January 15, 2019 Article

The Collective Power of Youth

By Betsy Fordyce

On March 22, 2018, a handful of youth leaders stood on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol building and looked out over a crowd of child welfare professionals, families, friends, and legislators. They held handmade signs: Hear Me Roar for Those Who Whisper; If You Can Read This, Your Voice Matters; Listening is Love. They read letters written by fellow current and former foster youth. They shared Governor John Hickenlooper’s proclamation declaring Foster Youth Voice Day in the state of Colorado.

This rally marked the first true public action of project Foster Power’s “Youth Voice, Youth Choice” campaign. Young people joined together with a clear message: that adults include youth in decision-making processes, particularly those affecting their own lives, and #passthemic so that youth have an opportunity to share their own experiences and ideas.

This call to action is just one of many examples of foster youth across the country asking those of us working in these systems to “pass the mic” and listen to what they have to say. Through the efforts of the national Foster Youth in Action network, as well as many dedicated youth and adults on the ground, youth organizing is emerging as a powerful strategy for large-scale change in the child welfare field.

Launched in the summer of 2017 as an initiative of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center (RMCLC), project Foster Power is a group of current and former foster youth, ages 15 to 25, seeking to improve the foster care system through youth organizing and advocacy. These young people are using their past experiences to connect with one another, promote healing, and collectively raise their voices to challenge the system that they experienced firsthand.

The Beginnings of project Foster Power

In 2014, RMCLC began to explore new ways to engage youth in its system-change efforts. For over 30 years, as a nonprofit child law center, RMCLC worked on behalf of abused, neglected, and at-risk youth and their families with programs spanning the judicial and legislative arenas. Like so many others in the child welfare space, RMCLC attorneys zealously advocated for youth every day, pursuing all possible avenues to meet their “best interests.” Yet, there is a difference between working for youth and working with youth. Despite extraordinary diligence and the best of intentions, adult professionals in this area do not always get it “right” on their own, nor does the change they seek always manifest.

With this in mind, RMCLC realized that there was a piece of the puzzle missing when it came to its strategies for generating change: specifically, taking the lead from those with direct system experience. The organization launched its Youth Empowerment Program based on the belief that by empowering foster youth to be strong leaders, amplifying their voices, and creating opportunities for influence, the culture and practice of the Colorado child welfare system could change for the better.

RMCLC looked to Foster Youth in Action to intentionally build this work. For three years, that partnership included learning, planning, and re-envisioning, and ultimately resulted in project Foster Power launching as a foster youth–led model for change in Colorado.

The initial goal of this work was to shift youth engagement in Colorado from solo youth advocates making speeches at meetings and events to the collective voice of a chorus of youth demonstrating their power in numbers and taking action. In its first year, project Foster Power reached 119 youth throughout the Denver metro and Colorado Front Range areas. It was important that this work be youth-led from the inside, so RMCLC hired a former foster youth on staff and dedicated one full-time adult ally to the program. The original youth founders named project Foster Power, illustrating both their experience as foster youth and their goal of fostering power in one another. The first year of action has ultimately focused on this power building.

The Power of Youth Organizing

As a national network, Foster Youth in Action is building a movement led by young people to radically transform the foster care system in this country. Foster Youth in Action recently released a report detailing the history of youth engagement in this country and raising up foster youth–led organizing as a strategy for healing and system change.

Existing strategies for youth engagement often focus on programming, such as youth advisory boards, youth advocacy groups, and youth-adult partnerships. These approaches seek to provide adults with youth feedback or advice on recommendations for change, lend youth voices to advocacy efforts, and create equal opportunities for shared learning and leadership. They typically are not youth-led and youth-driven, however, and may represent the voices of a few high-functioning youth as representatives rather than the voices of youth across the foster care experience.

Foster Youth in Action makes the case that youth organizing is an ideal strategy for system change in this space because it empowers youth as both the leaders and the actors in the work. Drawing from models of community organizing, youth organizing amplifies the voices of all foster youth, both those who are often selected for leadership roles and those who may not yet have been prepared for such opportunities.

In addition, the impact of youth organizing is significant both in its transformation of systems and its transformation of individuals. As noted in the Foster Youth in Action report, research indicates that youth organizing promotes a young person’s psychological wellness, academic engagement, and healing from trauma. Youth are connecting to one another, gaining confidence, developing a positive sense of self, and learning important skills of critical analysis and problem solving. Simultaneously, their actions are creating change in laws and practice across the country. Groups like California Youth Connection (CYC), the original founders of Foster Youth in Action, have been powerfully paving the way in this area for over 30 years. Indeed, in its first year, project Foster Power was fortunate to learn from the wisdom and experience of its many partners, such as CYC, Oregon Foster Youth Connection, and Florida Youth SHINE.

Youth Voice, Youth Choice: A Campaign of Action

Youth leaders of project Foster Power, known as “core organizers,” have intentionally created an open membership inclusive of youth of all abilities. For project Foster Power, members are the “heart” of the work. A member is anyone who falls within the ages of 15 and 25, is currently in or previously experienced the child welfare system, and attends at least one project Foster Power meeting or event. There is no application process. If you want to be involved, you get to be involved—even if life becomes chaotic and you cannot attend for a while. The door is always open for you to return. Activities and events are designed so that members of all abilities can engage, learn, and have their voices heard.

With the training and support of Foster Youth in Action, project Foster Power follows a youth action cycle designed to build its collective voice and empower youth to take action to create change. Steps of the cycle range from crafting a vision of what foster care should look like to listening to ourselves and others to taking action and reflecting on the work. In its first year, project Foster Power tailored this model to the specific interests and needs of youth in Colorado.

