By Devin Blake Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Sep 09, 2023 at 10:56 AM

School can be a stressful place, with problems often arising between students and their peers, teachers and parents.

The Circle Keeping program at the Milwaukee Public Library provides an alternative space for youths to go with these problems.

The program seeks to help them develop the skills needed for a healthy and safe life.

“We sit in a circle ... and I ask them questions that they normally wouldn’t want to answer in front of their parents or their teachers,” said D’Shaunta Stewart, who facilitates the circles. “We work out real-life situations.”

“Basically,” Stewart said, “it is just an outlet for students to express themselves.”

Jackie Addison, 16, attended a June circle at the Atkinson Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. She said many of her friends “don’t have anybody to talk to.”

Terone Greaves, an 11-year-old who attended the same circle, often sees this sort of isolation in his peers. 

“There are a lot of kids who look sad and depressed some days,” he said, “but they don’t say anything the entire day.”

The percentage of high school students in the U.S. who felt “persistently sad or hopeless” went up across all racial and ethnic demographics from 2011 to 2021, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of Black, Hispanic and white students who made a suicide plan also increased.

Pandemic creates challenges

This worrisome trend was taking place before COVID-19 disrupted our lives, but things have gotten worse since the pandemic, observers say.

The pandemic “happened when I was in fourth grade, and I was online until the middle of fifth grade,” Terone said.  

Upon returning to in-person class, “most of the things about my school were different. Plus … I didn’t know as much stuff because online school didn’t do anything for me, and that just made me feel less smart,” he said.

A surge in violence

2023 report from the American Psychological Association also points to other stressors that coincided with the pandemic.

In Milwaukee, this includes violence.

Data from the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission shows that homicides and nonfatal shootings among people 17 years of age and younger have more than doubled since before the pandemic.

In 2019, there were 54 such victims. Three years later, there were 136 victims.  

The number of suspects of these crimes also rose dramatically among the same age group.

In 2019, there were 23 such suspects. In 2022, there were 47 suspects.

These trends have conspired to create the conditions that Terone and Jackie, and their peers, are living through now.

Learning about conflict

Stewart said the circles emphasize understanding the many facets of conflict, especially anger.

It’s not about placing blame on the students but helping them “correct what needs to be corrected,” she said.

“I had a circle once where one of the young ladies mentioned that she said something mean to a student, and she felt really bad. And her question was: Should she go and apologize, even though it’s been days?

“So as a circle, we sit and we talk about that, and we talk about what she could have done, how she could have handled that. And in the end, she felt she should apologize, and she did,” Stewart said.

Why the library?

The idea to implement these circles at the library came from experiences with at-risk youths, said Tammy Mays, public services area manager of branch libraries at Milwaukee Public Library. 

“We were trying to figure out a way, instead of just continuously banning them from coming to the library – we were like, ‘We have to think of another way to reach our youth,’” Mays said. 

“Banning keeps you from participating in the library,” she added. “The library is a safe space, and we want it to be.

“If we can incorporate circles – say for example, they are acting out. Let’s pull them into the room and have an immediate circle and find out what’s going on.” 

A more long-term goal is to “make better citizens, where we catch our youth now, before they become adults, and have the same problems they were having.” Stewart said.

Terone and Jackie said they would recommend circles to kids they knew. 

“I think it would definitely, genuinely be a safe space to share things that are on your mind and get advice,” Jackie said. “And that’s what a lot of people my age need: someone to confide in.” 

For more information

Youths from the ages of 11 to 18 can participate in these circles, which currently take place at four different branches: AtkinsonCenter StreetMitchell Street and Washington Park.

Here’s more information on the Circle Keeping program.