From Books to Beats

How the library promotes literacy through music

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners held a board briefing at which library representatives spoke about the critical connection between music and literacy, and the impact writing and music production has on youth in detention settings.

County Commissioners and Books to Beats presenters linked arm in arm

Director of Libraries Vailey Oehlke introduced the Board to the work that Jody Redifer, a Multnomah County Library Black Cultural Library Advocate, and David Shine, a social studies and English teacher for the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD), have brought to the Donald E. Long School (DEL) for the past three years through the Books to Beats program. 

Guest speakers also included Cherie Hernandez-Archuleta, a 17 year old who participated in the music program and volunteered in the Donald E. Long Detention Center's on-site library, as well as five-time Grammy Award winner and Portland native, Esperanza Spalding.

Jody provides a variety of library services to youth who are incarcerated at the detention center. There, they have access to a collection of over 8,000 books, library volunteer programs, and music classes with a recording studio. 

While he has selected some titles, Jody says he’s found that, “kids are the best selectors for their library.” He encourages them to read books out of their comfort zones and works with the teens to find culturally specific books and biographies written by people from marginalized communities.

Many of the youth incarcerated at the Donald E. Long Detention Center interview for the popular library volunteer program. All get hired and through the position, find an invaluable opportunity to learn about books and literacy.

“They help me curate the collection based on what they see and don’t see in the library,” says Jody.  

However, both Jody’s and the youth’s favorite way to engage with the library is through music class, or “studio time.” Students come to class with notebooks full of lyrics, and a newfound determination to succeed in their school work and change their lives.

One example of this is Cherie, who was previously detained at the detention center, and was among those who found refuge in studio time. She shared her story about how she grew up in the system and in and out of group homes. When Cherie discovered she could volunteer at the library, she took the opportunity.

“I completely changed and it really wouldn't have been if it wasn't for Jody and the recording studio this time around,” says Cherie. 

“I was reading about this poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, and how he learned how to read and write on his own in prison. And I just started writing poetry, and I fell in love. I loved that I could figure out how to rhyme and put my feelings on paper and make it all make sense to me — a different coping skill,” says Cherie. 

Cherie worked with Jody to record her poems in the recording studio. 

For many students at Donald E. Long School, the library’s music program is the first time they have an opportunity to learn how to write music, or even express their feelings through the written word. It’s also the first time they can learn how to use a recording studio, make beats and see it all come together. 

“I have recorded youth talking about absolutely heartbreaking upbringings and the things that happened to them. I have also recorded youth talking about their greatest joys and very special people in their lives. In these sessions, I see a lot of common threads among the youth at DEL, and among youth in general,” says Jody.

David Shine helps students develop their writing skills through his English classes. 

“I use music in my curriculum every day… I use it to teach writing, figurative language, narratives, abstract thoughts, current events, history —  the list continues,” says David. “When we talk about literacy, it goes far beyond reading and writing. Literacy is really about the ability to communicate effectively through various channels.”

“Poetry in its purest form is reliant on rhythm, form, structure, and pattern, as is music,” he continued. “Even spoken traditions and oral word poetry, they rely very heavily on rhythm, pattern and structure.”

David then shared testimonies about students who he has worked with in this music program that because of it, recommitted to school, left the detention center in good standing and have continued on with their education - even one who graduated and is now a youth counselor. 

“It’s really pretty amazing when you get a group of kids together who wouldn’t even even talk on the streets, or who may even be from rival gangs, and you see them working together and helping each other write and critique the music. There’s usually a lot of laughing and joking around that happens as well,” says Jody.

Acclaimed musician Esperanza Spalding spoke of how music has influenced her life, sharing that it was through music and the library that she was able to fulfill her schooling and feel a sense of belonging. 

“Music was the only place that I felt capable, where grownups were affirming my intelligence and my capacity,” says Esperanza. “(The library) was also the place where the books I needed to fulfill my home schooling requirements came from.”

Books to Beats presenters talk at County Commission meeting

She shared how one of the pivotal moments of her adolescence was coming to the Central Library for a jazz program where musicians welcomed any young person that would want to learn about instruments.

“There is something about feeling invited in, as a young person, where you felt rejected by adults who are holding the keys to kind of this brain based future of academic or good writing, where you are just not welcome. I remembered this sensation of  ‘Oh, I'm welcomed in,’” says Esperanza.

Esperanza also shared her experiences as a student, a musician and as a professor at Harvard University — specifically speaking to how music is a connecting thread between all of us, and she and others have rediscovered a love for learning through music. 

The music program and partnership between the library and Donald E. Long School has inspired many young musicians to open up to learning and a new path in life. Jody sees a wide range of opportunities for youth to participate in similar programs, outside of detention settings in libraries.

“You never know what talent you might find at Multnomah County Library…or somebody might not know what talent they have or what they are into…so if we can get recording spaces into libraries, I give my personal guarantee that they will be in constant use,” says Jody. 

“I choose to do this work because I was justice-involved as a youth and young adult, and I know that everyone is a work in progress and everyone has the capacity to make different decisions and take different actions for better or worse. We, as humans, are never the same person as we were the day before.”

Watch the board briefing.