Education For All

Season 3, Episode 12

Ingrid Douglas never finished high school as a teenager. When she started looking for a better job at age sixty, she found not having a degree was a huge barrier. So, Ingrid came to the library to get her diploma. In this episode, we talk to students and instructors at BPL about how the library can be a refuge for those who have experienced trauma or adversity on their path to education.

Want to learn more about topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

Check out this list of books, created as a tribute to the late actress Cicely Tyson.

Episode Transcript

Adwoa Adusei Hey listeners — before we start, we wanted to mention that this is a linked episode with the podcast Audio Interference, from Interference Archive, an open-stacks archive in Brooklyn that explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. They’re doing a whole series on radical access to explore how people shift, reshape, or redesign structures and institutions to create more and better access. Their episode is about the Brooklyn artist Zeelie Brown, who creates soundscapes to transform spaces into sanctuaries for those who are often disenfranchised and disempowered by normative systems at work in our world. You’ll hear from Zeelie at the end of the episode, so keep listening for that.


Ingrid Douglas Hi, good day, my name is Ingrid Gibbs Douglas. I am 60 years old. I live in Brooklyn. I grew up in I grew up in Trinidad, Trinidad and Tobago. Education was not the focus, at least in the house where I lived.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is a story about education. It’s a story about what happens when life gets in the way of school. We’re going to start with Ingrid’s story. 

Ingrid Douglas Friday was a dreadful day for me. They did math every Friday. And if you couldn't get it right, it would just beat you right there in the middle of the school. It was it was terrifying. And, for me, I was scared to go to school on Fridays. So, by me not going to school on Fridays, I just never learned to do any advanced math. I only knew addition, subtraction, multiplication with one number, not even two numbers. And that was something that carried way into my adult life.

Adwoa Adusei Ingrid left school when she was a teenager and moved to Brooklyn. 

Ingrid Douglas When I came to the States, I had learned to type. I knew how to do -- in those days was Pitman and Gregg short hand -- I was very, very good at that. I could type at least 80 words a minute. So I always had a job working, doing temporary work. In those days, there were a lot of office buildings all over Wall Street area, and I worked in that area for many years as a temp. I always had a job. In those days, they actually didn't ask you for a high school diploma. So, I was comfortable.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, Ingrid had to stop working as a secretary because she developed carpal tunnel, and it was too painful for her to type.

Adwoa Adusei She looked for other jobs. It wasn’t easy. Ingrid was drawn to work with people, but found she wasn’t eligible for many of the jobs she wanted. Jobs in the school system or jobs working with people with special needs all required at least a high school degree

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, Ingrid tried again to finish school. 

Ingrid Douglas I was about about twenty five. And I did use to go to night classes at Prospect Heights High School. But I didn't stay long because, you know, I was coming home from work late and I just couldn't actually make it to the classes like I really should have. 

Adwoa Adusei Ingrid quit school for the second time. She found work as a home health aid, work that didn’t require a high school degree. But, workplace conditions were terrible. Ingrid said she felt unsafe many times, walking into her patients’ homes.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It was at that point that Ingrid thought about trying to get her diploma again. But, it was the math that stopped her. She had a lot of anxiety about it from childhood, and a lot of guilt about never being good at it. She felt stuck.

Adwoa Adusei Then, a friend referred her to a learning center in Brooklyn. From there, she went on to High School Equivalency classes at the library.

Ingrid Douglas The whole thing about the test, for me, I wasn't proficient in functions. A lot of questions on the test was about functions. And Tim was able to break it down, that even when I did the test, he came back and said, “You did better in functions.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Ingrid just mentioned Tim. That's Tim Berrigan. He’s a literacy advisor at the library.

Ingrid Douglas Tim had an agenda for every student. Based on the incoming test that he gave you, he could see where you’re lacking. So the library came at a point where the library was a source of strength. I could depend on the library. I felt good in the library, and then math became easier.

