On Monday January 6th, the California Youth Connection and Foster Youth in Action, both foster youth-led advocacy organizations, shared early findings from a multi-state study they had conducted on the effects of their brand of leadership training.
While the two organizations are not yet ready to go to press with the final report, the data suggests that youth engaged in CYC-type programs have strengthened feelings of self-identity, are confident in civic engagement and experience supportive relationships with adults and peers.
In short, current and former foster youth who organize themselves to drive policy change not only pound out positive political reform, but also gain key life skills that help them on whatever path they choose.
These early findings were presented to a packed room of private foundation staff, all of whom fund CYC, Foster Youth in Action, or both. Also in attendance was California Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne, whose agency provides substantial funding to CYC to ensure youth voice is integrated into child welfare systems reform.
To me – someone who sees foster youth-led advocacy as the best example of how to drive social change – having a critical mass of funders at the table is needed. The money simply must flow into these organizations.
I am in a near-constant simmer over this country’s retreat from social justice. I watch the commonplace acceptance of growing inequality, and the forgotten valor of a time – 50 years past – when our leaders vowed and waged a “War on Poverty.” I am often left thinking about what the difference between then and now is.
What caused this country to set out so clear-eyed and unabashed on path of redistribution aimed at equity? And why do we shirk from such ideals today?
The Great Society and the War on Poverty were products of the civil rights struggle, and a realization that tearing down institutional segregation was only the first step in eradicating the economic inequities that did – and still do – segregate our society in more insidious and subtle ways. What drove that realization was a broad-backed and real movement, which hewed social change through protest and sacrifice.
And then I look out to today. I see the Internet pop and fizz with florid descriptions of the social movements of our day, led by non-profit directors who say they sacrifice because they gave up on a higher-paying job to do good; public education reformers who send their children to private schools; and all manners of softly-appointed thinkers who proclaim the word “movement” without ever moving their message of protest to the street.
The major difference between the movements that actually moved, and those whose ranks are content with a faltering defense of the gains of 50 years past, is sacrifice.
At Monday’s meeting, 23-year-old CYC member Emma Ramirez described her participation in the CYC-FYA study. You see, most of the outreach and much of the survey design was conducted by current and former foster youth themselves.
While most in the room had come from offices in the San Francisco Bay Area including myself, Ramirez had hopped on the train in Gilroy 80 miles south. She then marched across San Francisco and would have to train it back in the evening, jump in her car and work the over-night shift as “house parent” at a Monterey group home for 9-18 year-old boys.
But that is only one of her many jobs. She recently filled in as a foster youth liaison for students at Cal State University Monterey Bay; she works as a tutor; and volunteers as the chair of Monterey County’s CYC chapter where she leads a group of current and former foster youth in efforts to improve the system for kids coming up behind her.
“I find myself saying I want to be a normal 23-year old,” said Ramirez. “But what is going on in society with people our age range going to clubs and bars and on social media doesn’t seem normal to me.”
Instead, she spends her time engaged in a struggle that is larger than foster care.
Ramirez entered the system at four, after her mother was deported to her native Mexico. By the time she was 11 and landed in a good foster care placement, she had lived in 10 homes and had been separated from the three of her six siblings that had been left in the United States with her.
She just graduated from Cal State-Monterey Bay and is determined to support foster youth in their pursuit of higher education and activism.
“If I can help get youth get into higher education, particularly foster youth, we can continue this movement,” she said. “The more educated you are… the more you become aware that the society that we live in is not what it should be.”
Ramirez believes education is the lynchpin to turning foster youth’s potential into social change. Her everyday sacrifice serves as an example that as much is possible.
Armed with preliminary data that supports this obvious conclusion, the scores of foster youth led advocacy programs across the country should be able to make more compelling a case to funders. This is a great thing. Because expanding opportunities for activism for young people like Ramirez is our best hope at a social justice movement that actually moves.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.
Note: Heimpel serves on the California Youth Connection’s Board of Directors.