Youth at Linn County’s juvenile detention center offer ‘authentic reads on young adult books’ through the Read Woke program

Books part of Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Read Woke program. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

On a recent visit to Linn County’s Juvenile Detention Center, Cedar Rapids librarian Meredith Crawford said she asked one of the kids what kinds of books they liked to read when they were younger.

Crawford was surprised when they said they hadn’t read at all before coming to the detention center.

“This kid reads voraciously at this point and is one of our number one reviewers of books, and I just couldn’t believe that they didn’t read at all before,” Crawford said.

Crawford and Carl Rush, program coordinator at RISE and a chaplain at the detention center, have been bringing books to the youth at the detention center since mid-March. The “Read Woke: Be Heard” program is a partnership between the detention center, Cedar Rapids Public Library and Fresh Start Ministries.

Rush knew he wanted the program to allow the kids to have fun and be themselves. Crawford also wanted it to be a way that the kids could “feel seen, heard and validated.”

“We would be able to provide the detention center with age-appropriate books that represent diverse, marginalized and underrepresented communities for them to keep, so that would build their library, and we would be able to elevate the voices of those marginalized communities, while elevating the voices of young adults and incarcerated youth,” Crawford said.

The voices of the kids expressing their thoughts and opinions are recorded and posted on YouTube, with the identity of each child being protected.

The library brings books from its Read Woke program to the youth at the detention center. Read Woke was started in 2017 by Cicely Lewis, a high school librarian in Georgia.

A number of libraries across the country have adopted the program. Readers can earn 10 badges from the program after reading 10 books from different voices that are traditionally marginalized or underrepresented, Crawford said. Some examples include Asian-American voices, African-American voices, female voices, voices of people with diverse abilities and voice addressing social injustice.

Lewis developed criteria for what qualifies as a Read Woke book. A book must meet one of the following:

• Challenge a social norm

• Tell the oppressed person’s side of the story

• Provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised

• Seek to challenge the status quo

• Shed light on an issue that many may not perceive as being an issue

“[Read Woke] seeks to help people find material to read from these voices, engage with the material and share their thoughts and feelings with other people and the reading program itself,” Crawford said. “You keep track of how you’re deliberately reading, but the idea is that you go the next step and that you engage with people about it too, so that it kind of reaches into the community.”

Rush, Crawford and Molly Garrett, who was CRPL’s teen librarian at the time, began the program in March. The visits were virtual at first, with Rush inside the center with the youth, and Crawford and Garrett participating via Zoom. The programming moved to in-person in the middle of June, which has made such a difference, Crawford said.

“It’s just so much easier to connect with people through eye contact and nods, and … make sure that people understand that even if they’re not talking, their presence is useful, important and it really matters,” Crawford said.

“They’re doing us a huge favor by giving us authentic reads on young adult books.”

Crawford said she tries to be flexible with the books she brings by asking the young adults what books they want to read. She also tries to bring different styles reading material — such as poetry, graphic novels, nonfiction and fiction — because the kids could be on different reading levels.

Dawn Schott, the director of Juvenile Detention and Diversion Services, said the concept was intriguing to her since it allowed the kids to select what they read versus a book club where everyone is reading the same book.

Schott said she’s had people come in and do book clubs with the kids, but that typically doesn’t work out since the detention center’s population fluctuates. The average length of stay at the detention center is 12 days, but some kids stay shorter and others longer.

Schott was excited to hear more about the ideas that were “outside the box,” like the podcast, and knew that flexibility would be necessary with the program as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Meredith and Carl both never know what they’re going to walk into for numbers on a daily basis,” Schott said. “We could be in single digits on Tuesday and by Thursday we could be up to 15 or 16 kids. The one thing I think helps the Read Woke program is that 70 percent of our kids are returnees. So you’ll get a kid that was reading a book. He goes home. For whatever reason has trouble, ends up back here. He picks that same book up, and he’s ready to finish it. I mean, that means something to him.”

The juvenile detention center is a short-term holding facility and technically not a treatment facility, Schott said. But that doesn’t mean the center doesn’t try to teach the kids important skills and try to help them resolve any problems they might be going through.

In addition to the Read Woke program, Schott said the kids have done trauma-informed yoga, tended to a garden and have access to therapy dogs a couple times a month. The center has also contracted with UnityPoint Health to have therapists come out a couple times a week.

Crawford praised Rush’s work on engaging the young adults to see themselves as part of a community or system where they’re actively contributing, such as their importance in the family system, school system or the community system.

“The idea is by seeing yourself as part of these systems, you’ll be less likely to offend or reoffend when you understand that you’re important to other people, other things,” Crawford said. “So I think it’s just the most remarkable combination of intent and programming put into action.”

Rush added that “literacy is going to be the key to unlock all the doors” for the kids.

“Let’s focus on the youth while we can, and not just restorative but preventative as well because those are going to be the next ones that are influencers in our community, influencing the younger generation that’s coming up behind them,” Rush said, adding that he hopes the kids will continue to be part of the Read Woke program once they leave the detention center.

Crawford said it’s an honor to work with the kids and to hear their thoughts. She said that it sometimes feels like a sacred space when the conversation shifts from what’s going on in the book to the kids sharing their own experiences and how it relates to what they’re reading.

“They’re so resilient,” Crawford said. “They don’t even realize how incredible they are. They just don’t have the perspective to see all the amazing things that they’ve already done.”

Rush wants adults and other community members to listen to the young people and their experiences, as well as give them a second chance.

“We as a society and adults have the responsibility, I believe, to change our community, to be able to talk to the youth, to be able to put them on a proper course,” Rush said. “I want them to listen and hear the voices of the youth, kind of put themselves in their shoes, so to speak, and then reach out to these partner agencies in the community and find out more.”

Crawford not only hopes that the kids who participate in the program understand that their opinion is valued but that the general community comes to understand this is an important group of youth to invest in and work with.

“I don’t ask them their names. I don’t ask them what they did. I just ask them what they think and what they feel, and then I share it with the world. I think that’s a pretty powerful thing,” Crawford said.

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