Timothy Berrigan The number one thing I did for  students — and maybe not for them, but I did with them — is letting them know that I was sort of like a full human and elements of themselves that were fully human didn’t need to be compartmentalized or hid. And it felt crucial to the success of our work not to let someone's personal life or things they're struggling with on their past define them, but also to kind of simultaneously always be aware things are more complex, people are more complex, this whole process is more complex than meets the eye.

Adwoa Adusei After attending many classes and studying hard, Ingrid passed her High School Equivalency test, including math. She remembers that moment like it was yesterday.

Ingrid Douglas I cried. I mean, I cried so much. I cried, I got down there on the knees, and just… There isn't a day that goes by that, you know, that I don’t thank God. And, you know, because I have more options. I never give up, kept trying until, until, until I got it.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today on Borrowed: making education accessible to all. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.


Timothy Berrigan A lot of students at the library, one of the hardest things they've had to do is walk into those doors, inquire about the services, maybe admit to someone they don't know that they haven't finished school, or they can't maybe necessarily read or write at the level that our culture or society expects them to.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Tim Berrigan has been teaching at Brooklyn Public Library for nearly four years. But Tim’s educational career goes back farther than that.

Timothy Berrigan I've taught at the community college level and I've taught at, like, private universities. One major thing I had to unlearn was in those sort of more, you know, like, scare quotes, “traditional educational systems." I feel like I was emphasized to not consider what was happening outside of the classroom. I guess, in a sense, it was not to see the student as a whole person, but to see the person as a student, if that makes sense.

Adwoa Adusei Tim says that when he came to work at the library and encountered people with varying educational backgrounds, he could no longer ignore the things that had kept his students away from school for so long, or the things that were taking them away from learning while they were sitting in his classroom.

Student and teacher working together at BPL's Adult Learning Center in 2019.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Timothy Berrigan Someone comes in and they immediately put their head down on the desk. That action could be the product of so many different things that I try my best to just uniformly, maybe at a break, say, hey—referring to the student by their name--like, letting them know I see them, like, “You okay, I noticed you seem a little … ?” Sometimes someone says, “Yeah, I just had a headache.” Sometimes someone says, “Yeah, I think I may be getting evicted.” You know, like, the diversity you can encounter is almost so complex that, to an extent, I try to just constantly utilize some basic frames and then sort of let the interaction or experience I have with the person sort of articulate the response.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In other words, Tim tries to be responsive to that particular student’s needs. To sit with them and figure out how to address whatever it is they’re feeling so that they can approach the rest of their school work a little bit more unburdened.

Adwoa Adusei It’s not actually something that comes naturally to most people. Think about if you walked into a classroom and saw someone with their head down — maybe you’d think, “That person doesn’t want to be here,” and your response might be angry. You’ve prepared a whole lesson. You’re trying really hard.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, so what Tim is talking about is a trauma-informed approach. It’s something we mentioned in our last Borrowed episode about library workers who experience second-hand trauma. The flip-side of that idea is taking the knowledge about how trauma can impact our mental health — and then applying it to our interactions with people, being aware that everyone is going through their own issues, and then keeping that in mind when you respond to patrons or students.

Adwoa Adusei This “trauma-informed” term has been getting a lot of attention recently, especially as we are all dealing with some level of trauma from this past year. All of us have lost things, or had major changes, though of course there are many different levels and kinds of loss and trauma for everyone.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras But even before the pandemic, people like Tim, who serve the public, have been thinking about what it means to serve a population that may have experienced some level of trauma that impacts their ability to learn or to prosper. It’s an approach that has been happening at BPL’s Adult Learning Centers for a while, too.

Adwoa Adusei One of the champions of trauma-informed librarianship and trauma-informed teaching at Brooklyn Public Library, is Kerwin Pilgrim. He’s been on Borrowed before, so you might recognize his voice. He’s the program director of Adult Learning at BPL. The need for trauma-informed practices was something Kerwin noticed early on in his career here.

