Credit: Anna Jo Beck

Walk through the doors of the cavernous 5,500-square-foot YOUmedia space and your senses are overwhelmed immediately by the whirring of 3D printers, the shouts of middle schoolers locked in a tense game of Mario Kart, and ecstatic rhymes in the recording studio from a young artist who, years later, you’ll swear you knew them way back when. On a typical school day afternoon, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see 100 teens stream into—of all places—the Harold Washington Library downtown.

It’s no wonder that Chicago’s most respected rappers, such as Saba, Vic Mensa, and Mick Jenkins, extol the program’s virtues. Chance the Rapper, YOUmedia’s most high-profile alum, famously recorded much of his first mixtape, #10Day, at the Harold Washington recording studio—a closet outfitted with a microphone and a Mac desktop—during a two-week suspension from Jones College Prep High School. “I’m still Mr. YOUmedia,” he raps in “Acid Rain,” a single off his second mixtape, Acid Rap.

In “Yesterday,” Bronzeville native Noname pays tribute to her beloved friend and mentor “Brother Mike” Hawkins: “Me missing Brother Mike, like something heavy / My heart just wasn’t ready / I wish I was a kid again.” Hawkins, who died in 2014 at age 38, was a founding YOUmedia mentor and “spiritual father to a generation of Chicago rappers,” Leor Galil wrote for the Reader in 2014.

For Trey Raines, a 20-year-old rapper who performs as the Third, joining a YOUmedia open mike around 2014 was formative in his career. “Looking back, it’s one of the weakest verses I have ever written,” he recalls, laughing. “But to see everybody being really loud, gassing me, and cheering me on, it was amazing to see that. My confidence in my rap . . . started there.”

Alex, a 17-year-old living on the south side, remembers the day he first walked into the YOUmedia lab of the Harold Washington Library his freshman year of high school. He originally came for the computers and 3D printers—”just overall expensive stuff that I couldn’t afford”—but felt moved by the warmth of the mentors. “It’s like that friend you make on the first day of school where you know you’ll be friends,” he says. They became invaluable not only for their expertise in STEM and the arts, but also for their life advice.

“It’s rare for a high school student to have an adult they could go to in a friendship capacity and professional capacity that wasn’t a teacher or parent,” says Matt Jensen, a founding YOUmedia mentor who left the library last year to move to Michigan. “Kids could come and talk to us about difficult topics, like ‘I can’t afford college’ and ‘I might be gay’ and ‘I don’t know how I feel about this person in my house.'”

In the absence of a social safety net, YOUmedia mentors have also mobilized to respond to crises. “There were lots of occasions where kids would come to the library with problems that you hope would’ve been addressed in other arenas, like [homelessness]. Through having this teen space and nontraditionally trained library staff, we would be able to put them in contact with resources. . . . Kids could come in and it was a safe place for them to be sheltered,” Jensen says.

Which makes what was to come all the more painful. In a surprise move on July 14, the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Chicago Public Library (CPL), laid off all staff members whose wages were funded by philanthropic grants. Among these workers (known as grant staff) were CyberNavigators, tech-support professionals who offered digital literacy training to adults; Teachers-in-the-Library, educators employed by the library as after-school tutors; and all the YOUmedia mentors.

More than seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago unemployment stands at 11.7 percent, three times higher than the same time last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The hundreds laid off by CPL join 30 million unemployed Americans seeking work in a decimated job market. To the mentors laid off and the CPL librarians still at work, though, it’s unclear why the layoffs needed to happen. “Before all of this, it really felt like they cared about us. Now I feel stupid for feeling that way,” says one mentor. “They just left me out on the street.”

Before YOUmedia was an institution, it was an experiment. Founded in 2009 as a MacArthur Foundation-funded partnership between the Chicago Public Library and the Digital Youth Network (DYN), an educational project centered on media arts, YOUmedia was built on a simple premise: “HOMAGO.” It’s an acronym based on a theory by Mizuko Ito, a media technology professor at the University of California, Irvine, that youth learning spaces should allow kids to do three things: hang out, mess around, and geek out.

