When Former Foster Youth Become the Professionals

I predict that we are about to see a generational shift, a wave of alumni influence in various leadership capacities in the foster care system. Although nowhere near perfect, the foster care system is getting better. More youth are being supported as they launch into interdependent adulthood, social scaffoldings are helping to break generational welfare, and more and more young adults who aged out or spent the majority of their childhood in foster care are going on to college. (To this day I argue that college was the best therapy.) It seems many of us alumni have a strong internal drive to give back, help youth of today, and impact the future of foster care.

This wave of professional child welfare engagement by adults who experienced foster care, adoption, and other child welfare services could not come at a better time. Social media is connecting us in ways never before imaginable. Just 5 years ago, I felt like I was an island, the “token” professional with a personal story. Little did I know that there was an army out there of professionals with personal experiences to fuel their passion.

Now, with macro-level systemic changes happening in every state and at the federal level, these professionals with personal narratives to support their mission are just what policy makers need to guide much-needed reform to ensure better interventions and services for the next generation of youth in care. As one alumnus shared, “Lived experience is richer than any degree.” I would argue that the combination of lived experience and a degree with professional experience makes for a lethal combination of advocacy and influential policy reform.

In other successful social movements, those directly impacted have the centric voice: women’s rights, racial equality, medical advocacy, and so forth. Unfortunately, in foster care and child welfare, we have politicians and subject matter experts speaking on behalf of those experiencing services. Although such efforts are well intentioned, I can share firsthand after witnessing legislative work groups that politicians do not understand foster care and that professionals struggle with articulating our story effectively. Work groups, legislative task forces, and public policy wonks want alumni engagement.

But are they truly ready? I was recently told by a colleague, “You do not know anything about foster care.” This despite four years working as an LSW (Licensed Social Worker), four years serving on a board for a foster care agency, serving on a national foster care advisory committee, and serving on a foster care work group designated by the governor’s child welfare legislative task force—not to mention the 8 years I spent in foster care. Energy and passion about foster care were perceived as “self-promoting” by certain colleagues. Interestingly, external feedback was the opposite—that my energy and passion were bringing an awareness, education, and energy that inspired community engagement.

Initially, I took this negative evaluation as a personal affront. After reaching out to fellow professional alumni, however, I found that this reaction, though not common, was not rare. Apparently we have all experienced it at some point. We are changing this narrative as more and more alumni of the child welfare system are taking on leadership roles, advocating, and sharing their stories to influence policy and systems change. We do this because we are passionate about our personal experiences; whether those experiences were positive or negative, we feel the need and the drive to engage and to make proper representation to improve the outcomes of current and future foster youth.

Having had the opportunity to engage in state and federal legislative processes and numerous professional organizations, I have a couple of observations. Sometimes, though not always, passionate and experienced program leaders lose the public and legislators by using professional jargon. After such an engagement, audience members are more confused than they were before. Even the most informative and passionate presentation can leave an audience more perplexed if the language is undecipherable. Conversely, I’ve seen passionate, bold foster alumni lose their audience because of an argument that was too emotionally charged with a personal narrative that generalized all of foster care and was not supported with research and data. These presentations often come across as bitter and vindictive.

When foster alumni combine their personal experience with professional insight and credibility, the power to influence is incredible. Our personal narrative tugs at the heartstrings and builds a personal connection; supported by data and validated research, we can be powerful change agents. Information is everywhere, and it is our responsibility to be informed, either through formal education or self-teaching. Taking time to educate oneself can be a particularly healing experience, bringing closure to any remaining emotional wounds.

My first experience in meeting influential alumni was Chris Chmielewski of Foster Focus magazine (http://www.fosterfocusmag.com), the nation’s only monthly magazine devoted to foster care—and produced by a former foster youth! Not all the articles are written by alumni, but many are. Mr. Chmielewski is considered the godfather in alumni circles. He is abreast of current issues related to child welfare and foster care; he is deeply connected across the country and with most of the larger organizations. He is one of the first alumni I encountered who used a professional approach supported with research and data in combination with his personal experience to educate and make impactful change.

This past year, I had the opportunity to connect with Shalita O’Neale. Mrs. O’Neale is a regular columnist for Foster Focus and is Executive Director of Hope Forward in Baltimore, connecting transitioning foster youth with life skills resources and long-term solutions as well as empowering youth to create systems change through leadership and advocacy. After attending one of her alumni networking events, I was inspired by the talent, the passion, and the energy this fraternity of former foster youth exhibited professionally.

My Facebook page is littered with over 200 connections to alumni doing amazing work in our field, all leading local and national alumni leadership and advocacy efforts. The momentum has already started, and program and policy leaders will not be able to dismiss our experiences or confuse our passion with self-promotion. These remarkable leaders are armed not only with their passion driven by personal narratives but also with an unmatched professional expertise.

Recently a few alumni have joined forces to collaborate on a consulting joint venture to help foster care organizations. Fostering Change Network (www.fosteringchangenetwork.com) was created as a professional service to individuals and organizations that serve foster youth. The organization is an alumni-led network of socially connected, professionally successful individuals dedicated to improving outcomes for current and future foster youth. The organization will focus on strategic planning, board development, social media, marketing and communications, grant writing and resource development, program and organizational development, and foster parent trainings.

My recommendation is that all organizations embrace the opportunity to have former foster youth involved—on their boards, on their staff, as trainers, as consultants, and, most important, within their leadership structure. I also caution organizations not to shortchange personal experiences, which are far more valuable than any paper degree, nor should we confuse energy with self-promotion. Rather, embrace personal experience, encourage it, help sharpen and refine it, leverage it to help your organization improve the experience of your current clients. Assist alumni in leveraging their personal narratives with best practices to influence policy, to build state and federal connections, and to recruit foster parents and donors. We can be the best “salespeople” for your mission.