Kerwin Pilgrim Coming from experiences in the branches, you know, working in neighborhoods like East New York and Brownsville, and recognizing that, you know, as a librarian within those branches, you know, I think there was a disconnect between library services and communities. I also recognized that we were speaking a different language from that community. We didn’t really understand their experiences, like what they were going through. You know, I could be talking about, "Hey, I have a great book for you." And someone is saying, "Dude, I just came out of incarceration, from being incarcerated. Can you help me?" 

Adwoa Adusei Kerwin brought in Vibrant Emotional Health, a mental health organization in New York City, to run trainings on trauma for staff and educators at BPL’s Adult Learning Center.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, it’s not just Kerwin who’s bringing mental health work into library practices — it’s a trend that is much broader than just at BPL. We’ve talked about social work organizations that partner with public libraries, and across the country, library systems are becoming more aware that in order to serve our communities, we have to meet people where they are at. Which is a real change over the past few decades from how libraries used to operate. Andrew Carnegie, who funded over 1500 public library buildings in the United States, believed that if you stock a building with books, the people will educate themselves… but it takes more than that.

Adwoa Adusei Right. There are so many barriers to access: Past or ongoing trauma in people’s lives that keeps them from coming in to learn, and libraries have to acknowledge that. We have to actively create spaces that welcome everyone, that make people feel as safe as possible so that they are in the right state of mind to learn. That’s something else Kerwin talked about.

Kerwin Pilgrim Providing mindfulness strategies is one way to do that, encourages students to think about how they're feeling and if their their bodies or are sending signals to them, let them know that they're getting nervous, whether they're breathing hard or sweaty palms or something. What we're doing is recognizing that we have to help them, you know, recognize that they have to better self monitor, self regulate their emotions by teaching them skills so that they can make better decisions to protect themselves. So, when I say that I am saving lives within the Adult Learning department, there's a lot of truth in that, because what we're doing is helping students to make better decisions about their futures, and better decisions about their health and education so that they could lead healthier, longer lives.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The library has long been a place where people go to feel safe and valued. Trauma-informed work is really about intentionally creating that kind of space in everything we do. And though we’ve been talking mostly about students coming back to the library to get high school diplomas, that’s not the only option for continuing education.

Adwoa Adusei There’s self-directed learning, of course, and classes in computer skills and art and foreign languages. University Open Air last year invited instructors who were scholars in their home countries to teach classes at the library and in the park. And Bard has a partnership with BPL where admitted students take free college-level classes at the library, and earn an Associate degree after two years. So, you can now get a college degree for free, at BPL.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And this is all really about making a learning environment accessible to everyone. Tim talked about his own trauma-informed approach a little differently. He tries to create a space where students feel safe to learn and make mistakes, and bring their full selves to everything that they do.

Timothy Berrigan It’s something you can almost just feel ten seconds in the room. If you walk into a classroom, particularly a classroom at the library, you can quite possibly see, like, the entire world in this sort of explicitly communal space, working towards similar goals with very different experiences. And I think as an educator, I more and more realize that is maybe the project.

Adwoa Adusei In his classroom, Tim tries to make a sanctuary of sorts. Last episode, we talked about the pitfalls of portraying libraries as sacred spaces, or sanctuaries — and we’re going to do a little bit of that here. Because, it should be said that, for some people, a library really is a sacred space.

Andre Fuller They all were very warm and welcoming. You know, they make you like at ease. It's an experience that you really have to, like, go through to see it's just more than academia. It's more like a family oriented thing. It makes me feel like it's something that I can never get rid of. I could never, ever forget this. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Andre Fuller. He grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, too, and came to Brooklyn several years ago. He was working at Duane Reade when he learned that his mom was ill. He asked her what he could do for her, and she said: get an education. So, Andre went to the library. And, he became one of Tim’s students.

Andre Fuller They have so many resources in that in that little center right there is like, you really don't need anything, Like, I literally didn't even need to come with a pen or book, but I still did. And, it was like all the knowledge was there. It was like opening a container and pouring knowledge in. I feel like it was so quick.

Kerwin Pilgrim with a 2019 graduate of BPL's HSE program.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei Fifteen years after he left school, Andre went back, and this time he finished. 

