This story is the second part of a series about former foster youth who are now working to change policy. The first part can be seen here.
Sokhom Mao shows me the 11th floor of Oakland City Hall, where he chairs meetings for the Citizen’s Police Review Board, an entity that works between community members and police officers to ensure police accountability and improve police services.
“For me, being raised on the lower end of the economic ladder, and now being the chairman of the Citizen’s Police Review Board on the 11th floor, really tells a tale,” said Mao.
Only about 15 years ago, Mao was in the foster care system, jumping from group homes to transitional housing. Now, at 27, he is running for Oakland City Council, and hoping to use his years of policy and advocacy experience to take lead of the same area he was raised in.
Mao is the child of two Cambodian refugees who made their way to Oakland, Calif. His mother passed away when he was nine and his father, who was physically abusive to his mother and struggled with alcoholism, was left as the sole guardian for Mao and his five other siblings.
“My father would leave us alone at home with no food. Sometimes, there wasn’t even hot water or electricity,” said Mao of living under his father’s care. “That’s when social services were called.”
That all changed after Mao told his middle school counselor about the issues he was dealing with at home. For a couple of months, Mao and the rest of his siblings were split apart. After some time, four of Mao’s siblings were placed into kinship care with his aunt. Mao and his brother Sokha were forced to stay in a group home because of delayed paperwork.
After bouncing around between group homes, his father and his aunt, who also became abusive, Mao moved into the Bay Area Youth Center’s Real Alternatives for Adolescents (RAFA) while his younger siblings remained with his aunt.
“It was there they taught me how to be independent,” he said. “And it was there where I got the guidance I needed to apply for colleges.”
Mao applied to a handful of California State University schools, but eventually landed at San Francisco State University to pursue a degree in criminal justice. At the time of his acceptance in 2005, the university was just starting their Guardian Scholars Program, which helps former foster youth navigate higher education through support and resources.
Sokhom Mao stands in front of Oakland City Hall, the same place where, if elected, he will represent District 2. Photo by Victor Valle.
This marked the beginning of his work in advocacy.
“I went to one of the focus groups they had and met with the executive director at the time,” said Mao. “There we had the chance to structure, design and really shape the program.”
Through the Guardian Scholars Program, Mao was able to effectively navigate higher education which, he notes, is a difficult task for anyone, and especially foster youth.
Mao moved back to Oakland during in his third year at San Francisco State University. Upon doing so, he got an apartment and took in his two younger siblings who were still living with his aunt.
“I was going to school full time, working part time, and had to worry about registering my little brother who was in eighth grade for school,” said Mao. “I met with his teachers, made sure he did his homework and everything.”
It wasn’t long until Mao was able to get his other, older siblings into the same apartment complex, and until most of the family was reunited.
Mao was also a member of the California Youth Connection from high school through his graduation from San Francisco State University and afterward. He got a job at The Stuart Foundation after college, where he worked on initiatives looking to improve higher education access for foster youth. He also worked for the California Social Work Education Center, where he developed curriculum and training for social workers all across California.
“I like to say I made a full 360 within the system,” he said. “I was a client of the system, I was an advocate, and then I became the person who developed the same curriculum I was going through just a couple of years before.”
In 2010, Mao was called upon by Daniel Heimpel, executive director of Fostering Media Connections, to go to the state capitol where he met with President Pro Tempore of the California Senate, Darrell Steinberg and Speaker of the California State Assembly, Assemblyman John Perez to urge support of Assembly Bill 12 (AB12), a 2010 bill that extended foster care services from 18 to 21. And then, in 2012, Mao became vice president for the California Youth Connection board of directors.
Now Mao is moving beyond topics that relate just to foster care, and looking to grapple with citywide issues in District 2 of Oakland’s City Council.
“The foster care system is not a silo to the foster care community, it is the root cause of many problems we encounter as a community,” said Mao. “I started advocating for foster care issues, and that leads into things such as education and juvenile justice.”
Five other candidates are running for the area that covers parts of Grand Lake, Ivy Hill, Highland Terrace, and other parts of Oakland.
“For a child to have been raised in public housing, in the public welfare system, in public education both K-12 and then after, no one can say they are more a product of the public system,” Mao said. “I’m a public child. I know this city, and I know how to serve it.”
Victor Valle is a reporter at the Chronicle of Social Change.