From Books to Beats: How the library promotes literacy through music

September 7, 2022

From left: Jody Redifer, Commissioner Sharon Meieran, David Shine, Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Chair Deborah Kafoury, Esperanza Spalding, Commissioner Lori Stegmann.

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. 

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.

Redifer 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, Redifer 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,” Redifer said.  

However, both Redifer’s and the youths’ favorite way to engage with the library’s resources 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.

Hernandez-Archuleta, who was previously detained at the detention center, 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 Hernandez-Archuleta 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,” said Hernandez-Archuleta. 

“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.”

Hernandez-Archuleta worked with Redifer 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,” Redifer said. “In these sessions, I see a lot of common threads among the youth at DEL, and among youth in general.”

Like Redifer, David Shine also uses music to reach youth in detention, except he leverages it to help students develop their writing skills in 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,” Shine said. “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.”

Shine shared testimonies from students who recommitted to school, left the detention center in good standing and have continued on with their education thanks to his work with them through this music program. One student who graduated 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,” said Redifer. “There’s usually a lot of laughing and joking around that happens as well.”

Acclaimed musician Esperanza Spalding joined the board briefing to share about how music and the Multnomah County Library have influenced her life.
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 grown-ups were affirming my intelligence and my capacity,” says Spalding. “(The library) was also the place where the books I needed to fulfill my home schooling requirements came from.”

She recalled that one of the pivotal moments of her adolescence was coming to the Multnomah County 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,’” Spalding said.

Spalding 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. Redifer 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,” Redifer said.

“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.