Jody Redifer is redefining what he thought working at the library was about.
He spends a fair amount of time roaming Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center delivering books -- yes, books -- to youth. There’s a Multnomah County Library location at the detention center, and Jody fills the role of librarian.
The setting -- engaging exclusively with teens at Multnomah County’s Juvenile Justice Complex -- generally is not thought of as traditional library work. And Jody is unique in this moment in time among library staff, with patrons not allowed in other libraries due to COVID-19 safety precautions.
Indeed, his presence isn’t lost on Jennifer Studebaker, youth services manager for Multnomah County Library. "He really strongly advocated for the ability to go back to direct service at Donald E. Long during COVID," she says. "So, he is one of the only library employees that I know of that’s doing direct service with youth in person."
Often during rounds in the halls of Donald E. Long, he catches the attention of youth in class. One recent day, a student waves, and points behind Jody. He wants to know when Jody will be back in the library. Jody smiles.
"I’ve been through and experienced some of the things these kids have done," he says, referring to an overnight stay at the detention center when he was 15-years-old.
"And I remember, even if I didn’t listen to the person - or if I didn’t really heed anybody’s advice or follow any good examples - I definitely remember the people who set positive examples for me in my delinquent days.’"
He says his detention center stint was a one-off; he didn’t plan on returning. Now, flash forward to late 2019, when he accepted the job at the detention center’s library. He’s been in the position nearly a year, and is glad to be back at Donald E. Long.
"It seems like I can do the most good for library services dealing with a population that’s marginalized, but that I can totally relate to in many ways, just having been there," he says. Jody notes that youth of color are disportionately over-represented in the detention center, a problem that Multnomah County Department of Community Justice seeks to address through a number of focused initiatives.
Jody says as a library assistant with Black Cultural Library Advocate knowledge specialty, he addresses community needs that are in line with the library’s mission to better serve Black, Indigenous, and People of Color populations, and with more direct service from staff who look like them and often share similar life experiences.
"I can help the Black community in and around Portland and Multnomah County,’" he says. "It’s really kind of specific work.’"
He says detention center youth range from age 13 and older, and serves some into adulthood probation up to age 25. He says he primarily works with youth ages 15 to 19.
Daily duties include some of the same routines as his first library job in 2017 as an access services assistant at Fairview-Columbia Library (and later St. Johns and Gregory Heights libraries), and as a library assistant at Central Library immediately before going to Donald E. Long.
“I bounced around a lot,’’ he says, “until I finally settled in to, maybe, where I’m supposed to be.’’
Studebaker agrees with that assessment of Jody’s current place in the library system, having seen his impact when accompanying him during visits to Donald E. Long.
"The youth there really bond with the people that provide service to them," Studebaker says. "They do it because there is an adult giving them positive attention, which doesn’t always happen for kids who are in those kinds of situations.
"Not speaking against Donald E. Long,’’ she clarifies, “but thinking about life experiences for some of those youth."
To this end, Jody rejoices in achievements he witnesses, including those in motion before he started his position in January. One example is an 18-year-old and frequent library user, who in September earned his diploma.
“Before I came here, he was on track to do that," Jody says. "I was super excited because he’s one of my favorite kids that I have a pretty good relationship with, and he comes to current events and I order books for him personally. I’m very proud of him."
Part of Jody’s job involves overseeing a library volunteer program for detention center youth. He says youth who meet a standard amount of volunteer hours can earn high school elective credits, and also fulfil community service and probation requirements.
Studebaker says the program gives “youth the opportunity to be the owners and the deciders of something in their life.’’
"You don’t just show up and know how to volunteer, or know how to organize a community space. You have to learn,’’ she says. "For youth, they need it to be through their own lens."
Jody also engages youth in new programming, including a constant in his adult life. Working with library Outreach and Programming, he’s setting up a recording studio in the library to educate youth about the music-making and recording process.
He says he began drumming at age 18, and for many years has played in bands and as many as 150 live shows yearly around Portland. Until 2020. COVID-19 has all but put the brakes on live music performances.
He teaches a current events class, too, which, he says, fills a particular void. For a variety of reasons, he says, detention center residential youth aren’t allowed to access any media.
"So, I bring them current events once a week, just to try to get them caught up on things that are important. We try to keep an eye on culture and diversity; try to keep the news fairly unbiased but to look at it realistically."
He says he’s progressed more swiftly in his position because of his partnership with Daniel Carter, a juvenile custody services specialist at Donald E. Long.
"I work really closely with him with a lot of what I do,’’ Jody says. “So, I’m not doing it all by myself."
Studebaker refers to Carter as a “champion,’’ of sorts: “Someone who cares very deeply about meeting the needs of the youth, and has really helped Jody navigate … within Donald E. Long," she says.
Conversely, Jody says, Studebaker is equally supportive.
"I go to work, and the needs are just jumping out at me left and right. Jennifer has allowed me a lot of latitude to find solutions, and to establish relationships with the other moving parts inside Donald E. Long that the kids interact with, to where we can really offer the services that the library has available - what we specialize in."
And, for Jody, to also reimagine where he sees his place in the library.
Written by Wade Nkrumah