Everyone has dreams. Every community has rich resources that can help people work to achieve those dreams.

Learning Dreams works to build connections between dreamers and community resources. We work to support struggling learners by exploring their dreams, their deep motivations to learn and the steps needed to move forward on those dreams. We also believe that it is important to support families as they learn. Children and youth do not exist in a vacuum. When a family (including parents) is full of learners, the children are sure to thrive.

All people need help connecting to the world. The most influential research in this area comes from Mario L. Small, author of “Unanticipated Gains,” while on the faculty at the University of Chicago. Small found that when individuals acted as connectors they could make a big difference in the lives of others. He found when individuals within certain institutions such as daycare providers acted as connectors, families in those centers were able to take advantage of existing community resources they had not previously connected with, and their lives changed for the better. No matter what the primary role of the worker (daycare worker, youth worker, teacher, barber, etc.) they could take on the role of connector. Of course any one individual within an institution can choose to assume this role, but the biggest impact happens when organizations and systems choose to act in a unified way, having all employees or volunteers take an added role. This can have community-wide impact—and we have witnessed it firsthand in our partnership with libraries across Minnesota.

Saint Paul Public Libraries

Libraries already have a culture of learning in place. They are also capable of community-wide impact. This year we are training 15 staff members who meet at the Riverview Library in St. Paul to help people achieve learning dreams and life goals. Part of their training includes an exercise in which they write about their own educational biographies (their most important learning experiences) and share them with the group. The stories that emerge about learning while traveling, or while in nature, or under challenging circumstances, always illustrate the point that important learning happens all around us all the time, and often not in institutions such as schools that we tend to put at the center of our thinking about learning. We also encourage the library staff to take walks around the neighborhood to experience their local community in different ways.

Starting at Riverview this spring, library visitors will be able to talk about their dreams with a librarian—check out a dream! The librarian will suggest books and links on the internet but also connect them with resources in the community to help them achieve their dreams. Another library group will be working with an elementary school to create a dream desk to support both students’ and parents’ dreams. All in all, this is a great way for librarians to enrich their work and promote a culture of learning in the community. They can enhance the work they already do as connectors.

Hennepin County Public Library System

One of our biggest projects last year revolved around a partnership with YouthLink, a drop-in center for homeless and highly mobile youth in Minnesota. Many of the young people there have shared their dreams with our staff, so we knew there was a group of young men who dreamed about arts and technology. A natural partnership was born with the Minneapolis Central Library, home to the Best Buy Teen Tech Center. This $100 million, state-of-the-art space has music studios, video production equipment, green screens and countless other tools for creative learning.

We started a mentorship program in partnership with the Teen Tech Center. With help from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation and the library staff, we conducted a very successful pilot program. A group of young men from YouthLink produced very high quality content including Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and an interview show on YouTube. The pilot program concluded with a celebration at which they presented all of their productions. This demonstrated the power of our mission and strengthened our partnership with the Downtown Central Library.

The Importance of Holistic Health & Wellness

In addition to dreams for their life, homeless and highly mobile youth are also thinking about their mental and emotional health. Last year we did an experimental project with young people at Nicollet Square Transitional Housing. We introduced them to Nicollet Square’s kitchen, workout room and meditation room (most of which were not being used by residents) and brought in community resources to these areas to help them achieve a balance of emotional and physical health. We found that the integration of learning dreams with mental and emotional health dreams overlapped beautifully. This isn’t surprising, but it was fascinating to see the importance of holistic health and wellness. While some needs are certainly more important than others, these young people need to be nurtured in multiple areas of their lives.

Tips for Parents

We can all foster a culture of learning with young people. In fact, the curiosity that comes with learning is something we can continue to cultivate as adults. Consider these five tips to get started:

  1. Have a passion for life and share it. It’s critical for parents, teachers, youth workers, daycare providers, etc. to lead by example. Show young people that life is about curiosity and growth. Remember you are modeling what it means to be human—and this often sets the stage for how your children see the world.
  1. Encourage signs of curiosity. It can be difficult for young people to find support for the things they are interested in. That’s why it’s important to encourage them in their search. I often compare this to fishing. Keep throwing out bait (music, sports, building, fashion, etc.) and you are bound to eventually get a bite.
  1. Get connected in the community. Given that we believe so strongly in the power of community-based learning, this tip is pretty straightforward. But it never hurts to say again. Overcoming isolation (often present for those living in poverty) with positive connections to libraries, parks, neighbors, community celebrations, museums, etc. is the fastest way to build toward life dreams.
  1. Read and talk about stories together. The importance of reading at a young age is well known, but what you may not know is it’s more about the story around the story. Simply talking with your children or students about the characters and storyline is incredibly beneficial. Kids learn from and feel the pleasure of experiencing life in this way.
  1. Be a strong nurturing connector. Do this for your kids, your students, your neighbors, the youth you work with, and much in the world can be healed. And let somebody help you with your dreams too. We all need help with our dreams. It is part of what it means to be human! No one gets there on their own.

If we choose to be strong nurturing connectors, then no challenge is too hard to overcome.

This article was originally published in the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota Vision 2020 blog.