Ángela Quijada-Banks wants to make sure no one ages out of foster care like she did.
When she left North Carolina’s foster care system as a teen, she had to scramble to find housing, just days before the start of her college classes. Now 24 and living in San Diego, Quijada-Banks wrote a book that she hopes will guide young people on the right path as they transition out of the foster care system.
Released in September, “The Black Foster Youth Handbook” provides more than 50 lessons for youth and their adult supporters, alternating personal stories with poetry and self-discovery exercises. Quijada-Banks says an important part of that process is healing by building a healthy identity, an issue that is especially important for youth of color.
“To be a Black person in foster care is to constantly be in search of who you are,” she writes.
Originally from Anaheim, California, Quijada-Banks said she and her four siblings dealt with poverty, homelessness and neglect growing up. By the time she graduated from high school, she had moved more than 20 times, across several states. But it wasn’t until she was 16 that she was removed into foster care.
Since then, Quijada-Banks has gone on to attend North Carolina Central University and started an entrepreneurial career in San Diego, including launching a podcast this year. She said she hopes that her voyage of self-discovery will offer an example to young people in foster care who may be isolated and searching for meaningful connections.
In an interview, Quijada-Banks shared her thoughts on why she is most worried about the pandemic, necessary advice for foster parents and how Black foster youth can protect their mental health in a time when images of police brutality against Black people are featured across social media.
The country is still dealing with a deadly pandemic. Did that impact your book?
That’s what pushed me to finish the book this year, even though I started it at the beginning of the year. I was hurting so bad when I was writing. I would have days when my husband would tell me to stop writing because I would have tears streaming out of my eyes just thinking about the circumstances that young people have to endure right now.
The only reason I even got placed into foster care [at age 16] and out of the toxic situation I was in, where there was abuse and neglect, was through a school teacher and a school counselor. Even before that, when there were other unfortunate things happening when I was 13, the only reason why people knew, why there was a record of some of those situations, was through the school. And now that’s not an option for a lot of young people. It’s a big outlet, having someone you can tell when something is not going right.
Aging out in a pandemic as a young person of color right now is unbelievably hard. It feels like there’s a few pandemics going on right now, including what feels like a racial pandemic. Just seeing the statistics of homelessness before the pandemic was bad, but now it seems increasing and even worse.
Even the young people who have aged out successfully, they are losing jobs right now. And many are getting minimal guidance. I’ve talked to a lot of nonprofits during the pandemic. I’ve asked them what they’re doing to support these young people, and some of them are saying, ‘At this time, we just don’t have funds to provide services right now.’ All I can think about is just how many young people are reliant on these services for basic needs or just support to help them heal.
What do adults need to know to support Black foster youth?
A lot of people don’t know much about foster care and decide to be foster parents and become part of that solution. That’s great. But for supporting young people of color, we need to understand how different perspectives are left out. It goes back to eurocentrism, where you might think your way is the only way or the best way. Just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean the impact will be just as good. I hope that by reading the book, some adult supporters can realize the work they need to do.
For example, you could think, ‘Let me do this young person’s hair.’ You know their hair might be wild right? And you might want to say, ‘Let me just straighten it out and make sure everything is in place and make them feel beautiful.’ Well, you just said the way that their hair naturally grows out is not beautiful and needs to be straightened out. That can be internalized as a young person to think that I can only have straight hair in order to feel and be perceived as beautiful or handsome. That means I need to go through a chemical situation or wear wigs. So we need to make sure we’re checking our own biases.
The country is currently grappling with racial justice issues, including protests over police brutality. What does this moment mean for Black foster youth?
As a person of Black and Indigenous descent, it’s been important for me to go back and learn about my family and its role in history. What I saw was a history of separation in our family — a lot of abuse going on through slavery and you also see that young people and families were looked at as not being able to take care of themselves. When you think about why my family was in foster care, this is about a history of trauma from generation to generation. It’s about recognizing the impact of certain coping skills that were accepted and needed at those times but are not applicable for now.
With any young person of color, when you see someone like Breonna Taylor, it could easily be you. Whether or not you see a body lying on the street, there is a lot of PTSD for us, secondhand trauma. It’s overwhelming, the feelings that a young person has to deal with, and also understanding what it means to be a Black person in America and then a Black foster youth in America. That can feel suffocating.
It’s also a bipolar feeling. On one hand, you have a lot of pride, for all the struggles that your ancestors went through and you’re here doing your best. There are so many people doing excellent, amazing things despite being in an oppressive system and poverty and all the intricacies of institutional racism. On the other hand, it’s so scary it’s painful. If you’re a Black or brown person in America, and you know your history, you have some form of mental illness. There’s so many of us in the system that are just trying to breathe, to survive.
I do write in the book about protecting yourself and protecting your mind. You need to guard your spirit so you can go out into the world after foster care.
For example, I no longer watch the news. I encourage young people and their supportive adults to be careful about what they’re consuming. It can really add to any kind of mental episodes a young person could already be experiencing. You can’t let anything and everything come through your mind. Just because someone tells you another person of color was killed, I don’t think that means run out and watch that video. That really wreaks havoc on your mental health. This means taking a holistic protective approach to your well-being and setting boundaries for your own peace of mind. That has been very helpful for me.
In the wake of protests over racial justice, there have been some calls to abolish the police. Given some parallel discussions around race and child welfare, what do you think about some calls to abolish foster care?
These systems, whether that’s the police or child welfare, they have really bad roots. Roots covered with weeds — even the soil is bad. At this point, it’s a matter of identifying how we would really want to move forward in these communities. At the end of the day, it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take everyone being on the same page and working toward the same thing. History has shown time and time again that people don’t like change, whether it’s for the good or for the bad. There are going to be people that completely disagree. Like with these presidential elections and questions about whether racism even exists, some people aren’t going to acknowledge that these systems are even a problem.
We are just starting some of this work in America and to understand what it means to decolonize yourself. What does it mean to heal and to hold the state legislators accountable for the well-being of Black foster youth? Those are real conversations that need to happen, not just an open-ended conversation of ‘that would be cool to do.’ Let’s really get clear on what we really want and make strides toward practical solutions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.