Andre Fuller When I graduated with my high school diploma, I remember leaving the house that morning. I was like, "Mommy, I'm going to graduation." And I said, "I'd love you to come." She's like, "Son I’m feeling so sick."

Krissa Corbett Cavouras His mom couldn’t make it to graduation, but Andre said she was so proud of him. In 2018, Andre won the student of the year award from the New York Association for Continuing and Community Education. He could take one person with him to accept the award in Albany, and, since his mom was too sick to travel, Andre took Tim.

Adwoa Adusei Tim remembers the trip well.

Timothy Berrigan Going to sort of, you know, the formalized dinner and having him get formally acknowledged, he and I, for that brief moment, almost see the world similarly, because I think educators often see maybe what's possible, not necessarily what's quite in front of us yet. And in that moment in Albany, you know, we're kind of looking at the same thing almost, I don't know, it felt almost kind of like, him saying, you know, I can’t believe it. And me kind of doing the like, I can’t believe we’re up here in Albany and you’re receiving this award, but I always believed something.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Andre went on to get his Associate degree at Kingsborough Community College, and he’s at work on a bachelor’s in accounting at Baruch College. And, when his nephew came to New York, Andre encouraged him to get his high school diploma at the library, too. It was important for Andre to show his nephew that education was worthwhile, but also that it was achievable.

Andre Fuller It's going to be culturized now. So, you stuck? You are your kid's role model, your generation's role model. So they're going to think, OK, I have the high school diploma only, it’s good because my mom and my dad had it, you know, and that's about it. So, you know, it’s just taking it to your highest potential, and whatever, you know, culture gaps you can break, you break it.

Adwoa Adusei Kerwin talked about this, too, the idea that trauma can get passed down. Breaking the cycle, going back to school, helps not only the person who gets the degree, but it can help the young people who look up to them, too.

Kerwin Pilgrim A lot of this stuff is cyclical. It's generational. And, if she's able to get a better job and get better income and better support her family and it's less stressful, that toxic stress that might have existed in that household, maybe it's lessened. Maybe now the kid in that household could go to a better school. So that we break that cycle of, you know, this is not going to become another adult learner.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Ingrid Douglas, the student who shared her story at the start of this episode, is in the middle of her job search. High school diploma in hand, a lot more opportunities are open to her. And, she wants to pay it forward, too. She’s looking at paraprofessional jobs, working with adults or kids who have a disability, and helping them succeed in life.

Ingrid Douglas I want my life to be of service. I want to be of service to the to the what is the to the underdogs. People tend not to pay attention to maybe, you know, even older people or even adults with autism. There is a lot of people here who cannot read and write, you know, but sometimes we get so caught up in being in New York, you know, living this fast life, and we don't have the time to to even hear people out. And I try to hear people out, because I know where I’ve been, what I've been through.

Adwoa Adusei As we mentioned at the start of this episode, this story is a collaboration with Interference Archive’s podcast  — so, you’re getting two for the price of one here!

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Now we’re going to hear a little bit from Zeelie Brown, a Black and queer artist and cellist living in Brooklyn. Zeelie is the subject of the Audio Interference episode. 

[Cello music: "Alabama Dawn" by Zeelie Brown]

Zeelie Brown I primarily work in installation art. I make a lot of spaces, a lot of refuges. I think a lot about sanctuary, queer sanctuary, black sanctuary, what it means to create community in spaces that were never meant for us. You know, my parents come from working class backgrounds. My dad was a steel steelworker’s son. My mom is a coal miner's daughter. And they were smart and they made it out and they went to school and they got decent jobs. I grew up with this kind of sense that you go to school, you work hard, you study hard, you go to a good school and. You can do anything you want to do, you can be the person you want to be. I got there and school was rough for me, and school is still rough for me. I really love reading and study, but, you know, just kind of the institutionality and the expectations of how you're supposed to act and talk and dress and you and all of that... it's rough for me. 

