Current and former foster youth weigh in on racism and police brutality.
Although I now live in Harlem, I grew up in Ridgewood, New York, a small, immigrant neighborhood where the adults often left the children to fend for themselves as they ventured into the city for work. There was one local precinct, though I don’t remember ever really seeing a heavy police presence. I wouldn’t describe Ridgewood as particularly dangerous. There was some gang activity, homelessness, domestic violence, and an intense substance abuse issue, but as a child, these things were so intertwined into my daily experience that I never really saw them as obstacles, more a part of life. I always wanted to see cops as the community heroes they are supposed to be, but my interactions with them have always seemed to make situations worse.
One of the most influential interactions I have had with police occurred when I entered the foster care system. The catalyst in my story was the night my mother’s boyfriend physically assaulted her in front of my younger brother. High on a variety of substances, he chased my mother to my grandmother’s home where he tried to leave with my infant sister, wielding a knife at my grandmother. Out of fear, I called the police. My mother sat, bruised and exhausted, as six police officers stood crowded in my grandmother’s tiny, railroad apartment. The police asked my mother a lot of questions in an abrupt, non-sympathetic manner. Perhaps, they were desensitized to this kind of violence but, in short, nothing was done. The police were supposed to be there to protect my mom, instead she ended up the subject of a Child Protective Services investigation and my siblings and I entered the foster care system. In my community, you don’t call the cops. They are not associated with justice, but instead with involving other agencies such as Child Protective Services or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which only terrorize and disproportionately impact my community.
It is important to note that this scenario could have ended very differently, and does end very differently for Black Americans across the country. As a light-skinned Puerto Rican woman, I benefit from white privilege and I am consciously aware of that. Although I do not trust that cops can appropriately protect and serve communities like mine, I do not walk around with the fear of being killed by the police. This is what led me to engage in the protests against police brutality.
I attended my first protests over the summer. Seeing people of every age and race come together was an extremely profound experience that further made me believe in the power of community. Protests are a way for people to show those in power what they care about. For instance, when 15,000 people come together and march for a single cause, it lets elected officials know that this is a cause people are willing to show up for. My hopes are that protests can help influence policy to bring about more racial equity, but I do not think protests alone will be able to do so. Although I do not know much about politics, I do know that this country was built on racial inequity so it is going to take a lot of persistent work to undo the many areas of society where policy suffers due to implicit and explicit bias.
With the influx of protests occurring over the summer and the saturation of allyship content on social media, I began to experience further political awakenings. The more I read about anti-Blackness and the history of racism in this country and beyond, I began to see the intersectionality between racism and social services more clearly than ever. My mind persistently thought about, for example, the ways in which the foster care system is influenced by and upholds many racist practices. The authority of a ruling class to deem a culture’s child rearing practices as improper or just plain wrong has long been used to disproportionately separate families of color and assimilate children into white culture. The foster care system fares no differently when we see how Black youth are disproportionately represented. This is only one example and the numerous other examples were all I was able to think or talk about for many weeks.
My heart is with the families of the many unarmed victims killed by the police. I wish that they did not have to fight for justice for their loved ones, on top of grieving their loss. When I read about yet another unarmed victim killed by the police, I not only mourn for another life taken before its time, but I also feel confusion. How can those in a position of power not see these injustices and hold the perpetrators responsible? Why are civilians held to higher standards than those who are supposed to defend the law? Every time a police officer is allowed to keep their job, not tried on criminal charges, and found not guilty, I feel an immense sense of doom for the future of our country.
I am currently in college studying to become an early childhood educator. I recognize that a college degree is a symbol of status. Earning a bachelor’s degree means that I am working toward changing the negative perceptions of those who have been in foster care, but I realize that access to opportunities is racially charged and I am in many ways, “beating the odds.” As someone who aspires to be a future educator, I worry about the world my students will grow up in and the challenges they will face. I feel an immense responsibility to educate my students on racial injustice, as well as underrepresented cultures. This is also why I educate myself and my circle, donate when I can, call and email elected officials, and exercise my right to vote. I am not entirely convinced that these things make a difference, but if there is even the slightest chance that my small action can make a change, I feel it is my responsibility to do so.