A storage room at the Harold Washington Library was cleared for a space that looked like a cross between a lab, an art studio, and a living room, intended to accommodate all three needs. “Ten years ago, we created these places that didn’t exist. Youth need spaces that are designed to allow them to engage and tinker with one another,” explains Dr. Nichole Pinkard, YOUmedia cofounder and founder of DYN.

Mentors were originally employed by DYN as specialists in STEM, art, music, and other creative disciplines. Unlike librarians, mentors were not required to go through the draconian city job application process or hold graduate degrees in library science (or any degree at all). Mentors were therefore more likely to have nontraditional professional backgrounds and were more diverse than the majority-white librarian workforce.

Jennifer Steele, a founding DYN mentor who worked as YOUmedia’s partnerships manager and left in May to be executive director of 826CHI, describes the program’s early success among teens as a “groundswell.” Unlike other after-school programs, YOUmedia does not require application fees or an approval process to get in. The low-pressure environment of the library, understood as a public space, made it easy for teens to feel welcome. “Teens vote with their feet, and they ended up coming back,” Steele says.

The YOUmedia model was so lauded that the concept was replicated in more than 20 other cities as part of the YOUmedia Learning Labs Network. YOUmedia spaces of varying sizes were carved out of 22 more branches across Chicago, staffed by either teen librarians (adult librarians who work in teen services), YOUmedia mentors, or a combination of the two. In a ten-year anniversary announcement last year, the library promised 30 total YOUmedia spaces by the end of 2020.

Over time, YOUmedia evolved from a space into a community. Not only has the program produced fashion shows, podcasts, literary magazines, and more, it’s also given students agency. “It gave you experience in so many different things, but without the expectation that you needed to be good at it or that it needed to be graded,” says one alum.

Such programs are vital not only because of the activities offered but also because they function as social safety nets for Black and Brown youth. The majority of teens who visit YOUmedia are low-income and nonwhite. In a city that erodes public schools, community spaces, and social services in Black and Brown neighborhoods, YOUmedia felt like a refuge for many.

In 2015, DYN’s contract with the city ended, and the mentors were switched to another employer—but it wasn’t CPL. Mentors and all other grant staff were contracted by a staffing agency called Advanced Resources, which managed payroll and acted as the middleman for CPL communications. Unlike union-represented city staff, the largely part-time grant staff were not provided benefits such as health insurance and paid time off.

This was a source of tension for some grant staff and a source of confusion among city staff. “I never understood why they outsourced branch labor,” says one teen librarian, who requested anonymity because CPL employees aren’t allowed to speak to the press. “They should’ve been employees of the city and guaranteed their jobs.”

Over the years, grant staff heard murmurings of management internally advocating for them to become city staff and some speculation that AFSCME Local 1215, the union that represents CPL workers, would want to work with them someday. (AFSCME Local 1215 did not respond to interview requests.)

Mentors and current librarians attribute this lack of urgency to City Hall politics. Carving out millions for these grant-funded programs would’ve taken a lot of political gymnastics, so it was cheaper and more expedient for the Chicago Public Library Foundation to continue courting philanthropists and corporate donors like Allstate, Comcast, and Boeing to fund public programs. “We questioned how much they were really fighting [for us],” says one mentor.

“[Mentors] don’t get health care, but they loved the job so much they didn’t want to leave,” says another mentor. Engrossed in the day-to-day work of youth programming, mentors did not feel a sense of urgency when it came to advocating for themselves, a different mentor tells me. “We didn’t realize in 2020 all of us would be laid off at the same time.”

On March 17, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor J.B. Pritzker acknowledged the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak by closing Chicago Public Schools. Libraries, however, were not part of the initial shutdown—a move that generated fierce pushback from the library workers’ union.

“We were the last major public library system to close,” says one teen librarian. The New York Public Library closed on March 14, the Los Angeles Public Library closed on March 16, and the Boston Public Library closed on March 17. CPL closed a week later, on March 22.

