up a soccer camp to create “hope.” You can’t measure hope. We must be clear about attainable objectives so that we have something real to work towards. In the end, it makes organizers more successful and it makes a more lasting impact on kids.

My biggest takeaway is that there is a huge need to teach kids emotional literacy. For various reasons many children (and adults) in our society don’t know how to express, share or cope with their feelings. Lack of emotional literacy can have a host of consequences on an individual’s well being and society at large.

This is the point in the blog where you may ask--”what does this have to do with the library?” Everything. Just as people think that sports will magically change kids, I think people think reading will magically change kids. In general, I have the attitude that “as long as a kid is reading I don’t care what they’re reading.” This attitude is fine if we are just measuring literacy. However, if we are looking to make young people more emotionally literate, we must hand them reading materials that show them a range of life experiences and emotions.

At one point, Amaechi touched on the importance of empathy. Empathy is sharing the feelings of others--feeling their feelings. Empathy helps us to evaluate how we are treating others. If we make another person feel bad, but start to identify with them--we may stop. When we read novels, we have the chance to invest in characters and experience a piece of their lives. We also have a chance to feel what they feel--to experience empathy. Each time a kid reads a book there’s the potential to add another emotional experience to their empathy bank. For children and adults alike, a capacity for empathy may be the difference between bullying and not bullying--between committing violent crime or not.

During his speech Amaechi looked to the crowd and said, “You are axes in a sea of wood”-- meaning corporate marketers have control of massive marketing and CSR budgets that can be used to do a lot of good. I think that libraries are in the same position. Each library contains shelves of books that kids can access to vicariously experience situations and emotions that they might not otherwise. This leaves me with a new mission. As I read through the cannon of children’s literature, I’m now looking for books that can create a lasting impact on the reader. Amaechi likened creating an impact to a footprint in wet cement--it's there forever. Don't get me wrong. I don’t want books to be preachy and not everything a kid reads has to be profound. But I am on the lookout for things that will not only influence kids immediately upon reading, but also for books with situations that can be stored away and called on later when the difference between a good decision and a bad one is emotional literacy.

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