By Patrick Forrest
The city has taken on many changes in the age of COVID-19, but one area where there has not been much public scrutiny is the Chicago Public Library system.
Last week Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged the retirement of Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli. Telli, who has worked in various jobs in city government for 30 years, has been commissioner of the Chicago Public Library system since last June, when she replaced Brian Bannon as Lightfoot took office.
During her one year in office Telli was responsible for the decision to eliminate all late fees – becoming the largest public library system in the U.S. to go fine-free – and to expand Sunday hours.
“The library has always had a special place in my heart. It’s where I gained the ability to dream, imagine, and tell stories. It’s how I met my lovely wife, Amy,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “And it’s where I met my good friend, Andrea. Thanks to Andrea, Chicago’s libraries will continue to have a central and trusted role within our communities, as we begin a national search for her successor.”
With all of her work as Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library system, it is what she is responsible for ending as her time comes to a close that will raise eyebrows.
Employees of the YOUmedia program were informed in mid June that they would not be returning.
The program has been credited with launching the careers of Chicago artists like Noname, Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, by allowing teens to experiment with different forms of STEAM education. STEAM fields are defined as science, and technology, interpreted through engineering, and the arts and based in mathematics.
“YOUmedia has opened so many opportunities for me to showcase what I can do. It has given me the self-confidence to continue painting,” a Harold Washington Library YOUmedia alumna, Assata, was quoted as saying in the 2018 annual report. “The program has helped me find my voice – as an artist and as a person.”
A former YOUmedia employee referred to as Jamie spoke with the Crusader under the condition of anonymity. He explained the timeline of employment as COVID-19 struck and the uncertainty they have been left with.
“We went months with no communication from the library itself. [July 14] we got an email saying our positions were permanently terminated and that the library was moving forward without us,” the anonymous source Jamie explained. “This was especially difficult because they made it seem like we were going to be rehired.”
Former mentees came forward to advocate for those who worked with them to hone their skills and gave them outlets from the negative stress and temptation the city’s streets offer.
“The Harold Washington YOUmedia Branch has helped me through a very deep and dark depression,” noted Jamal Reid another former Harold Washington Library YOUmedia student. “I could testify for any of these people on a podium that none of them deserved to be fired.”
A link between having an outlet, such as artistic expression, and overcoming depressive symptoms has been established in the medical literature. Licensed mental health counselor and college professor Malik Raheem called the youth outlet important.
“The creative juices of creative expression can help express things someone may not be able to verbalize,” Raheem said. “Having that, especially for these times can be vital.”
The employees let go by the Chicago Public Library were not directly employed by the city, instead through an outside agency, but were in contact with top members of the Library foundation.
In an email Chicago Public Library Foundation President Brenda Lengstraat called the work of the program’s mentors “more essential than ever” adding that the work that they do transforms lives.
“Words cannot express how grateful we are for your commitment to every patron that you serve, and how inspired we continue to be by the stories that you share,” Lengstraat said in an email to the mentor employees before they were let go. “Many of you have remained in contact with patrons, giving them much-needed support, guidance, and encouragement during this challenging time. Thank you for continuing to support your fellow Chicagoans.”
Jamie and others fear that with the removal of the large section of the workforce with such specialized knowledge that the program will not be able to continue. That fear is compounded by the thought of the more than 6,000 teens served who will no longer have an outlet, leaving them to fend for themselves in the streets of the city.
“We have received no recognition for years of hard work and programming, and we are heartbroken,” Jamie explained.
“Because we are no longer employed by the library, the programs we facilitated for teens and for the general public are not going to be available. We knew how to operate the equipment and supplies, we had the specialized knowledge, and we had developed personal relationships with our patrons, many of whom relied on us for everyday life advice, friendship, and learning.”