Prince George’s County Hosts Successful Social Justice Camp for Teens | LibLearnX 2023

Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, MD, last August hosted its first annual social justice summer camp. During five full days at five separate branches, groups of teens learned about the history of social justice movements along with project management skills to help effect change in their own communities.

Prince George's County Advocacy Summer Camp Gallery View activity with two teens taking notes about historical activistsIn an effort to “affirm and reflect the challenges local teens face in their day-to-day lives”; help them “learn key project management, critical thinking, and social-emotional skills for career readiness”; harness their enthusiasm “into ethical, directed action”; and engage them “year-round in meaningful ways,” Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS), MD, last August hosted its first annual social justice summer camp. During five full days at five separate branches, groups of teens learned about the history of social justice movements along with project management skills to help effect change in their own communities.

Librarians involved in creating the program discussed it in detail during the “Not Your Typical Summer Camp: Engaging Teens in Responsible and Responsive Advocacy” session on January 28 at the American Library Association’s 2023 LibLearnX conference and expo in New Orleans. Isaiah West, teen services specialist for PGCMLS; Kathryn Herberger, commons program associate for PGCMLS; and Kelsey Hughes, branch manager, Howard County Library System, MD, who worked on the program in her prior position at PGCMLS, presented.

“We really wanted to prepare our youth to not only engage in activism, but do the work that they would need to do in order to do it ethically, responsibly, and successfully,” said Hughes. “We were really inspired by projects at other libraries, like the Free Library of Philadelphia’s teen Social Justice Symposium. [PGCMLS] had also hosted a hip-hop architecture camp, which combines stories from songs in hip-hop with ideas of community planning and architectural design to change your world.” In addition to helping teens “harness their enthusiasm into ethical and intentional action, we also wanted to give them some key project management skills, some critical thinking skills, and social and emotional skills that we know will not only help them in their activism, but also when they’re thinking about what their career might be,” she added.

With the team hoping to host five weeklong camps at five branches across the county, the first order of business was determining funding and staffing needs, creating a formal proposal for the program, and getting it approved by library leadership. Having a formal proposal ready, “with every cost that we think could come up...and to be able to present it to anyone who asks about it—so that we could show that we had thought every process through—really helps to give you credibility to your project,” Herberger said. She added that leadership “from the beginning was really on board with this project and really supported us with figuring out how we could actually get it done.”

In terms of staffing, the presenters emphasized that in addition to the three of them, the program was made possible by five additional PGCMLS staff who helped design the curriculum, five more staff who served as in-person program facilitators at the five participating PGCMLS branches the week of the program, and five paid “peer mentors”—local high school students or recent graduates who also provided in-person help at each branch. Prior to the program’s launch, a full-day curriculum training was held for all facilitators.

Planning the curriculum started with an open approach. “No bad ideas, let’s throw everything out there, what do we think they need to know if they’re going to go out and do this [advocacy] work?” Hughes said. “As you can imagine there was way more than what we could we could fit even into a five-day, all-day camp without completely overwhelming and stressing out everyone involved. So then we had to really narrow it down.”

Eventually, they settled on 10 topic areas divided into two themes. The first was understanding activism and social justice, and their histories. The second involved project management and related skills needed for successful activism. Over the course of five full days, attendees would learn about and discuss different types of advocacy and activism, working with stakeholders and partners, covering topics that included ethics in activism, research methods, assessing and critiquing an advocacy program, and more.

Getting participants to sign up for the limited number of spots in the program was not a heavy lift. During the Q&A portion of the panel, West explained that promotion “was honestly just a press release. We have a pretty large reach with our marketing, and…we knew that it was going to be high-demand just because, historically, anything that deals with social justice has been a pretty big program for us.” The program already had a waiting list three days after the press release was sent out.

The panelists joked that a few of the participants seemed to have been “volun-told” to sign up by their parents, but ultimately, the five branches each had cohorts of nine to 16 teens who started the program, and the majority of them were enthusiastic participants who attended four or all five days.

