What the (Fostering) World Needs Now

Marvel Studios, producers of The Avengers and X-Men films, rules when it comes to storytelling. Marvel’s film catalogue draws millions of fans and billions of dollars annually, and moviegoers seldom balk at the formulaic nature of the stories, which tend to follow the hero arc where a protagonist finds him or herself in an unknown situation, experiences adversity, and eventually overcomes that adversity. One can argue that most survivors of foster care have lived the hero’s arc in that they are far too often placed in gravely unknown situations where they encounter severe, heartbreaking adversity and eventually overcome, but to varying, sometimes questionable, degrees. 

Knowledge of the hero arc led me to use my experiences with foster care to pen and publish my novel, Ill At Ease, a coming-of-age story about a girl from Compton who risks everything to escape her evil aunt’s home for a better life, only to learn she and her aunt are one and the same. 

It struck me that anyone can learn the rules of writing to pen memoirs, novels, or screenplays. Some of the greatest stories are from individuals, like me, who’ve known adversity. Storytellers gain fame and great fortune from their stories. Why not foster youth?

“The reality,” says National Association of Black Social Workers president, Michael Guynn, is “it takes money to do things.”

This sentiment is not lost on deaf ears. Legislation, such as Assembly Bill 12 (AB-12), has extended services for foster youth and provided supplementary income for assistance with incidentals as youth navigate academic and private lives. Yet, some argue that AB-12 is not enough.  

Otho Day, a retired manager from the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, states that social services tend to fall short of the kind of assistance young people truly need, especially in a capitalistic society. “You’ll teach them about other things,” he argues, “but you won’t teach them about economics.” 
The Internet, arguably the most powerful driver of the digital age, has enabled burgeoning entrepreneurs access to global markets and important social networks. Savvy foster youth can access these networks, but frequently lack the capital to do so. Collaborative, file-sharing platforms for storytellers require pay subscriptions and recurrent fees that must be paid on time or access is terminated. 

“It’s difficult if you don’t have a network,” suggests Kandee Lewis, Executive Director of the Positive Results Corporation, a non-profit that teaches leadership and character development skills to disenfranchised youth. She suggests that youth “never give up looking for someone who can help.” 

Charli Kemp, Executive Director of Change the Tune, a Los Angeles-based after-school program that works to dismantle inequitable systems through holistic, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded activities for youth, agrees. More needs to be done to encourage youth to empower themselves, she says. “There’s a $130 billion Covid-19 relief grant that is looking at ways to infuse funds into the education system,” Kemp notes. As her program teaches youth to construct business plans, she envisions a future where Change the Tune backs students who demonstrate “a clear plan of what you want to do with funding for your business.” 

Sanctuary of Hope provides housing and education stabilization services for Transition Age Youth. Its executive director, Janet Kelly, implores social workers to explore opportunities for youth that transcend funding alone. This can be limiting, she argues. Kelly advocates for connecting youth to informal networks and service chains, community-based organizations and faith-based institutions, from a myriad of cultural backgrounds. “Having connections to other people, places, and things ensures that young people are on a trajectory of thriving and building resiliency.”

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Gail White-Biggers, underscores Kelly’s point. “I’m always assessing for client support,” she says. “I want to know who’s in your world. And it’s heartbreaking to hear a lot of those answers. Sometimes it’s no one.”

Otho Day pushes adults to recognize the durable nature of our youth. “You can’t teach kids how to be resilient,” he says. “You can [only] encourage them to continue to be resilient while they’re going through their struggles.” 

I certainly agree. During my journey to build a crowdfund campaign to adapt my novel into a film, I discovered many tools for creators that make formulating, publishing, and distributing one’s story a manageable task. Unfortunately, each tool represented an additional expense. I learned that both moral and financial support are necessary. 

“Make your music. Finish that book. Write your script,” urges White-Biggers, who advocates for occasional handholding with youth. “I’m going to walk with you,” she says. “We’re going to find an exit together.” 

“We are our greatest asset,” says Kandee Lewis. “I tell young people, ‘Don’t give up. You are fabulous just as you are. Don’t give up.” 

Enterprising youth from around the world hunger to monetize their skills through freelancer platforms, such as Upworks and Fivvr. Global clients rely on these platforms to recruit talent for a wide array of design and creative services, from graphic design to video production. Equipping current and former foster youth to compete on these platforms requires effort.

“Kids are some of the smartest people in the world,” argues Lewis, but they “get beat down so often, they lose confidence.”

“Remember, kids are just kids,” advises Michael Guynn. “Put yourself in their shoes. What would you need? What would you want?” 

It’s also important to remember these platforms absorb a small percentage of a freelancer’s income in exchange for that global reach.  Still, this is a small price to pay for avoiding saturated markets and reaching a global marketplace. 

“I think [these are] great platforms for any foster youth to express themselves in a creative way,” says White-Biggers.  

There are also crowdfunding platforms, including Indiegogo, GoFundMe, and Kickstarter, that not only present an entrepreneur with the opportunity to reach a global audience, but also provide a platform for presenting a variety of products to a world waiting for the next big thing. 

“Exposure is everything,” says Janet Kelly. “How do we increase exposure to digital storytelling? How do we increase exposure to whatever medium that works for a young person?”

Etsy and Shopify offer templates where young entrepreneurs can build online-stores, tell their stories, and sell their goods. Web-development companies, such as Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly, provide cloud-based website development tools with user-friendly, drag-and-drop features. 

How can we further empower youth to find their audiences, share their stories, and finance their dreams? Kemp suggests dialoguing directly with youth and structuring conversations around topics, such as “How to construct multiple streams of revenue. It’s another way of saying you matter, and your ideas matter too.”

Frustrated by systems of inequity that perpetuate negative narratives, Charli Kemp combined her leadership and business skills to launch the non-profit, Change the Tune, in 2017. She uses music and social impact to transform the negative social-cultural narratives that impact urban youth.
Janet Denise Kelly is the founder and Executive Director of Sanctuary of Hope, an organization that provides housing and education stabilization services for Transition Age Youth, ages 16 -25, who are foster care, homeless, or at-promise in South Los Angeles and South Bay.
Passionate advocate for mental health and justice, Gail White-Biggers is currently an adjunct professor at California Baptist University and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Sanctuary of Hope, a non-profit organization, serving homeless, transitional-aged youth.
Michael A. Guynn is the National Treasurer of the National Association of Black Social Workers and current President of the local NABSW Chapter of Greater Los Angeles.
Otho Day retired from the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services after 35 years of service. He is a mentor and Board Member for the Principles of Success Motivational Mentoring Program, a Board Member of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, and continues to collaborate with agencies, like Cease Fire and the California Youth Connection.