It’s National Adoption Month: Here’s to my other dad

It’s a happy coincidence that National Adoption Month should begin on my adoptive father’s birthday. I’d been following the conversation on adoption and loss on Twitter and it caused me to reflect on this very special relationship that has spanned decades of my life.

My Daddy Gary entered my world when I was seven and legally adopted me around the time I was nine. I remember my mom attempting to explain why this was happening, but I didn’t comprehend then—and am still trying to piece together now—the reasoning behind the decision. Yet what was plain to me even as a child was my father’s obvious agitation at the course of things. I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of his car, seeing his hand clutch the stick shift, and noting an unusual graveness about him. —I will always be your dad.

The memories of my adoption are not pretty: I recall a dark courthouse, a self-important judge (“Say ‘yes, sir!‘”), and my dad, at a distance, looking uncharacteristically crestfallen. I walked out of that building with a new surname I was reluctant to use, not out of any dislike for my stepfather—I was already deeply attached to him—but the frightening sensation of being separated from the clan and severed from the thickness of family history. (My Daddy Gary also bears the name of the stepfather who adopted him, but rather than appreciating this poetic symmetry, it felt doubly estranging.) And then there was the insupportable weight of betrayal: The image of my happy-go-lucky father so visibly crushed would haunt me for years.  Continue reading

“Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”

[For YAB] Today I remembered a conversation with YAB while I was doing diversity research for NYU and stumbled across a journal article titled “Are Emily and Greg more Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” During the YAB retreat the members went off on many, many tangents, but there was one in particular that I let run for a little longer than I usually permit because it was one of those interludes that was funny and incisive and tragic all at the same time.

During the “What Do You Bring to the Table?” exercise everyone had been saying and spelling out each other’s names, which eventually led to someone making a joke that if you were named “Quadasha Brown” you would never be able to get a job. At the time everyone was giggling like crazy, but the moment registers in my memory as bittersweet. For what does it say about our society when our young people already know in their bones what two researchers need to do fieldwork on to verify?

You would love to be a fly on the wall during my advisory meetings

The highlight of any given week is easily whenever one of my advisors visits me at the Alley. You can imagine my elation when all three arrive together: magic happens! I just finished typing up the minutes to our last Minds On Fire advisory meeting and can’t help marveling at everything that we managed to talk about over a two-hour working lunch. It was even more intense than our first meeting because the main topic of discussion was the identity portion of pilot curriculum. The talented Candice Miller is steering the ship on this one, much to my delight (and relief!).

Inspired by the Casey Family curriculum on race and ethnic identity, we circled back to a question that I had posed to Nahjee some weeks back: what does “the culture of foster care” evoke for her, and how does it relate to questions of race/ethnicity? She talked about how she frequently sees children in care identify with the heritage of their foster parents and how it can be a challenge to discover one’s own family history. We also discussed the importance of learning how to relate to people of different races/ethnicities, including how to code switch without feeling like you’re denying a part of yourself.

We moved on to the topic of dating and relationships and two very weighty questions that my youth advisors suggested were jealousy and violence. I won’t write too much about this discussion right now because it makes me sad. From there we touched on gender identity and sexuality, and both my youth advisors said it would be helpful to learn how to help facilitate conversations with people who might not accept their sexuality, such as family/parents.

Lighter fare was also on the menu for the day. My advisors are all really into activities such as identity trees, letters to yourself, vision boards, and dream books. All of their ideas are going to replace the self portrait activity that I was struggling to refine. For these workshops I would love to hand over the reins to one of my youth advisors.

In true grad student fashion, my ideas have taken an inordinate time to coalesce. (Do you know how long it took me to write my dissertation?) I’ve shown up emotionally and intellectually to Minds On Fire for over two years now, but in these meetings I am graced by the brilliance of individuals who are able to sink their teeth into this work effortlessly and make incisive recommendations about what to cut, what to move around, and what to include. How lucky am I?

A young person’s perspective on how to talk about race and identity

One of my youth advisors gave me clever advice today on how to engage youth in care in conversations around race and identity, which she agrees are critical to discuss in a foster care setting. Here they are:

1. Use your personal experience to open a general discussion on a sensitive topic. Ask a question that everyone can relate to, and then let young people lead the way.

Without trying to equate your experience with that of others, it’s possible to throw out a very general question that resonates with everyone in different ways: Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you didn’t belong? The brilliance of this question is that it can lead the group down various paths that include, but aren’t limited to, racial or ethnic identity. It’s a great way of broaching sensitive subjects without asking such a pointed question right at the start.

2. A good guest speaker can really help.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I may not always be the right person to lead these sorts of discussions. To take some of the pressure off, my youth advisor said that sometimes “a big black man with a bald head” might connect with the youth better.

3. Find ways of connecting with the quiet ones.

This is just solid classroom management: Try to engage the ones who aren’t as active in discussions by asking them to pass out handouts or write on the board. In my youth advisor’s words, “keep letting them know you see them, even if they don’t speak.”

