Engaging Youth at the Opportunity Center

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center buzzes with the activities of two youth-geared programs helmed by Hennepin County Library and supported by EMERGE.

This work is right on mission for our libraries. We are bringing Hennepin County Library resources to meet the needs of Cedar Riverside youth - our libraries are for everyone.
— Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin

The first, homework help, is a drop-in program supported by staff Abshir Omar, library community liaison, and Sara Zettervall, community engagement librarian, along with EMERGE tutors and library volunteers. Students range in age from elementary through high school, with older students often working with each other to advance school projects.

The second is the library's Teen Tech Squad program, an employment opportunity for teens in which they are supported by library staff mentors to develop research and design skills, and facilitate STEM activities for other youth. Tech Squad employees also develop interpersonal skills, enhancing their ability to work with youth of various ages from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Bringing people together around what the neighborhood needs helps establish programs like these that engage young people.
— Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame

The Opportunity Center's focus on enabling education and career development for the Cedar Riverside community, including youth-directed offerings, aligns with core initiatives of the Cedar Riverside Partnership, a public private partnership committed to investing strategically in the sustainable growth and development of the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Partnership has long invested in youth engagement in Cedar Riverside, helping to establish the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center and supporting its mission of providing educational and workforce resources and a pipeline to good jobs.

Teen Tech Squad as a learning tool

"I want to work in human resources, and at first I didn't think this job really gave me any skills in that area," said Bilan, one of four high school-age Teen Tech Squad employees at the Opportunity Center. "Since being in the Tech Squad, I've experienced working with different people and gotten to present to other teen tech squads to share projects we've worked on. I've learned to work with different kinds of people."

  Bilan, Teen Tech Squad member

Bilan, Teen Tech Squad member

Bilan found the job posting for the Teen Tech Squad position online. "I was looking around on the Hennepin County website and found this job opportunity. This isn't my first job - I previously worked at the Sisterhood Boutique on Riverside - and I thought the projects that Teen Tech Squad does sounded interesting, so I applied."

The Teen Tech Squad helps launch student creativity and self expression. Squad members are hired for their interest in innovation and creativity, and use these interests to attempt projects such as making music, videos, and animation and employing both high- and low-tech tools, from iPads to synthesizers to sewing machines.

Twice a week, Bilan and the three other Teen Tech Squad members engage students coming from homework help sessions in STEM-related skills and activities that run the gamut from 3-D printing to basic coding. "The coding was hard - we tried to direct the movements of a robot using computer coding," explained Bilan. "With younger students coming from homework help sessions, we stick with more basic projects, or help the younger students do easier versions of projects. We research and come up with ideas for all of the projects we do through Teen Tech Squad, then we share them with other youth."

(Teen Tech Squad) is like a pathway for the younger students - they go to homework help and then participate in Teen Tech Squad-led activities and think, ‘I want to be doing that someday.’
— Bilan, Teen Tech Squad member

Bilan hears from younger students that they want to work for the Teen Tech Squad when they get older. "It's a goal for a lot of them," said Bilan. "It's like a pathway for the younger students - they go to homework help and then participate in Teen Tech Squad-led activities and think, 'I want to be doing that someday.'"

  Teen Tech Squad members including Zubeda, center, along with community engagement librarian Sara Zettervall, right, help younger students with the afternoon's STEM-based project, sign painting with Springboard for the Arts.

Teen Tech Squad members including Zubeda, center, along with community engagement librarian Sara Zettervall, right, help younger students with the afternoon's STEM-based project, sign painting with Springboard for the Arts.

“The community leads much of the Opportunity Center library activities and programming, positioning residents to better navigate and understand resources available to them,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame. “Bringing people together around what the neighborhood needs helps establish programs like these that engage young people.”

Launching academic success stories

Riyana is a regular at homework help, and has built a great relationship with tutors at the Opportunity Center's Hennepin County Library homework help program.

  Riyana, left, works on homework, with tutor Rahma, right.

Riyana, left, works on homework, with tutor Rahma, right.

Students like Riyana work closely with high school student tutors like Rahma, a student at South High School admired by the students who work with her during homework help sessions for her patience and enthusiasm for helping others learn.

The library's homework help program is designed to support positive academic outcomes for youth, and supports students to complete homework assignments, boost confidence and motivation to learn, and encourage problem solving, critical thinking, basic literacy, and mathematical thinking.

Homework help surveys completed by students at the Opportunity Center program show that one-on-one attention and support from tutors has been what students value most, and the reason they return to the program.

Abshir Omar, the library's community liaison and someone long familiar with Cedar Riverside, helps spread the word about the library's offerings to families and others in the community.

  Aisha joins the Teen Tech Squad to work on sign painting led by Peter Thompson in coordination with Springboard for the Arts.

Aisha joins the Teen Tech Squad to work on sign painting led by Peter Thompson in coordination with Springboard for the Arts.

"Growing up, I wasn't exposed to libraries, and much like a lot of others in this community, the older generation especially, I thought of libraries as being just for books - I didn't know all that libraries offer," explained Omar in describing his role as a library community liaison.

"I let people know that the library is for everybody and help them wrap their heads around all of the offerings. You can find classes for elders, activities for youth, and homework help, as well as information on filing taxes and opening a new business."

Omar pointed out that the community informs a lot of library's offerings.

"The library asks the community what is needed now, which is how the homework help program was identified as a resource that the community wanted," noted Omar. "I enjoy making sure that families get the resources they are looking for. The accessibility of having a library location housed in the Opportunity Center is comforting for neighborhood residents, and if we don't offer specific resources at this site, I can refer people to nearby neighbor libraries."

“This work is right on mission for our libraries,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “We are bringing Hennepin County Library resources to meet the needs of Cedar Riverside youth – our libraries are for everyone.”  

“The library asks the community what is needed now, which is how the homework help program was identified as a resource that the community wanted.”
— Abshir Omar, Hennepin County Library Community Liaison

Building strong pathways for ongoing learning

The homework help and Teen Tech Squad programs at the Opportunity Center align with the career pathway goals of the Center and the employers that support its work.

“These youth programs at the Opportunity Center supporting academic success and early exposure to STEM pathways that are fun, interesting, and engaging are critical to building young people ready to step into health science and other tech field careers,” said Regina Pekarek, Workforce Development consultant with Fairview Health Services, an employer partner regularly present and hiring from among job seekers at the Opportunity Center.

“As an employer, Fairview views academic enrichment and STEM engagement programs like these as helping to prepare future job seekers that we will want to hire.”
— Regina Pekarek, Fairview Workforce Development Consultant

“It’s beneficial to start this engagement with younger students so that they are motivated early on to learn about opportunities in health and science. As an employer, Fairview views academic enrichment and STEM engagement programs like these as helping to prepare future job seekers that we will want to hire.”