Library workers employed by the city were sent home and paid their full salaries through the closures. Grant staff were given two weeks of pay. In a March 25 e-mail to grant staff, Brenda Langstraat, president of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, called YOUmedia and the other grant-funded programs “more essential than ever” and extended another week of wages. “Your work truly transforms lives,” Langstraat wrote, promising regular updates on library operations. A week later, she followed up in another e-mail to suggest that YOUmedia mentors file for unemployment.

In mid-May, library branches began to reopen. One mentor says that at first, it was a relief they weren’t called in to work so early in the pandemic, given uncertainty about the virus. On the other hand, the grant staff says they hadn’t been informed that their branches were opening, and instead heard from other staffers.

Then the mentors started to worry. They tell me they didn’t receive any communications from CPL, the Chicago Public Library Foundation, or Advanced Resources in May or June. It was “utter silence,” according to one mentor, until July 14. In-person programming was paused indefinitely, a representative from Advanced Resources wrote in an e-mail to YOUmedia grant staff. “Given the likely long-term impact of COVID-19, CPL is reimagining it’s [sic] current offerings and planning for future needs. At this time, YOUmedia mentors will not be rehired to work at branch locations.”

According to the e-mail, the Chicago Public Library Foundation had to make “budget modifications given the many uncertainties in fundraising, including the YOUmedia budget,” though it does not directly attribute the layoffs to lack of funding. The announcement came just two weeks before the $600 weekly unemployment benefit from the CARES Act ended on July 31, which made the situation feel more dire.

“When I got the e-mail, I was crushed,” says one mentor. They had fully expected to go back to work and had even been practicing new skills for future programs. “If there were issues leading up to [the layoff], I would like to know why.”

Three librarians tell me they were not notified by e-mail or in person by managers that their grant staff colleagues, with whom they worked daily, would not be coming back.

“This isn’t a staff cut, and it’s not a cut to services for teens. It’s us following public health guidelines,” library spokesperson Patrick Molloy tells me. According to Molloy, YOUmedia grant staff were contracted to provide specialized in-person programming, and because COVID-19 precautions prohibit in-person programs, it would’ve been impossible to keep them on the payroll. Molloy points to the teen librarians, who are union-represented city staff, still employed and creating digital programs for YOUmedia. “The library and library foundation haven’t made a decision to lay people off.”

To some current library workers, CPL’s purported concern over public safety feels disingenuous. One teen librarian says the library’s delay in closing could have exposed librarians, their families, and patrons to COVID-19. And when their branch reopened in May, the only supplies they received were expired nonalcohol hand sanitizer, too-large latex gloves, and a box of 10 masks. The librarian ended up sewing homemade masks at their own expense to outfit the rest of the staff.

Some librarians speculate that the program was shut down because of budget shortfalls and the cancellation of key in-person fundraising events that the Chicago Public Library Foundation usually relies on—they earned it $1,786,723 in net revenue last year. “The foundation loved [the mentors]. I don’t think it was personal,” one teen librarian says. Langstraat of the Chicago Public Library Foundation declined requests for an interview and deferred to CPL. A review of the foundation’s financial statements shows that the nonprofit spent $979,438 on teen programs in 2019, with $673,723 going toward grant-funded positions. In April, the foundation applied for and received a $147,500 Payment Protection Program loan through the CARES Act.

As for programming, it has all gone online. The annual ChiTeen Lit Fest, originally planned for April before the pandemic hit, will be all-virtual in November. During the summer, CPL teen librarians launched a Summer Learning Challenge program, a teen internship program through One Summer Chicago, author talks, and book clubs. One mentor calls the library’s online summer programming “traditional out-of-touch stuff,” since the planning seemed top-down and not arising from teens’ natural interests.

