I grew up in poverty and spent my teen years in the American foster care system. As a ward of the court, my daily life was drastically affected by the law. Social workers, lawyers, and judges decided who I could live with, what schools I could attend, and how often, if ever, I got to visit with my brothers. Less than 10 percent of former foster youth graduate from college, let alone law school. I graduated from Berkeley Law in 2015 and now work as a public interest attorney focused on improving policies for youth and families. The more I learn about this field, the more I believe we need to be listening to and empowering those with lived experience.
Whatever you do for me, but without me, you do against me.
It’s critical that advocates, lawyers, and social workers harness the input from and empower those most impacted by systems to affect those systems. Erica Hickey, policy director for VOICES, explains that the Ladder of Participation is “a reflective tool with the intent to assess one’s practice of authentic youth engagement.”
Hickey further explains that “authentic youth engagement is seen throughout the upper rungs of the ladder, and a misappropriation of youth participation is seen on the lower end.” This is an “assessment tool to better understand where an organization is at on the ladder and where it would like to move on the ladder given its mission, needs, and desires.” It’s not intended to penalize those who use it.
We all know the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. But few know about the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated. As you work on policies impacting others, it isn’t about pushing for what we would want. Making and enforcing good policies means listening to those impacted and adjusting to their needs and desires. We deserve platinum.
The child welfare, juvenile justice, and family poverty policy landscape has been paved with the best of intentions. But what if the community wanted a garden and not a road?
Tomorrow, I’m asking you to not lawyer like you did yesterday.
Today, right now, make a commitment to just stop lawyering the way you’ve been lawyering your whole career. Write down Gandhi’s quote, frame the Ladder of Participation, and memorize the Platinum Rule.
It’s overdue for you to start listening, truly listening, and empowering your clients and community members to have a say in the systems you are running or enforcing. Ask them questions, survey them, and pay them for their input.
Finally, recruit, highly compensate, and promote people with lived experience into decision-making positions. No matter how small your practice, you can always improve it by tailoring your work to what’s actually needed.
Whatever you do—stop substituting your judgment for others. If you need help doing this difficult work, reach out. We can do it together.