Dosha DJay Joi’s faith ran so deep, he signed onto his last Thursday Bible study with his friend Tasha Snowden, via video feed from his hospital bed. Days later he would die at age 28 from the coronavirus that has claimed more than 108,000 American lives.
He and Snowden wouldn’t always read scripture; sometimes they would focus on inspirational Christian songs, like Psalms 23 (I Am Not Alone).
“DJay loved to talk. He was not one to text message or email. He wants to pick up the phone and hear your voice,” Snowden said Tuesday at a virtual memorial service for the prominent Wisconsin advocate for foster youth.
With protests against police brutality roiling the nation and the coronavirus continuing to claim thousands of lives each day, more than 80 leading advocates and policymakers from across the country joined Tuesday’s memorial, hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based National Foster Youth Institute.
Throughout the online tribute, Joi was described as an unrelenting and bright visionary, a proudly gay man known to spontaneously break into song, and above all a mentor to foster youth, nudging those in power to do right by them.
An Illinois native, Joi spent much of his young life in Wisconsin group homes. He used that experience to develop his voice as an advocate, and is credited with helping convince lawmakers to extend foster care supports through age 21, among other policies.
“While we wanna cry, we can’t help but smile, because DJay always was smiling, no matter what,” said Bregetta Wilson, who worked with Joi at the nonprofit Lad Lake. “You could catch him with a smile even on his worst day.”
Joi was a beloved member of two national advocacy networks, FosterClub and the National Foster Youth Institute. Last June, he participated in the institute’s annual Congressional Shadow Day.
In his honor, Democratic U.S. Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee announced in late May that they would introduce legislation named after Joi, a bill that would improve access to Medicaid for former foster youth. Moore said she admired Joi’s resilience in the face of the many obstacles he encountered to find stable housing and employment.
“There are so many bills we could have named after DJay,” Moore said. “He was eligible to lead and be a voice anywhere in the world.” The pair enjoyed Thanksgiving together last year at the home of the Congresswoman’s sister, she recalled, while holding up a white plate Joi had given her, emblazoned with large red capital letters spelling out the word JOY.
“He said he had to bless the food and to pray for us,” Moore said. “By the time he got to praying for that food, everybody wanted to know, ‘My God, what’s wrong with the food!’ He prayed so hard over it.”
Wendy Henderson, an administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, said the last call she received from Joi was typical: He raised a concern about the way foster youth in Milwaukee were being cared for in certain group homes — and he was right, Henderson said.
“He wasn’t wrong; he was never wrong. He really had a finger on the pulse of what needed to change,” the child welfare official told participants in the Zoom memorial. “He’d call and say, ‘I hope you’re sitting down, because I’m gonna need a little while.’”
Henderson described the ways Joi was so effective as a change-maker, endearing people to his cause by being “an incredible relationship builder.”
Amid the ongoing threat of the virus that took Joi’s life, she urged Joi’s many friends to continue his work, and to keep pushing for change to the system she oversees.
“We need each of your voices,” she said. “Most of you on this call were a recipient of his enormous hugs, and I’m going to miss that personally.”
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]