“Hi, Miss Brandi!” a teenage girl yells across Wal-Mart.
“Hi, lovebug!” Brandi Cox waves back. After living in the Hilltop’s Knoxville neighborhood for 25 years, Cox doesn’t go many places where someone doesn’t know her.
Cox, who is the Teen Specialist of Carnegie Pittsburgh Library’s Knoxville branch, says, “They see Miss Brandi at work and they see Miss Brandi out in the community: doing programming, shopping at Family Dollar with her daughter.”
At work, Cox sees over a dozen teens a day. In addition to weekly Teen Time and Homework Help activities, Cox oversees a variety of programming that includes art and creative speech at the library as well as reading outreach in the schools, among other things. An open mic night for Black History Month packed the small library with over 75 people. The latter was with the help of the Teen Advisory Board, which gives teens leadership and fundraising opportunities.
“That’s what it’s about: it’s a chance for teens to have leadership and ownership and represent the library in a meaningful way.”
As the daughter of a single mother, and a mother in her own right, Cox knows many of the struggles facing the teens who walk through her doors. In retrospect, as a teenager, what Cox really needed was an involved role model or mentor. She wishes she had something showing her the way: “here’s how we achieved it, here’s how you achieve it.”
Cox’s return to Pittsburgh after college was in part to be a role model in her community as well as to her younger sisters, who are high school volunteers at the library. “I didn’t want them to have to look outward for a role model when I am a role model.” As a member of the community, “I just really focus on impact,” says Cox. “It’s awesome that they get to see this person who really cares about them.”
Though the younger teens are usually eager to socialize, Cox recognizes that the older teens need guidance and resources for whatever their next life-step may be. She says they come in asking questions like, “What do I need to do to get a job? What do I need as a teen parent to continue my education?”
To that end, Cox offers many “life after high school” programs for teens and their parents that include SAT and college prep, current affairs, academic exploration, FAFSA night, and Pittsburgh Promise night. “The community that we’re in, nine times out of ten, they’re first-generation college students,” Cox says. It wasn’t that long ago that she was in the same spot with her mom.
Regardless of whether or not students decide to continue their educations, they’ll be able to enter adulthood with nutritional education and literacy via cooking programs and a partnership with the Pittsburgh Food Bank. “They’re going to grow up to be amazing citizens, amazing parents. It’s not even a belief,” Cox says. “I know that.”
Cox is passionate about the teens she sees and adamant about their potential. She says, “They’re amazing. They want more. Even if they don’t seem to want more, they’re still willing to listen and learn. They want to have role models. They want to have fun. They want to be safe.”
About the work she does, Cox says, “This is love.” And it’s not just for the teens she sees. It’s for their peers at school and their siblings at home. She demands that students who use the library share the knowledge and compassion they receive both inside the library and out.
“I’m hoping we can build this little army of super teens who are courageous and confident and possess the skills to go out into the world and do what they want to do and to help others along the way.”
In high school Cox learned the value of a library, of its space and quietness and resources. For the teens who walk through those doors—and for those she wishes would—she desperately wants them to know this: “No matter where you come from, what experience you have or have not encountered, what resources you do or do not have, you can become somebody. You do have to chase after it, and it will come with some prices, but you can do it.”
As for Cox’s future? Grad school is a must, but, in what, she’s not quite sure. The paths are still wide open.