A few days ago, I walked into a room full of young adults who had spent time in our foster care system, including some who had emancipated after many years. Entering a room full of folks who have experienced our foster care system personally is a familiar situation for me, and it’s one of the greatest privileges and joys of my job. I meet and speak with as many young people and parents with lived experience as possible. In fact, this group was the second group of young people I had meet with that day.
In looking around the room, I realized that I knew nearly all of the young people in the room. I mean I really knew them - Kayla, Joshua, Diego, David, Leroy, Scout, Lupe, Eric-lee and so many others. I had met these people on multiple occasions. We had been in meetings together, attended the same events, and had lots of conversation. I had heard their stories, been in photos together, and befriended many on social media (the only reason I stay on social media). I even mentor one of these young people as best I can although, truth be told, he should be mentoring me.
I was struck by the reality that in two short years, these incredible young people have become an indispensable part of my world. Their experiences and wisdom are now integrated into my experience and wisdom - an unexpected gift.
As always, the staff of the organization or agency holding the meetings I attend thanked me profusely for making the time to attend, to listen to the young people, to make them a priority in my busy schedule, and so on.
When this happens I always smile politely and say what a pleasure it is, but the response swirling in my head is, really? You’re really thanking me for doing this?
If listening to and making an effort to understand the voices of those we purport to serve are not our priorities, what should our priorities be?
If we do not make time to meet with them and give them the respect of a system that has alternately aided and failed them, what should we make time for?
If we do not use the wisdom and words that people with lived experience share with us to guide our decisions and polices, then what should guide them?
In early August, the Children’s Bureau issued Information Memorandum 19-03 that calls on the field to solicit and use the voices of parents and youth who have experienced the child welfare system first-hand. We provided specific recommendations on how it can be done and why we believe it is foundational to our work.
It will not happen unless we consciously cede space for it to happen and commit every day to ensure their voices are sought out and heard.
It may not always be easy or comfortable to give up our thinking that we know best and to share decision-making with those whose lives are so deeply affected by our work.
It may not comport with our crisis-driven work days to step back and listen.
But the value that their voices bring to our programs and services and, ultimately on the outcomes they experience, outweighs the effort and discomfort.
A couple of days after that meeting, I walked into another room - this time in Nashville, Tennessee. I was there for another meeting to co-present with a parent with lived experience (who I also feel I know quite well) and a young woman with lived foster care experience (who I look forward to becoming better acquainted with). My colleague, David Kelly, moderated the panel. Midway through the session, he asked the three of us a very simple question - what gives you hope for the future of our child welfare system?
My response was simple.
The advocacy and strength of the young adults I met with a few days ago give me hope.
Shrounda and Christina, the two remarkable women seated to my left, give me hope.
Sharing the stage with them rather than other bureaucrats like myself gives me hope.
Knowing that their resilience and tenacity were stronger than the difficulties they faced gives me hope.
Knowing that they and others like them have answers to our hardest questions gives me hope.
Knowing that they are leaders in reshaping child welfare in our country gives me hope.
Hope is a powerful thing.