Case in point

Well, I promised to follow up my last post with some good news, and I know that at least one of my readers will be disappointed that she won’t get to read about the sense of optimism I feel in the air just yet. Instead, I’m gonna hang out on my soapbox for a little while longer because I’m still working through my irritation.

Last night’s Teens in Foster Care panel was very odd. I think the organizers felt like everyone in the room was on the same page regarding permanency for youth in care 14 and older (roughly 3600 of New York City’s 12,000 children in the system). Funny thing though: I don’t think the panel realized how deeply their message conflicted with one of their guest speaker’s most important points. …And then things got even worse.

Let’s do this good/bad/ugly style.

THE GOOD

Cris Beam. CRIS BEAM. I’d seen her give a reading to a group of young writers back in December, so I’d already heard the whole spiel of how a teenaged daughter entered her life with the suddenness of an unplanned pregnancy. Tonight, however, Beam came with a stronger agenda and she prefaced her reading by dropping some data.

Here’s some straight from NYC ACS: Between the ages of 14 and 15 only 17% of young people in foster care wish to exit the system as an independent adult. By the time they reach 17, however, the percentage of youth who wish to age out to independent living rises to 94%. That means that by 17, only 6% of young people in foster care want to be adopted.

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Complaints, concerns, but also causes for optimism

I’ve been delaying writing this post because for a stretch I was too outraged about certain things I’d been hearing in the foster care scene. Outrage is healthy if you can articulate it well and channel it productively, but anger is not the emotion I want to lead with. So, what’s changed? So much in the last two weeks, it seems! But before I get to the good news, let’s start with the issues.

COMPLAINTS

1. Housing is the number one problem facing my emerging leaders, the youngest of whom just turned 21. At the beginning of last semester, we went around the table introducing ourselves to each other. I was struck that with the exception of the two eldest, who are working professionals in child welfare, every single person at the table was facing some form of housing crisis. A couple had to get extensions for their time in care; a couple others didn’t secure formal extensions, but were able to remain in their foster homes out of the generosity of foster parents willing to house them for just a little longer; one was on the verge of losing a NYCHA apartment due to bureaucratic inefficiencies; and still another two were worried that their agencies weren’t moving quickly enough on their housing applications.  Continue reading

Sentimentally, it isn’t a big deal, but legally it is

Happy 21st birthday, @beYOUtifulBrian!

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I know you aren’t much for celebrating, but today I am grateful for your presence in my life. I’ll never forget the day we met, when you told me you liked my website and agreed to be my first youth advisor. Your twenty-first birthday really snuck up on me! I thought we had another year to prepare. I hope that despite all the competing demands on your time and headspace, you are excited about what lies ahead. I, for one, am looking forward to you moving into your new digs! We’ll hook you up with an account on the Camellia Network to supplement the ACS grant to cover moving and furnishing costs.

Wishing you only the best this coming year, which I know for you includes many days of dancing and filling the people around you with the spirit.

Hazards of the job

Recently I’d been thinking a lot about how this work uplifts me. On Twitter I had some wonderful conversations with advocates in the special ed and autism community about the public misperception that the populations we work with are depressing. “I could never do the work you do” is often coded language for “I could never work with those people.” It’s offensive, especially considering the fact that what’s dispiriting and draining about this work has virtually nothing to do with the people we serve.

You know what does get me down? On one level it’s the larger institutional, economic, and social structures that present significant challenges to our young people. If I dwell on them too much, it makes me lose my sense of humor. Some days I wake up wanting to punch somebody. I wish I could say that my advocacy springs from a generous Dalai Lama-esque capacity to love all my fellow human beings, but I’m not there yet. The truth is, my sense of purpose and outrage is very personally rooted. I’ll say this much: many of the stories I hear about children in foster care resonate with me.

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ladamski gets her own blog! (and the state of this blog)

Minds On Fire’s very first guest blogger, Lindsay Adamski, is moving up in the blogging world. She’s set up shop here, where she writes about child welfare policy, strategies for working with youth in foster care, and other ideas coming from feminism, sociology, and whatever else is on her long reading list. Lindsay is passionate and insightful, and if you’ve read her posts here, you already know that she has a lively writing style.

As for my own blog posts…I’ve been writing a couple of them in my head. It isn’t February yet, but so far 2014 has been a whirlwind and I’m realizing that I need to be managing my time differently and taking better care of myself. I’m not leaving myself enough quiet, quality time to write, and frankly, it’s bumming me out. I’m completely spent by the time I get home from the office, and barely have it in me to get dinner together, much less write something thoughtful. I’ve loaded too much on my plate this spring and need to scale back. It’s not helping that the extreme cold has been messing with my exercise routine.

Upcoming (a trick for holding myself accountable):

1. Child welfare policy trends vs. life on the front lines / what it means to incorporate “youth voice”

2. Never mind vulnerability. Let’s talk discomfort and letting go of shame.

3. Also, my continuing discussion with resident devil’s advocate, Steph Cowling, on the idea of pushing our young people toward “purposeful work.”

Guest posts from Steph and new guest blogger are still in the pipeline.

My #emergingleaders inspire me

Most people who work outside the field of child welfare tend to assume that my work is dispiriting. They hear the words “foster care” and immediately think “at-risk youth,” a loaded term that conjures only negative images. They imagine that I am out every day fighting the good fight, doing charitable work for the needy. The truth is I have the best job in all of New York City. I have the best job for a whole host of reasons: terrific colleagues, flexible work hours, and a varied work week that keeps me engaged, whether I am deep in research or out in meetings. But above all, I have the best job in NYC because I am surrounded by young people who are at a stage in life where they are all trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become, and where their place is in the world. It’s fascinating.