Adwoa Adusei You’re hearing one of Zeelie’s original pieces of music, called “Alabama Dawn.”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Recently, Zeelie worked on a project called "The Refuge Series," where she used sound and art to transform spaces into sanctuaries for those who our systems do not fully serve.

Zeelie Brown So, part of the reason I started making these spaces was to kind of think of all of these things that I'm dealing with and all of these anxieties and fears and phobias, and create space where these issues can be heard and I could learn and I could do what I needed to do on my own terms. It was claiming my place in the sun. I always want to make sure that, especially Black and Brown people, queer and trans people, but in a broader sense, like anyone who's really been through it, comes to one of my space and leaves like feeling that they were able to breathe a little better, feel a little more prepared for life.

Adwoa Adusei Zeelie also has a special place in her heart for libraries. She grew up in rural Alabama and in Texas, and when she was there, she fell in love with the San Antonio Public Library.

[Zeelie music]

Zeelie Brown My favorite thing when I was old enough to get a bus pass was to take the San Pedro line bus down to the library and it ran straight there. I didn't have to transfer, and I would go up to the sixth floor on the elevator. I would go to this little nook, this little kid-sized note in the window. And you would have the air conditioning on one side in the warm sun from like the hot Texas summer on the other side, and it is just the nicest place in the world. And I think a lot about that space when I build mine, because, like, that was and remains my favorite space in the world.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Zeelie’s performances and work try to recreate those spaces for her audiences. And there’s a lot more to Zeelie’s story. So, head over to Interference Archive’s podcast, “Audio Interference,” and listen to the rest of this story. We’ve also put a link to their episode on our show notes page.

Zeelie Brown and her cello during a performance of her Refuge Series titled "Fear No Joy."
(Courtesy Zeelie Brown)

Adwoa Adusei It wouldn’t be a Borrowed episode without books! The late, great Cicely Tyson played a teacher at least twice, including real life teacher Marva Collins; She also played Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King. So, in a nod to both Black History Month and Women's History Month, both of which we celebrate all year long here at BPl, we asked librarian Donald Peeples to share from his booklist titled, “A Tribute to Cicely Tyson: 1924-2021."

Donald Peebles I created the book list to Cicely Tyson for two reasons. One, I realized that many of her films and television productions were based on books. And, she chronicled American history through her characters, from Africa through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement to the present. So, all of her characters transcended time. She was legendary in my household. I remember a time in which African Americans appeared on television. I don't remember any role in which she made us feel embarrsed or made us feel demeaned. She brought dignity to all of her roles.

I read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman for the first time in high school. It was just amazing to read a book about a Black woman who lived to the age of 110. Growing up in slavery, witnissing the Civil War, witnessing going through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, leading up to the Civil Rights movement. That book gave me a 100-year odessey of the African-American experience. I was in awe of Miss Jane Pittman's strength, witnessing a lot of violence, heartbreak, but love at the same time.

I have on the list The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. The 1989 mini-series was an all-star production with Oprah Winfrey, Jackée Harry, Robin Givens, and Cicely Tyson. Cicely Tyson played Mrs. Brown, the upper middle class mother of activist Kiswana Brown, who was played by Robin Givens. Kiswana took on an African name, a Swahili name, as many African-Americans did in the 1960s and 70s to align themselves with the Black Power movement. And Mrs. Brown broke down the family lineage. And that showed Kiswana that she didn't have to get a name out of a book to make her feel that she had to be this empowered Black female activist. And that was very powerful in both the book and in the television adaptation. 

My hope for readers to get by looking at this reading list is just to know that Cicely's career was very diverse and the stories she was willing to tell with her acting is vast. There's not one specific Black experience. There are experiences. Cicely Tyson brought all of that to the table. 

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall and written by Virginia Marshall and me, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman, and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me Krissa Corbett Cavouras, and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts. 

Adwoa Adusei Beta listeners on this episode included LaCresha McNeil, Melissa Morrone, and Kat Savage. Borrowed will be back in a few weeks. Until then, remember: it’s never too late to learn.