Dominique Mallard spent five years in the Colorado foster care system and by the time she left, she’d been through 22 foster homes. She’s been separated from her brother for 10 years.
But when an adult ally encouraged her to join an emerging youth organizing group known as Project Foster Power (PFP), an initiative of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, her trajectory changed. She didn’t know what to expect, but she was immediately drawn to the encouraging, welcoming community, and all the plans underway.
As Mallard describes it, organizing helped her go from “feeling powerless to a force to be reckoned with.” Soon she became a lead organizer, joining with a core group of peers in a similar role, along with a growing membership of current and former foster youth across the region, to build a powerful grassroots movement across Colorado.
Though she might not see her brother again, Mallard gets comfort knowing she is helping to prevent other kids from experiencing the pain she felt.
Youth Organizing: Expanding Opportunities for Engagement
Research shows that the system is not working to promote the well-being of children and youth who have been removed from their families and placed in foster care. Unfortunately, involvement in foster care has profoundly opposite impacts. In fact, the foster care system pushes young people towards homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration. Foster youth, disproportionately young people of color, are aging out of care in their late teens and early twenties unprepared, unsupported, and disconnected.
Like their peers outside this system, young people in foster care have hope, want a good education, and dream of a fulfilling and meaningful life. Having direct experience in foster care, they have a deep understanding of what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. The idea of “foster youth engagement” emerged as a way for young people to improve the system, but common engagement strategies don’t go nearly far enough.
In most cases, “engagement” is made up of small groups of hand-picked young people telling their stories and offering “advice.” This approach tokenizes the few and distorts the priorities of the many. We need to greatly expand opportunities for youth engagement in ways that make space for all youth to participate, bring young people together, raise up issues from the grassroots, and help young people build power to achieve transformational changes they need to thrive.
Youth organizing is a powerful and effective approach that addresses so many of the limitations of previous foster youth engagement efforts. As a specific strategy for youth engagement, youth organizing builds on the legacy of collective action led by young people and is lifted up through the research and support of national organizations and funders. Youth organizing has a long-term vision of building powerful intergenerational or youth-led organizations. It forever seeks to bring in new young members and build a base of support. It identifies issues by listening to its constituents and views itself as part of a broader social movement.
An essential part of its approach to youth engagement is youth development, healing, community building, and action that is directly informed by young people most impacted by systems.
Progress Made, But More Work To Be Done
Part of PFP’s success has been the way it reaches across the Denver region, deeply listening to young people, and learning from them. This base-building work, where you reach out to kids, makes them feel safe, and pulls them into the group. It’s also what Mallard is most proud of.
Foster Youth in Action (FYA) worked closely with Mallard, her fellow organizers, and supportive adults to help PFP get started, build up, and grow their power.
“FYA gets us excited and explains exactly how to do organizing,” Mallard said. “With the support of FYA we can hear people tell us no and still keep going.”
As a network of 23 foster youth led groups in 19 states, Foster Youth in Action supports foster youth leaders across the U.S. to make sure that their ideas for change are recognized, respected and put into place.
FYA continues to ask how can we reimagine new possibilities for young people who have experienced this system. We strive to create a community that does not criminalize young people and their families, offers networks of support that all communities need, and ensures that young people have everything they need and want to thrive and live out the life they want to create.
As change agents and community organizers we often come back to the same place – if we are going to create real and lasting change, we need different tools to get there.
How to Get Involved:
- Learn: Deepen your knowledge about issues facing older foster youth by tapping into curated resources at Fosterport.org.
- Connect: Grassroots groups need adult mentors and volunteers. Take a look at FYA’s Partner page to learn about groups that are in your state or community.
- Take Action: Provide the resources to support organizations working to build community.
Original contribution by Matt Rosen, Executive Director of Foster Youth In Action.
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