4. Build in incentives to attend group discussions/workshops.

This is common practice in the child welfare space: Offer MetroCards, gift cards, or food to draw youth to events. Although we would all like young people to show up to our workshops because they’re informational, educational, engaging, and generally “good for them,” the reality is that often the first obstacle is getting them through the door before you can make that case to them convincingly.

Thank you, Nahjee, for your wonderful insights and advice!

How race/ethnicity impacts children in foster care

I’m still making my way through the e-training portion of the Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum, which is devoted to training social workers and other adults and professionals in the child welfare system in how to nurture the healthy racial/ethnic identities of children in foster care. The section on institutional racism identifies key points in the child welfare process where the cases of children of color seem to be handled differently than those of their white peers. These include investigation, child placement, service provision, and permanency planning. Continue reading

Coming to terms with race

I recently wrote about the need to engage youth more deeply in matters of race/ethnicity and gender identity. The importance of these sorts of conversations—especially in the context of youth in foster care—is treated with a lot of thought and wisdom in Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum. In an educational video, foster youth and foster youth alumni, along with birth parents, foster parents, and child welfare professionals, discuss the challenge of developing a strong racial or ethnic identity within the foster care system. When young people are separated from their families of origin and might get shuffled from home to home, they don’t always get the chance to connect in a deep and meaningful way to their heritage. It was very interesting to hear adults and young people alike recount how they came to realize that they had to deal with the uncomfortable topic of race/ethnicity/cultural background. Well meaning adults might want to gloss over any talk of otherness,  and youth in foster care often struggle to “fit in” and be accepted for who they are “on the inside,” but  ignoring the issue does not help young people build a solid and positive sense of self. As one social worker puts it, dealing with racial identity is not an ancillary activity: “This is the work.”

What was especially fascinating about the video was how it put on display all the highly individual struggles of each young person to get in touch with his or her racial or ethnic identity. A couple people of color said they’d been called “white” for the company they kept or the music they listened to. One young person lamented the fact that he felt entirely disconnected from his heritage because whenever he lived with a new foster family—black, white, Hispanic, or Asian—no one tried to get to know his background, and he found themselves adapting to their ways. There was also a mother who so shielded her kids from any negative stereotypes about Native Americans that she was at a loss when her son asked her why someone called him a “lazy Indian.” Everyone in the room agreed that in order to help youth connect more deeply with their racial/ethnic identities, the adults themselves had to wrestle mightily with their own identity issues.

What emerges from the conversation is not an essentialist definition of What It Means to Be Black/Hispanic/Indian, etc., but rather a recognition of race/ethnicity as a potential source of pride, strength, and self-knowledge. The social worker I quote above said that in her work with one of her clients, her goal was to help build a sense of community around her client’s identity as a young black woman.

This video resonated with an enterprise that was brought to my attention by one of this blog’s readers (Hi, Steph!): The Black Girl Project. The BGP is the brain child of Aiesha Turman, who provokes and facilitates discussions around the intersection of race and gender through history, and in the context of individual lives, in order to empower young black women. This is great work! Do click on the links to the Knowing Who You Are video and the trailer to the Black Girl Project.

Tightening up the self-portrait activity

I’ve been thinking of ways of making my identity self-portrait activity a bit more rigorous. The results from the pilot were useful because it revealed what young people tended to leave out of their portraits when representing their identities. In an earlier post I mentioned how I really had to push the youth to think about elements in their identity that linked them to a larger community, and in relation to that, another one of the most glaring omissions was a lack of engagement with race and gender. Even if those aspects of the self aren’t necessarily at the forefront of one’s self-concept, I think it’s valuable for young people to wrestle with them a little. Personally speaking, I don’t move through this world primarily as “Asian woman,” but I’ve had that label foisted on me often enough to know that my appearance affects how strangers perceive me. And it’s worth some thought to tease out the implications of that.

I think the defining the role of the mentors in this activity will be key to executing it properly. Before the session I had emailed the mentors a list of sample questions they could use in conversation with their youth during partner work.

  • Are there competing identities that they have to manage or decide between? 
  • Are there identities that they are trying to outgrow or resist? 
  • Do they feel locked into certain identities? 
  • Are there ones they would like to “try on”? What seems to fit? What doesn’t feel authentic? 
  • Do they feel pressure to conform to certain group identities (with family or peers)?

Since I tend to want to give people a certain level of freedom in my classroom, I presented these questions merely as suggestions. Now I see that I need to be a bit more forceful about structuring their discussions, and include a few more questions about race and gender in there. It might even be worth dedicating an entire session to the question of what it means to be a man/woman (in a specific community). One of the comics that I use as a warm-up for this activity deals specifically with different models of masculinity, and I think it can be a good springboard to a full session on gender identity.