I work most closely with my emerging leaders—young people on a mission to revolutionize child welfare and other fields of human services. They are working to connect their values, strengths, and passions to embark on careers that will sustain them financially and emotionally while improving the lives of others. Watching them go through this process is inspiring. But what is most touching about my emerging leaders is they way they all throw themselves so fully into their transitions. Aristotle would surely approve of their zealous pursuit of the good life.

How many of us would and could be productive, for example, in precarious housing situations? Sure, some of us worked jobs while going to school, but how many of us also had to navigate complex bureaucracies whose stated missions seem to contradict our daily experience of them? 

My window into the lives of my emerging leaders and other young adults who have transitioned from foster care offers me a profound and daily reminder of the strength and the goodness of the human spirit. 

#AdoptMent youth take personal stock

I’ve been reticent to blog about my work with the AdoptMent group because they’re a younger set and I’m more protective of their privacy. This is a transitional year, not just within the program, but also in the lives of each of these young people. In my first session with them this school year, we returned to the tasks of adolescent development, but instead of focusing broadly on the topic of identity, this time we talked about personal values and relationships, especially how to strike a healthy balance between independence and connectedness.

Last spring I used Zits comics to get the conversation started. We returned to two strips that dealt specifically with identity exploration, and was really pleased that they all retained the biggest lesson from last spring’s identity self-portrait activity, namely that at this early stage in life staying true to yourself is overrated, and identity crises are actually a healthy part of psychological development.

From that group review, everyone paired off with their mentors to discuss comic strips treating the developmental tasks related to autonomy, relationships, and values. The mentors had handouts that indicated the tasks displayed in each strip, but the mentees first had to work on inferring the topic from the material. The second step in the exercise was to reflect on how they were progressing in each of those tasks. I got to eavesdrop on a lot of wonderful stories about how these young people set up challenges for themselves (e.g., earning the money and planning transportation for a solo trip to New Jersey), and noted how their relationships to their parents were in transition

The final part of the workshop had everyone select one particular developmental task that posed a significant challenge to him or her. Continue reading

Decision-making with an #emergingleader

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Emerging Leader Maurice came into office hours last week wearing his red power tie. Our initial plan was to unpack his “hustle” from the Work On Purpose workshop we did in our last Emerging Leaders meeting, but he announced that he wanted to share some “good news” and a “dilemma,” which were in fact related. It turned out that Maurice needed to choose between two very different housing options that each appealed to conflicting values, and the decision was overwhelming him. With his permission, I’m sharing some of the details of our meeting because it contains an exercise that might prove useful to the young people you work with (or to you yourself, if you’re in the market for a decision-making tool).

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Fond farewells and transitions

This week has brought a mixed bag of emotions for me, much of it having to do with my holiday habit of taking stock of the people who have moved in and out of my life over the year. Below are two dear men whom I’ve been fortunate to meet on my journey building Minds On Fire. Both are leaving New York City very soon.

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This is Satyam, Minds On Fire’s first volunteer. We met at a Be Social Change happy hour in the spring, back when my elevator pitch was really really rough (currently it’s just rough), but he caught on immediately. Through the evening he shuttled back and forth around the room making connections. He approached me a couple of times more to introduce me to other folks he thought I would like to meet.

I didn’t know that back when we met he was only visiting NYC before heading out to SF to check out the social entrepreneurship scene there. Thankfully, he left his heart in NY and returned toward the end of the summer. We met up at another Be Social Change event, where again he took the time to connect people in the room.

Satyam thrives on connection, and I just love that about him. Yesterday when we met for tea to say our goodbyes, he informed me that he has a whole list of contacts to send me. Whenever he goes to a networking event, he said, he always has me in mind.

I caught him up on the work I was doing with my emerging leaders and mentioned how we were probably going to launch a fundraiser next year. Satyam immediately reached into his wallet and tried to slip me a $20 bill. I asked him to save it for when I need him to seed our online campaign.

Farewell, Satyam. I will miss our meetups and talks at the Alley (and I know Candice will, too). I hope that the next few months back home rejuvenate you in mind, body, and spirit. I’ll be pulling for your return to our beloved city. The #socent scene here won’t be the same without you.

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This lovely young man who rarely smiles for the camera is Otis Hampton, one of my favorite writers at Represent Magazine and a former mentee in AdoptMent. I met him a year and a half ago, when I was just starting out in this work and he was facing a particularly tremendous challenge. It’s been a real privilege witnessing him pull through that struggle by drawing on his inner strength and gathering together a network of supportive adults. Otis is heading upstate to begin a new chapter in his life. I really hope that he continues to write publicly because the world needs to hear his voice.

Yesterday was his last mentoring session, and they had to break the news to the other young people. Otis dropped me a lovely email right afterward reporting that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They spent part of the time reading the (love) letters of evaluation that I write for each of my workshop participants, and he also got to give a speech talking about how he considers the people in AdoptMent—including my husband and me—as part of his family. Otis’s departure is breaking a lot of hearts, but we are also very glad to see him embark on this new beginning. He promises to tend to his gift of writing and to stay in touch. If he starts a blog, I’ll be letting you know.

Wishing you only the best, Otis. I adore both the lover and the fighter in you.

The ethics of program design in youth development

One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.

As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.

Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?

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