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Friends of Owen Conley create social justice library in Campus Y

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Owen Conley, a UNC alum best remembered by his friends for his love of books, social justice and compassion.  

Photo courtesy of Sarah Smith

There is a new library in the making on UNC’s campus, but it is far more than a place to read or a starting point for a research paper — it is encouraging activism among students and community members.

The Campus Y social justice library is a project in memory of Owen Conley, a UNC alum best remembered by his friends for his love of books, social justice and compassion. 

Sarah Smith, a friend of Conley’s and the assistant director of civic engagement at the Campus Y, said the goal is to open the library on the second floor of the Campus Y in January 2024, two years after Conley’s unexpected death. 

“When he passed, his family very kindly donated his collection back to us,” she said. “So it kind of became this primer for a collection.”

Smith added that Conley was a very active member of the Campus Y and served on the executive board during his first year at UNC. 

As a transgender man, Conley involved himself in activism and social justice, particularly in relation to the LGBTQ+ community, Smith said. She added that many of the topics they plan to include in the library will be personal to Conley.

“He loved the Campus Y,” Caroline Brogden, UNC alumna and friend to Conley, said. “He practiced a lot of deep and I think pretty radical kindness and curiosity, so it just made so much sense that there would be a place in his honor, in a place that he loved for people to go and read and chat and think about their lives.”

Brogden said she met Conley as a part of UNC’s Global Gap Year Fellowship, which Conley participated in between his sophomore and junior years of college.

Conley was a Bridge Year Fellow and spent that time doing international service in Cambodia before returning to Chapel Hill to finish his undergraduate education.

In a blog post written for the Global Gap Year Fellowship’s website, Conley explained his desire to go abroad as an emotional journey he needed to embark on.

“I need to expand my world so that I can embrace the voice I have waited so long to form and to finally appreciate, and let go of, the one that I am leaving behind,” he wrote. “I do think it’s actually impossible to become a completely different person. You can only be better or worse — some variation of the person you already are. But I do hope that I’m on my way to being a better version of myself, a more authentic me, and well, that journey, wasn’t meant to be easy.”

Students and community members are invited to donate financially if able, as well as contribute any books that are social justice-related to add to Conley's collection. Those interested can also share recommendations. 

“We also have a forum that allows you to submit suggestions or things like journals, et cetera, novels that you think would probably work best in the library,” Alyson Cabeza, UNC alumna and friend of Conley's, said. 

In addition to social justice materials, the library is also developing resources, particularly mental health support, for people with marginalized identities, Smith said. 

Brodgen said she hopes people will know the library is specifically in Conley’s honor.

“I think it's a real testament to him and his life that he read so deeply and widely and in turn engaged with people, friendship and loved ones in a way that was really broad and deep and wide,” she said.

Brogden said people on campus should know that this library will exist, and that they are truly welcome to use and enjoy it.

“I hope this library will allow his memory to continue for as long as it can,” Cabeza said.

@carlybreland

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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