For this post, I’d like to talk about something very dear to my heart, and important for all foster youth and allies — advocacy.
As a child growing up in the foster care system, I felt alienated and misunderstood.
Alienated because there is very little known about foster care outside of foster care. There were so many times growing up where I felt humiliated and ashamed of my fate. From being surrounded by group home staff at the movie theater to trying to come up with an excuse as to why I couldn’t hang out with a friend from my public school, being in county care is like being a perpetual outsider.
I felt misunderstood because every time I tried to speak up for myself, I was labeled as “uncooperative” or even “manipulative“. These labels, of course, followed me through my teenage years, from placement to placement, and made self-advocacy more difficult.
I first came into contact with California Youth Connection when I was 17. I attended an Independent Living Skills class occasionally – when my homes allowed me that “privilege” – and directly after the class, was the chapter meeting for my county. I didn’t pay too close attention in those days, it was just an excuse to stay away from the shelter for longer. But the name always stuck out in my head, and for the years following my emancipation I did a dance with my local chapter, dropping in and out of membership.
California Youth Connection is a movement. Officially, we are “dedicated to youth empowerment, youth development, and policy advocacy”. My crude description is, we are a group of current and former foster youth who have open hearts, sharp minds, and loud mouths. Basically, we’re fighting for our rights, fighting for the rights of future generations.
CYC began in 1988 and in that time, has influenced major change in the state of California. Some of these accomplishments came into my life, even though I wasn’t aware CYC was behind them — institutions like the Foster Care Ombudsman and the Foster Youth Bill of Rights. Others greatly increased my chance of survival outside of the system, such as the Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) extension. Our most recent success was the passing of AB 12, which allows youth in care the option to stay until 21.
I dropped in and out of CYC because getting my life on track after care was a full-time job. I was all but stripped of my sense of self – or never allowed to discover it – and I needed a few years to mess up, to explore, to cry and flail. I was still very angry. I tried to get as far as humanly possible from the system. But, as with any parent, you can’t get too far because they created you. For better or for worse, we are a product of our upbringing, at least until we consciously decide to change that. While in therapy, I learned that a lot of my grief comes from being in the system.
This felt like revelations at first – “You mean I’m not crazy? Just hurt?” – then it became a sort of quiet, dry rage. My anger at the system had always been confused and repressed. I’m not sure where I would have been without the system, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been pretty. Foster care made me who I am today. It might have, in all honestly, saved my life. On the other hand, I was marginalized and deprived of the opportunities I needed to grow into a healthy adult. Eventually I became an advocate for my local youth in an aftercare program, but I constantly craved a more substantial outlet for my rage and love.. so I remembered CYC.
My local CYC chapter is small, but growing. Small, but passionate. For the first time in my life, I felt that my voice was heard and respected. I was surrounded by people – strong, empowered people – who had felt that pain, been through what I’ve been through – and lived to fight back.
I’m so glad that California has CYC. I wish every state had a version of it. It’s amazing to know that we have certain rights as foster youth in California because YOUTH DEMANDED IT.
We can’t take back our childhoods and we can’t go back in time to make the system perfect for us. But, we can leave a lasting legacy for the next generation of foster youth.. and, as long as these organizations continue running, that generation can affect change for the next.. and so forth..
To the foster kids before me who paved the way for a brighter future: Thank you, thank you, thank you for fighting for us.
To the future leaders of CYC: remember, no fight is too hard for us to win. We’ve been through immense battles in our young years. The future kids in care depend on us – on you – to own your experiences, good and bad, and use them as fuel to change the system.