I am 25 years old, and still learning what it means to thrive versus simply survive after transitioning out of the foster care system.
At a recent foster care event, I scanned the room from where I sat, watching the various child welfare and juvenile justice leaders, social workers, probation officers and foster youth in attendance.
I was the keynote speaker for the event, and knew that, regardless of my past, I had become a woman who had lived the testimony of resilience. I felt confident, strong, self-assured. I wore my all-white suit, like Olivia Pope, and felt as if each member in the room was rooting me on.
As I glanced around at the crowd, a sense of anxious excitement pulsed through me as I saw that the room was filled with some of the most prominent figures in the Los Angeles social services community.
Next to me sat a prominent leader in the field. We had met during several other of my keynote speaking engagements, so I no longer saw him as just another face plastered in the offices I frequently visited but as a colleague in the same field as I, one who was also striving to change the foster care system.
I examined both the way he spoke and his posture as he sat engaged in deep conversation with the deputy director of probation. I wondered how he had risen to such power. He held the power to propel change for foster youth on a massive scale, and I just knew if given the opportunity to be in his position, I would make change that would go beyond youth simply being what the system calls “safe” yet as foster youth we know is merely “minimal survival.”
“Sir,” I said, tapping him on his shoulder, and smiling broadly. My question flowed confidently: “How have you become the person you are today, a leader in a major social services community?”
The answer, I thought, would be something I could link to my prepared remarks for the keynote, something like: Hard work, determination, education, perseverance, self-resilience, trusting one’s own instincts.
I did not think he would say something that I could not with self-discipline obtain. It never crossed my mind that he might not be mindful of my background in the foster care system, although he had listened to me present about it a number of times.
He said, “I would have to say the person that I am and all that I have accomplished is all due to the support of my parents.”
My heart stopped.
Externally, I was a reflection of grace and composure. Internally, anger beat steadily through my chest at his lack of awareness, which turned his words into a knife. His answer awakened the insecurities, doubts and self-pity I so often bury behind my success. It went beyond hard work and perseverance and into a realm in which I myself have no personal experience.
I was hurt.
I nodded, smiled widely while maintaining the consistent eye contact I knew was necessary to conceal the fact that his blow rocked me to my heart. I folded my hands calmly on the table and tapped my foot in rising anger, the more outraged I felt. I had no ability to rewind time, and this pain became rain upon my spirit.
I had once explained to him with as much confidence, self-assurance and power as I could muster, “I will one day attain your current position.” Yet now he had attributed his rise to power to the one external factor I did not, could not, and would never have.
I began to realize that my rage was simply a deflection for my pain.
Did he not realize I was a former foster youth? As a leader in the system, his answer spoken so casually said volumes about the current state of child welfare he swore to protect.
My shoulders slumped as I looked at my notes placed neatly before me. The lines seemed trivial now: “I am a foster youth and will always be a foster youth.”
How could this man of power who is trusted to create a system that claims to be founded by a mission to thrive … be so blind?
See, I come from a background where success is synonymous with “thinking you’re better than” and failure is equivalent to “you’re fitting in perfectly.”
Though his answer gave no hint of disdain, it still rang of luxuries I would never be able to turn back the clock and experience; luxuries such as parental accountability, advice, encouragement, guidance and support – luxuries I still fought daily to grasp even when mentors and my newfound support system lay them perfectly in my path. He had not faced the disappointment of not being the next adopted child. He didn’t know about being placed in homes where the biggest motivation for keeping you was “the paper chase.”
I had spent several hours writing my notes for this speech, practicing with my mentor to achieve the right tone to avoid startling the crowd with my overzealous passion for action. This speech no longer fit my current state of mind as it highlighted my connection to Olivia Pope, who had a team she referred to as her “gladiators” just like I do. I had typed “I have a team” so many times in my speech that looking at the words was now sickening.
Yet life continued on the outside despite the civil war raging internally. My mentor, Emma Causey, sat to my right, smiling and engaging in a conversation with my supervisor, unaware of my state. The person I’d asked about his success easily dove back into his conversation with the deputy director of probation.
Moments like this would usually propel me into failure by pushing me towards doing almost none of the things I should do and all of the things I should not.
I share this for the youth who are like myself, who have torpedoes launched toward them every day in the form of careless words. This is for you, former foster youth who rage defiantly, yelling, screaming, fighting and running yet who are fighting for peace internally; this fight too often pulling us away from the right decisions and left chasing instant gratification.
I see you.
For you and me both, I took that stage and gave my speech. As Olivia Pope might say: We don’t get to run. We’re gladiators.