In what has become a signature step of project Foster Power’s listening process, youth leaders spent the fall of 2017 conducting a Listening Tour, going to youth directly at independent living classes, shelters, advisory council meetings, group homes, and other stops. At each stop, core organizers led an activity called the “Burning Wall of Problems” where youth wrote one problem of the foster care system on a sticky note, using as many sticky notes as they needed, and pasted these notes on one big wall of problems. Once the notes were posted, youth each took a marker and dotted the problems that they too experienced or that resonated with them. This activity allowed youth to anonymously share their voices, recognize that they were not alone in their experiences, and inform the project Foster Power issue selection.

After nine stops in the 2017 tour, core organizers and members analyzed themes presented on the wall and ultimately selected an issue for action: Youth Voice, Youth Choice. This campaign arose from the frequently expressed complaint that youth did not feel heard in their cases or that they had a say in their lives. The goal of the campaign was then to educate foster youth on their rights and teach them the skills to advocate for themselves. By empowering youth to use their voices in this way, project Foster Power aimed to build its power for future campaigns and thus create an even bigger impact.

In 2018, project Foster Power took action on the Youth Voice, Youth Choice campaign. As part of this campaign, youth

  • hosted a youth voice rally at the Colorado State Capitol to raise awareness for the importance of youth voice;
  • wrote letters either about the power of having their voices heard or about the impact of not being listened to by adults;
  • held a Youth Voice Bootcamp, teaching youth about their rights and providing skill building around advocacy;
  • drafted a Youth Rights document, taking statutory rights and interpreting them into youth-friendly language; and
  •  recommended ways that professionals can inform youth about their rights.

Part of this campaign centered on the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which requires agencies to provide lists of rights to youth in foster care ages 14 and older. Through the Listening Tour, it became evident that many youth either did not remember receiving or did not understand these lists. project Foster Power started at the beginning by dissecting the legal language of the statutes and thinking through how youth would best understand each concept. Youth leaders are now meeting with human services agencies, children’s attorneys, placements, and judicial officers about the role they each can play in educating youth in this area.

As work on the Youth Voice, Youth Choice campaign continues, project Foster Power has already been conducting its second Listening Tour and will soon be identifying its issue for action in 2019. Each year, the cycle repeats, each time informed by the voices of youth and driven by the action of youth.

Colorado Youth Step Up and Speak Out

Through the Youth Voice, Youth Choice campaign, youth wrote anonymous letters to adults. They were given a series of prompts, ultimately being asked to write either about a time their voices were heard, and the power of that, or a time when they wished adults had listened differently. project Foster Power received over 100 letters, each powerful in its message. Some were positive with praise to caseworkers, attorneys, or foster parents who made a difference by listening; others demonstrated the significant impact of being disregarded and provided advice for how adults could listen better in the future. These letters continue to be displayed in libraries, coffee shops, child welfare offices, and social work schools in an effort to raise public awareness for foster youth voice. The power of the letters was not just the light they shed on these issues, but perhaps even more so, the power they gave to their authors who were able to put their experiences into words and find similarities with their peers.

Here are two of those letters collected in the spring of 2018:

Dear Adult,
During my time in care, I was listened to because I forced people to listen to me. The force in being heard was both empowering and painful. It hurt me that you didn’t just listen because it was my life. My world. My family that was being torn apart. You empowered me by forcing me to force you, because I discovered my own power, and I uncovered the true meaning of perseverance. So thank you for making me stronger and thank you for making me loud, because today I am doing better than you ever thought I would be doing. BUT, for future reference, I have a few things for you to remember. It’s my life. My voice not only matters, but it’s powerful. Foster kids are people too; we need patience, empathy, and at least one person believing in us NO MATTER WHAT, just like you do. Just because I was full of anger, just because I was stubborn, doesn’t mean I wasn’t broken and scared. If you could have listened a little more and told a little less, maybe I could have trusted and been honest a lot sooner. I matter, we all matter, and now that I’ve grown up a little bit, I see that you matter too.
From, A Young Person Who Matters

Dear Adult,
I was in a bad home and I was brave enough to not only speak up for myself, but for the other three girls that weren’t receiving food, clothing, and other necessities. I came to you when it seemed no one else was listening. I put my trust into you, but you did not do the same for me. The day you disregarded my truth, my needs, and my importance was the same day I did.
From, A Young Person Who Matters

Movement Lawyering:
The Role of Lawyers in Youth Organizing Work

In recent years, the concept of movement lawyering has been used to describe the somewhat nontraditional path of lawyers working to address large social justice issues through grassroots policy and community-based approaches. This lawyering involves attorneys working to shift power to vulnerable populations and, in doing so, help to disrupt the status quo. Lawyers who act as adult allies for youth organizing groups are serving as movement lawyers, empowering youth with the skills, opportunities, and resources to change the foster care system for the better. Lots of people have power in child welfare cases: Judges have power to make decisions about families, attorneys have power to make arguments in court, foster parents and family members have power to maintain or terminate placements, caseworkers have power to conduct assessments and investigate homes. In many of our cases, youth themselves have the least power—they are the subjects of our work. Youth organizing has the potential to shift these structures and build the collective power of youth.

According to Dominique, one of project Foster Power’s core organizers, “people often say they want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, to get information directly from the source. Well, in this case, foster youth are the horse.” We as professionals do not have to have all the answers. Instead, we have the legal knowledge, critical analysis skills, and persistence to empower young people. Foster youth–led organizing is about large-scale change, but it is also about connecting youth to each other and their communities, encouraging civic engagement, developing leadership abilities, and creating a culture in which those with experience in the system guide the rest of us. Youth in foster care know what needs to change and are ready to use their voices; as lawyers, maybe the best we can do is listen, support, and follow their lead.

Betsy Fordyce is the director of the Youth Empowerment and Legal Advocacy Program at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center in Denver, Colorado.

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