For six years, I directed a program known as Guardian Scholars at a college in California. Those who know about foster care in the Golden State are no doubt familiar with these programs: they seek to support current and former foster youth at a postsecondary campus in the hopes of helping them make it through to graduation. The name has never sat right with me and I regret not pushing to change it. To me, it is an example of how problematic branding can jeopardize participation.
Some folks would want to dismiss the power and significance of a name. However, I would argue that names matter and have deep meaning when creating organizational and even familial culture. Parents are careful and thoughtful as to what they name their children. The Washington Football Team has spent more than a year in its re-naming efforts after finally dropping its previously racist football team name. The publication I am writing for underwent a name change, too.
I say this to say that names matter, language matters. It shapes how we relate to each other and how we make sense of the world around us. Language shapes narrative and how we tell our stories. The name Guardian Scholars speaks to the persistent and endemic paternalism of foster youth in the mainstream and in higher education spaces. TV shows and movies often depict foster youth as helpless people who lack self-determinism. The stories we tell about foster youth often portray their challenges as something they can simply overcome with just discipline and hard work.
In the mainstream, the challenges foster youth face often lack a critical interrogation of the multiple structural and social forces that impede and at times altogether block the progress and success of youth who experience foster care. We infantilize foster youth by placing ourselves as their saviors, when in reality, we — social workers, Court Appointed Special Advocates, mentors and others — are participants in the foster care and the child welfare institution and we are in many ways complicit in their plight.
I often had conversations with colleagues and foster youth in California about our resentment of the name Guardian Scholars. At state-wide conferences and regional meetings we would discuss how it felt weird, disingenuous and patronizing. Many of us (staff) inherited the program name, and those who would vie for a name change said they were met with resistance at their campus. This culture of institutionalized paternalism creeps into other aspects of higher education and the foster care landscape. For example, foster youth would feel uneasy about how their stories were used to fundraise dollars and increase the profile of their university, yet as they participated in speaking engagements or youth panels, they could not meet their basic needs attending that college.
I understand that foster youth support programs run off of primarily private dollars, through grants and donations, but we must approach this work with greater finesse, criticality and care. I urge higher education administrators, policy makers and philanthropists to start advocating that their state and local legislators properly fund these programs. I long for the day where we stop asking foster youth to tell their trauma stories as fodder for fundraising campaigns.
I encourage my colleagues to be more aware and critical of their positionality when working with college students who have experienced foster care. They are scholars, who are brilliant; we are not their “guardians.” Some of us might have the privilege to build relationships with the students that we mentor that will transcend a college campus. However, that connection is organic, mutual and happens overtime — it is not imposed.
When I was an undergrad, I participated in a program called the Renaissance Scholars Program. There was something about the name “Renaissance” at the time, as a young Black kid, who admired the entertainers, poets and authors of the Harlem Renaissance. It gave me pride to wear my hoodie with the “RSP” insignia on it. At the very least, the name Renaissance had a swag to it.
I do not name this occurrence to lambaste my colleagues and the community I love so dearly; I too have been guilty of this. Rather, it speaks to how difficult it is to not be influenced by hegemonic culture, which impacts us all. It requires ongoing critical reflexivity to resist institutional paternalism and to create culturally affirming spaces for foster youth. I would be remiss to not name that we do great work, we do heart work, with little to no staffing and resources from our campuses.
However, let’s not create foster care 2.0 on a college campus by preemptively knighting ourselves as their guardians. Instead let us reimagine something new for them while they pursue their college degree; let’s set an intention in the coming new year to break free of paternalism on college campuses. Let’s start a renaissance.