Another mentor says they tried to persuade the administration to let mentors develop digital programming at the beginning of the pandemic, but those proposals fell on deaf ears. “They didn’t communicate with us at all,” they say. “If they had worked with us, and we didn’t find a solution that worked, and the funding just wasn’t there, and then they had to let us go, it would still be hard. But it wouldn’t have been so heartbreaking, because we would’ve tried. It would’ve felt like they cared.”

Matt Jensen, the YOUmedia mentor who left in 2019, says he didn’t understand why the mentors weren’t asked to use their digital-media knowledge to build out online programming. “There’s a huge amount of knowledge and experience that the library specifically paid to craft, and now they’ve just decided to jettison it. It seems like it’s going to cost them far more money in the long run to rebuild that expertise. I don’t know what kind of business decision that is.”

The physical YOUmedia spaces have since reopened, but even the largest branches receive only a few teenagers a day. Walking through the Harold Washington Library’s YOUmedia space on an August afternoon, you can feel a palpable sense of loss. A large table that once held an elaborate model train now sat empty. The recording studio is still closed, and the areas where teens used to play live music and video games were roped off with caution tape to enforce social distancing.

COVID-19 precautions prohibit the face-to-face interactions that would’ve been happening now, but that isn’t why YOUmedia teens feel that they’ve been cut off from the relationships that originally bonded them to the program.

“This really angers me, because those people in the YOUmedia Center made it come alive. . . . They are my family,” says one 18-year-old student, who asked to remain anonymous. Another teen named Samson says, “I could just tell by . . . spending time with them that they had genuine love for me and all the students who would go there—just something you can’t replace.”

Alex, the 17-year-old who started coming to YOUmedia his freshman year, says that right before the pandemic, he had been planning to work with mentors to build a telescope and experiment with astrophotography. With the quarantines and layoffs, he’s had to scrape by on YouTube tutorials at home. “I should have professionals teach me how to do such things. . . . The administrators really don’t know what they are taking away from YOUmedia.”

YOUmedia mentors share stories of the economic anxiety they’ve faced while unemployed as well of the heartbreak they felt when laid off. “I’m sure I could’ve found something at Target for more hours, but I chose [working part-time at YOUmedia] because . . . it was an important job that needed doing,” one mentor says. “Even when I had issues or problems to deal with, at the end of the day I could say I love my job. . . . It’s very frustrating to have my last memory of being in that space, not knowing it would be the last time.”

“YOUmedia created a movement. It created something the city never thought [it would],” another mentor says. “This is a kid that’s disenfranchised doing science. I would show them that they’re smart enough to do this.” Now, with the layoff, the mentor has stopped visiting their library branch altogether. “It’s too emotional. Too much for me.”

Library spokesperson Molloy says that the library will offer in-person YOUmedia programming as soon as possible, though he declined to answer whether or not the mentors laid off would be hired back. A petition asking Lightfoot to rehire the Chicago Public Library Foundation grant staff has received more than 200 signatures since July.

But even if the world were to return to normal a year from now, the mentors say the layoff was devastating enough they may not want to come back. “Knowing I am completely dismissable isn’t an easy feeling to shake,” one mentor says. “Stepping back into that role—and knowing that, [when CPL is faced with] hardship, you may be among the first people to go—isn’t something I would take lightly.”

As jarring as it was to lose their jobs, the mentors suspect the loss is taking a similar toll on the teens. Beyond losing access to hobby equipment, teens are also grieving the loss of a safe community space and of the knowledge that someone they admire and trust will always be at the library after school.

“A lot of these kids, it felt like they were my own children,” says one mentor. “I watched them grow up. I watched them graduate. . . . It’s difficult to know that work is over.”

Many mentors still receive e-mails, messages on social media, and texts from teens they’ve mentored. Sometimes, the teens share art or music they’ve been working on in quarantine, or send messages to check in, like “How is your family during the pandemic? I miss you.” Others ask when they can come back, when they can use the recording studio again, if they can get help with their homework.

One mentor says many of the teens haven’t found out yet that the YOUmedia mentors don’t work for the library anymore. “I don’t have the heart to tell them.”  v

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 20 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Rebellious Magazine for Women, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.