Family and friends have a common saying about Dosha DJay Joi of Milwaukee, who died last week at age 28 from coronavirus-related complications: He lived up to the sweet sound of his name. Whether ferrying foster children to court hearings or dropping off protective equipment at group homes as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, his joyful spirit was ever-present.
Joi knew how to soothe nerves and make fast friends, and brought that to his work as a volunteer court advocate for foster youth. He was also a leader who helped grow an influential statewide movement of young adults formerly in foster care, seeking to change policies.
“I know up there in heaven he is giving them hell, he’s got his resume and he’s telling God, ‘This is what we’re gonna get done while I’m up here,’” said Christine Woods, a youth case manager at the nonprofit independent living provider SaintA, where Joi spent time in his early 20s. “I can see his spirit spreading the word.”
In the wake of his death, Democratic U.S. Reps. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee announced Wednesday they were introducing legislation in Joi’s honor, to ensure that former foster youth across the country are immediately eligible for Medicaid until age 26. The reform was scheduled to go into effect in January 2023, but Bass and Moore said in a statement Wednesday they are seeking to accelerate implementation in “DJay’s” honor.
Bass first met Joi last year as a participant in a weeklong event organized by the National Foster Youth Institute, she said in a joint statement with Moore.
“DJay was someone who was effortlessly admired by his peers. His optimism was inspiring and reassuring to other participants who had never been on a plane in their life, let alone meet with a member of Congress in the nation’s capital,” the statement said.
While the official cause of Joi’s death on Thursday had yet to be announced, he posted on Facebook on April 30 he was in the hospital with a positive test for the coronavirus.
A human services employee, certified nurse, ordained minister and a member of two national advocacy groups, FosterClub and the National Foster Youth Institute, Joi had a lifelong mission to fight for more support for youth aging out of foster care. His roommate said his phone rang constantly, while others said they will never forget his busy mind.
“DJay was very big on pushing for foster care change,” said Laura Wojciuk, who advises Wisconsin’s state-convened Youth Advisory Council and a related group of former foster youth, Wisconsin Leadership Corps, both of which Joi belonged to. “He got so good, and so confident.”
Joi was born in Chicago and at age 13 was sent to Wisconsin residential facilities, where he experienced many of the challenges facing children raised outside their families. He often told his friends, colleagues and lawmakers of childhood maltreatment, both at home and in group care. His single-mindedness as a change agent and a reformer was borne over those years in facilities housing people with mental or intellectual disabilities, many of them in foster care.
He drew on that experience, and his mother’s own experience aging out of foster care when she was younger, to become a leading proponent for pushing youth voice to the center of policy reform efforts.
“I’m all about youth getting every opportunity that’s afforded to them because that’s what they’re supposed to get. If they’re not, it means that something has to change,” he told the Wisconsin foster care support organization Kids Matter, for its April newsletter.
According to public officials and advocates, Joi played a key role prodding state lawmakers to help teens and young adults leaving foster care. He testified in the state Capitol in 2014 in favor of extending foster care supports to age 21 for youth with special education needs. He stood by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) for the signing of a bill lifting work permit requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds.
“When DJay walked, it was like he was in a parade, or a runway, or he was modeling. He just had that sass, that confidence. That everything,” said Wil Johnson, 29, a former foster youth who worked with Joi on the Youth Advisory Council. “He was really good at rubbing elbows with important people. If anyone could make a change, DJay was rubbing their elbows.”
Through the Youth Advisory Council, Joi continued pushing reforms large and small through this year. He wanted to make sure LGBT foster youth had their rights protected, and he pushed for group homes to stop locking their refrigerators to young residents.
“DJay was able to find that balance of positivity and hopefulness for the future, while still holding people accountable and moving things forward – that’s a really hard balance to strike,” said Wendy Henderson, who oversees child welfare in the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and said she received calls from Joi three or four times a month. “As a member of state government, I welcomed that, and I’m going to really miss that.”
Joi was born Dousha Jeremiah Lacefield. His mother, Kecha Kitchens, told The Imprint that, while Joi was never formally in foster care, she sent him to the three different group residences for more educational supports. He eventually settled as an adult in Milwaukee, earning his degree from Springfield College Milwaukee.
“He made a stand in life. He made a name for himself, he did right by these kids,” she said. “From here to 1,000 years from now, his name is gonna live on.”
Multiple state lawmakers released statements celebrating Joi’s accomplishments after he died last week. In a phone call, U.S. Rep. Moore said Joi left an indelible impression after shadowing her during his weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., through the National Foster Youth Institute. They spent Thanksgiving together last year.
“The little kids liked him and I was jealous. My great grandbaby who wouldn’t come to me, went to him,” Moore said. “We had a relationship that was 2 inches wide and 50,000 feet deep.”
CORRECTION: May 21, 2020. A previous version of this article incorrectly described Gwen Moore as having been in foster care. She was not.