Magazine Feature

Street Smart

Sidewalk libraries open a world of learning for urban youth

Every Thursday afternoon, the sidewalk along one block of Montauk Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., is lined with books on portable shelves, games, art supplies and computers, all arranged on a row of blankets. A passerby might mistake this scene for a gathering of street vendors. But a closer look reveals a different mode of exchange.

Children from this low-income neighborhood huddle around makeshift craft centers and work stations. Some are painting, drawing, making puppets or simply talking among themselves. Many are reading. Others play on the computers, as friends peer over their shoulders, waiting for a turn.

The outdoor classroom is one of a small but tenacious number of enterprises called street libraries. Even on the hottest summer afternoons, children from surrounding blocks wait anxiously for the familiar white van to roll down Montauk. Any resemblance to the traditional bookmobile ends as youngsters begin helping the volunteers set up the books and computers on the sidewalk.

The street library is the brainchild of the Fourth World Movement, an international antipoverty organization founded in France by Father Joseph Wresinski in 1958. During the 1960s, a group of Fourth World volunteers settled on New York's Lower East Side to study poverty firsthand, offer assistance and get to know the families in low-income neighborhoods.

In the 1970s, "gentrification" forced many of these families out of their homes and into new ones, sometimes far across town. Eager to stay in touch, the volunteers often visited their friends' new homes, bringing books and games to entertain their children. As the trips became more frequent and the activity increased, the volunteers began moving the books out of the apartments and onto the sidewalk to accommodate more children.

For more than 15 years, street libraries have been a mainstay in neighborhoods of New York, Boston and New Orleans, instilling pride, creativity and enthusiasm for learning in as many as 350 disadvantaged children at the three sites every week.


A Culture of Inclusion

The Fourth World street library operates on the firm belief that all children can learn in the proper environment and that everyone -- irrespective of their race, culture, gender, religion or socioeconomic status -- has something to offer.

"We try to reach out to all the kids in the neighborhood, especially those who have the most difficulty," explains program coordinator Denis Cretinon. "These are the children who perhaps do not know how to read and are ashamed of it. Because of this, they're scared to come out and join us."

The volunteers make it a point to knock on all doors. Sometimes no one answers or parents politely decline the invitation. The volunteers will try again in subsequent weeks, believing that it's just a matter of time before they establish the necessary trust. Neighborhood resident Zena Grimes was skeptical at first.

"We were living in a shelter in Harlem," she says, "and a couple of my kids heard about the street library and would ask me if they could go and play on the computer and meet the other kids. At first, I said no. I wasn't going to trust [the volunteers] with my kids. But I met some of them, and I came to watch what they were doing. I thought my kids would get a lot out of it."

Parents who are new to the project sometimes ask why it bothers with those families that have reputations for drug use or violence. Volunteers respond that to avoid certain households would break the fundamental rule that no child be excluded. Such an open environment, they acknowledge, can initially create problems, such as teasing and bullying among children from different home situations or segments of the neighborhood. But an inclusive street library generally fosters cooperation, not conflict.

"We always ask parents what else their kids get out of the street library," Cretinon says. "Almost always, they tell us it teaches them how to get along. Even after we leave for the afternoon and don't come back for another week, parents tell us that the kids don't fight like they used to."


"Is It Street Library Day Today?"

"The massive school failure of children in extreme poverty is often attributed to lack of interest on the part of the parents," explains Bruno Tardieu, associate director of the Fourth World Movement. "This is a view which tends to reinforce the impasse between parents and the school system. Children have difficulty learning if they see that the different partners in their education are not working together."

Every Thursday afternoon, just after the school day ends, two Fourth World volunteers park the van and, with the help of parents and children who have been anxiously awaiting their arrival, begin to lay down the blankets and set up the books, computers and art equipment. A street library session usually lasts about two hours. The first hour is devoted to reading. Volunteers try to bring books that the kids can relate to but that, at the same time, open up new worlds. The children will read to themselves or to each other or ask a volunteer to read to them.

The second hour is reserved for special projects -- painting, drawing and interactive games, for example -- often revolving around a specific theme or topic, such as "respect" or "music."

One of the most popular recent programs at the Brooklyn site focused on "communication." The children sent messages via the Internet to peers in the New Orleans and Boston street libraries and made greeting cards to send to their counterparts in several European cities. By emphasizing the many modes of communication, the volunteers believe this and similar projects lessen the isolation often felt by disadvantaged children, removing a key obstacle on the way to their becoming better learners.

After the street library ends for the day, the volunteers' work, in many ways, has just begun. During the session, they monitored the activities and the progress of the children. They will later transcribe their thoughts in journals and share information with parents and other volunteers. These journals and discussions have formed the basis for Fourth World Movement books and reports that are distributed to educators and other nonprofit organizations. A constant and free-flowing exchange of information promotes flexibility in the street library program, allowing volunteers to, in the words of one worker, "create the road as they walk."

The cooperation of parents and other neighborhood institutions remains central to the street library's success. The computers will work only if a family agrees to run an extension cord into an electrical outlet in their apartment. The generosity of local churches and apartment building superintendents is crucial when adverse weather forces the street library to move indoors. Parents and neighbors offer support and advice as the children work on their reading, painting or drawing.

The Fourth World Movement would like to develop informal partnerships with local schools. However, school officials, perhaps suspicious of a "guerrilla" operation like the street library, haven't been as responsive as volunteers had hoped.

"The public school system is very bureaucratic and politicized," says Cretinon. "It's a shame, because we know things about these children and their ability to learn that their schools probably do not. It is also important to establish links between children who participate in the program and other children."

To that end, the Fourth World Movement has produced a story collection entitled Children of Courage that teachers can use to introduce their students to children whose lives were changed by the street library. Supportive parents can also help bridge the gap between the street library and schools by reporting to teachers what they have observed about their children and their ability to learn and communicate.

"The street library is the reason my younger kids learned how to use a computer," says Zena Grimes. "It makes learning fun and important. After it leaves, all the time I hear one thing from my kids: 'Is it street library day today? When is it coming to the neighborhood again?'"

For more information about street libraries or other Fourth World Movement programs, call (301) 336-9489.

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