When the program launched last summer, each day began with morning snacks and free time as attendees arrived; a welcome and an interactive “icebreaker” activity; morning sessions, which were a mix between staff or guest lectures and activity-based learning; lunch provided by the library; time to work on projects; and then a “share out” at the end of the day asking the teens what they learned, and what they wanted to learn more about. There were also regular breaks planned between all of the activities.

The library produced workbooks for participants and provided pens, paper, and “fidgets” such as pipe cleaners and Play-Doh. “We have some really difficult conversations during these camps, and having something to do with your hands while you’re trying to have those conversations really helped facilitate” them, West said. Separately, the library printed out and laminated several posters of different advocates and activists through history for each cohort.

West said they also prepared slide decks to kickstart coverage of certain topics and concepts. “One of our first activities is ‘what does social justice mean?’” he said. “We give some very academic and clinical definitions of social justice, and then we say, ‘Now you define what it means to you.’ And every definition is different. Everyone comes at this in a different way.”

Music was also played in the background, with teen participants helping to create the playlists. Lyrics “could not be explicit, but everything else was fair game,” West said. “We put together a playlist of social justice songs, essentially, dating all the way back [from] ‘Yankee Doodle’ [to] Beyoncé, but we made sure to try to expand their horizons in more ways than one, and music was one of them.”

West said that guest speakers were a key to making the lectures and presentations engaging and informative. “Guest speakers are really, really valuable in this,” West said. “We cannot be the experts in everything…. It’s definitely a hazard of our field to want to be able to be the jack-of-all-trades, but we’re not going to be the best person to talk about all of these topics.”

In fact, Herberger noted that they were hoping to get guest speakers and local experts even more involved for the next iteration of the program. “It’s great to talk about community engagement and social justice, but we want to have them involved in every aspect of the camp,” she said. The team is also planning to change the application process. It will still be a simple process, but to create more buy-in, future participants will probably be asked to submit a very short essay—even just a paragraph—on why they are interested in attending the program “to make sure that…the teens that are coming are the ones that really want to be there,” she said. The days will also likely be shortened—starting later and ending earlier. “The feedback from both our participants and our staff…said all day was too long,” Herberger said. More icebreaker-type activities—which the teens loved—and interactive activities producing tangible items such as posters, buttons, or even tote bags are being considered.

In addition, the team is definitely planning to include its “Gallery Walk” activity, which utilized small laminated posters of historical activists. “This was a major turning point for most of our camps, where we started to see a lot of engagement from our teens,” Herberger said. The activity involved posting the images around a room with a blurb about the activist’s background and their form of activism, along with related images of their work as artists or images of them at protests. The teens would go around the room taking notes in their workbooks and putting Post-it notes on the wall if they wanted to explain what inspired them about that activist.

The history of social justice lectures focusing on specific movements and people will also return. “From our feedback, this was one of the things that the teens got the most out of,” Herberger said. “These were not specific movements and people that they really talked about in [their high school] classes very often.”

“Elevator Pitches,” an event held on the last day of the program in which participants pitched social justice–relevant projects to the group, were a success and are planned for the next summer camp. “Even our more shy teens who didn’t talk very much during the camps, [you] really could see them shine during these elevator pitches,” Herberger said.

Being in the Washington, DC, market, the program drew positive news coverage from several local news organizations, but also negative attention from major right-wing media outlets, West noted. “FOX News blasted us for providing a place for teens to talk about their passions, their advocacy work, [and] their activism,” he said. But the team chose to look at the positive side of the biased coverage; it gave the program a lot of visibility. “A silver lining with this is that FOX News has a gigantic network of people that saw this tiny little social justice camp in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and our reach went from a couple million in our region to 50 million nation- and worldwide,” West said. “So, more eyes saw this than we ever anticipated. And that in itself is a success—even if they didn’t like what they saw. The word of what these teens are doing was getting out there, and that was the most important thing for us.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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