L.A.’s Head Librarian, a Former Foster Youth, is Putting a New Spin on Career Development Opportunities

Los Angeles County’s new library director Skye Patrick mixes beats at an event for the library’s DJ training program, Turn the Tables. Photo courtesy of LA County

Skye Patrick started working when she was just 10 years old, growing up as a foster youth in Michigan.

That may not sound like a hallmark of an ideal childhood, but for Patrick, it was a saving grace. Those formative work experiences provided a constant in her life and kept her striving toward success, she said.

“Through all the different changes, I worked the whole time,” she said. “It kind of set me apart from some of the things that were happening to other folks.”

Working as a library page helped launch Patrick toward greater things. Now far from her girlhood roots in Lansing, Michigan, Patrick heads up Los Angeles County’s system of public libraries, a network of 87 community libraries that serve 3.4 million residents with a $201 million annual budget.

As L.A. County Library director, Patrick is making a special effort to maximize career development opportunities for the county’s foster youth. In addition to fundamental classes and workshops on topics like resume writing and acing job interviews, Patrick has helped introduce newer offerings at county libraries that are meant to attract younger Angelenos.

“That is a really important thing to keep them out of trouble, to keep them focused, and give them an opportunity to make money and be self-sustaining,” Patrick said.

Libraries played a big role in Patrick’s young life, both serving as an escape from the trauma of her home life and a gateway into the world of work and education.

Patrick entered foster care in Michigan for the first time at the age of 5. Over the next nine years, she would bounce from foster home to foster home, back to her mom’s place a couple of times, then back into care again before being removed permanently from her mother’s care at 14. She cycled through six to 10 foster homes throughout her childhood and teen years, staying at most for less than a year.

When her friends and peers started dating, staying out late and getting into standard-issue teenage trouble, Patrick was too busy working. At 10, she started doing odd jobs around the neighborhood; by high school, she had a job as a library page that she jetted off to each day after school.

While this part-time work didn’t offer her complete financial independence, it brought her far more than a minimum-wage paycheck. In addition to the stability it provided, it was through this library job that a new layer of learning was revealed to her: college. She worked in East Lansing, best known as the home of Michigan State University, where she got to engage with students.

“It gave me an option that I didn’t even know I had, this whole world of college,” said Patrick, who ultimately earned a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh.

Now on the other side of the checkout desk, these early influences shaped Patrick’s philosophy and vision for her libraries.

Countywide Career Center

With a focus on equity and eliminating barriers to access, Patrick is on a mission to ensure that her libraries are centers of learning that help the county offer all residents the tools they need to succeed. This extends far beyond checking out books and providing a computer lab; the libraries are now home to a growing menu of courses and workshops around career development and learning important life skills.

These programs, many of them geared toward youth and teens, range from traditional workforce readiness topics like resume writing to more creative offerings, like a DJ boot camp.

14-year-old “DJ Ninjaro” showing off his new skills at a concert put on by participants of the library’s 9-week DJ training course. Photo: Sara Tiano

The Adult 101 for Teens series of courses balances teaching job preparedness basics as well as life skills that are foundational to adulthood — but that may not be getting taught elsewhere.

“There aren’t a lot of places that focus in on this kind of thing if parents or guardians aren’t doing it, if they’re not teaching them these skills at home,” said Elizabeth Tanner, the library’s teen services coordinator.

Tanner said teaching young people skills like communication, stress management and basic finances helps them transition successfully into adulthood and helps them navigate the job market and career decisions. However, the library also offers more explicitly career-related courses, too, like mock interviews. In addition to the in-person classes, the library offers online services, including homework help and assistance building and proofreading resumes.

These new offerings are part of a nationwide trend toward libraries offering more expansive and innovative educational and community engagement opportunities.

Reflecting both today’s changing job market and the interests of teens, the library is beginning to offer more courses around S.T.E.M. — science, technology, engineering and math — and the arts, everything from coding to cartooning.

A nine-week long DJ training program is among the library’s growing offering of music instruction. “Turns the Tables,” which debuted in 2016, teaches teens not just how to remix a song and scratch a record, but also how to market themselves and navigate the business world.

“These are all entrepreneurial teenagers,” said instructor Moni Vargas — or DJ Moni as she’s known to her students — at a recent student showcase. “These kids in five years will be running the show.”

As public schools struggle to provide art and music classes, Patrick sees the library as being in a position to fill that gap and make sure L.A.’s teens can still access creative education. They’re building a stock of DJ turntables — they have 20 so far — to be placed in libraries across the county so people can plug in headphones and practice their skills. Patrick said they’ll also buy some instruments, maybe keyboards or guitars, and offer free music classes soon. 

At the “Turns the Table” showcase, DJs as young as 13 wowed the audience with their new skills and had library patrons up and dancing. A panel of judges deemed several performers instantly hirable. Patrick, who was in the audience, beamed at the performance and the crowd’s enthusiastic reception. The better the students do, the better the program does, she said.

“It reinforces that the library has a place in the creative economy and can be part of the economic engine of the city,” Patrick said.

Foster Forward Programming

Patrick, who is now a foster parent and soon-to-be adoptive mother, is serious in her commitment to making the library welcoming and useful to youth involved in the foster care system.

“From my perspective, the county is the parent to these youth,” she said. “The onus is on the county to provide opportunities.”

Library Director Skye Patrick (far left) with student DJs, program facilitator Moni Vargas (center, in purple), and showcase judges. Photo: Sara Tiano

The library’s courses are free and open to all youth, but many of them were designed with foster youth in mind.

“A lot of the programs we’ve developed are to meet the needs for youth who aren’t getting this elsewhere,” said Tanner, the Adult 101 for Teens program coordinator.

One of Patrick’s favorite offerings is Career Online High School, through which teens and adults can earn their high school diploma at the library through a self-led program fortified by career counseling. Graduates also come away with a career certification in one of eight in-demand fields, including childcare, transportation and hospitality. The library reserves 200 slots specifically for foster youth, who generally have lower graduation rates than their peers.

“We’re all working together to try and create a platform for success for these kids who are in foster care here,” Patrick said, noting the library’s collaboration with the county Departments of Children and Family Services, Mental Health, and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services. “We really hope that we can provide some outcomes for these kids so that they have an opportunity to succeed.”

In addition to being a former foster youth, Patrick is also the county’s first-ever African American library director and the first openly LGBTQ individual in the position — so ensuring the library as an inclusive environment is personal to her.

After she was appointed to the position in 2016, Patrick kicked off her role as a director by soliciting community input in a “listening tour” of the 87 libraries now under her direction and wants patrons young and old to help shape the library into what they want and need it to be. If the skill you want to learn, the class you want to take isn’t offered yet, ask a librarian and you may well see that class on the events calendar in a few months.

“There’s a place for nearly everyone here and we have a willing and ready and able staff to assess whatever needs they have in terms of discovery,” Patrick said.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 53 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change