Youth Serving Programs Must Be Informed by Youth Voice
In our recent report Cultivating Opportunities for All Youth to Flourish in Franklin County, CDF-Ohio delved into the importance of human-centered design towards creating programs and policies that serve youth transitioning to adulthood.
In last week’s webinar, we invited the following five young advocates living in central Ohio to join us on a panel addressing the importance of elevating youth voices in policy and decision-making:
Cloé Cooper is the Director of Outreach for the non-profit organization, AgedOutt, which helps to support youth following emancipation from foster care and provides them with professional attire when entering the workforce through a program called Suits 4 Success She is a recent graduate of Columbus State Community College and works as a Scholar Network Coordinator, a program that offers wrap-around support to students who have been in the foster care system. She is an active member of Alumni of Care Together Improving Outcomes Now Ohio (ACTION Ohio) which brings together the voices of youth, alumni and allies to improve outcomes for current and former foster care youth.
Joshua Hatch is a graduate of Wright State University where he was active in the Independent Scholar Network, which provides wrap-around support to students who have been in foster care. He currently works as a Social Program Specialist with Franklin County Children Services (FCCS) and the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Adoption Recruiter program. He has also been active with the Ohio Youth Advisory Board (YAB) and Action Ohio.
Destiny Higgins has been active as an advocate through the Youth Advisory Board with Star House, which provides youth experiencing homelessness with a safe respite from the streets and connects them with a chance to thrive. She has spoken at the Columbus Metropolitan Club and been an active voice for change through the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Youth Action group. Destiny is always open to more opportunities to lend her voice for her community.
Talia Holmes is a junior at The Ohio State University studying social work. She has been involved with both the Franklin County YAB as well as the Ohio YAB. She holds a position as a Management Analyst with the Office of Families and Children (OFC), a division of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Michael Outrich earned a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from The Ohio State University and has been an active member of Action Ohio and a member of the National Youth Forum on Homelessness.
We were honored to be joined by this panel who carried an insightful and substantive dialogue on foster care, housing and homelessness, and other issues they care about and champion in their own communities as young advocates. Here are some highlights from this conversation:
How do you envision your life as a happy, healthy adult 10 years from now, and what key strengths do you possess that you believe will help you achieve this future you imagine?
Joshua described educational attainment as a key component to his success, and he stated that his ultimate aim is to continue to use his hard work in academics and his powerful voice as a conduit for positive change in Franklin County. “My past is certainly one of my biggest strengths,” he highlighted, describing how the memories and experiences that have made him the person he is today continue to contribute to his success now and into the future.
During the panel, Talia described the value she places on home ownership and personal wealth that translates into family wealth. “I’ve experienced homelessness multiple times, so a home for me is a really important thing,” she said, emphasizing how it is important for her that she is able to pass on these assets to her son. “That way he doesn’t have to go through the same things that I went through as a child.”
What do you wish caring adults and community leaders here in central Ohio knew about your everyday life that could help them better support you and other youth in the decisions they make?
Talia emphasized the critical importance of caseworkers in a child’s life. “They are the first people to whom we have to advocate for ourselves. That is the person we need to have on our side,” she said, speaking from personal experience that empathy should be used rather than placing blame on the child for their problems.
Michael said that caring adults also need to learn how to recognize when even the most high-functioning young person – one who is on top of school work, going to classes, and so on – may still be struggling beyond the surface and in need of supportive adults who look deeper.
Michael made another call for empathy and understanding for youth and young adults who may be struggling to engage in community programs and services. “Just because of being burnt so many times by some providers and other folks and other systems,” he articulated, “there are folks out there who are really systems averse and don’t want to reach out for help and they may be struggling kind of in silence and behind the scenes.”
“If you’re a leader you should know about these issues and take the time to make sure that you’re aware of the issues that are going on within the community that you’re serving,” Joshua said, putting part of the onus on community leaders. He also described the need for larger platforms that youth can use to share their lived experiences and community knowledge with leadership.
“I wish that people would just open their minds and their ears to truly hear and understand the voices of those who are being affected by the choices they make,” Cloé added. “It is imperative to the integrity of any system that those who are affected by it have a seat at the table when making decisions.”
What experiences have you had sharing your voice and perspective with others advocating for issues you care about?
“I love being able to answer people’s questions and just speak up,” answered Destiny, “because for me, there is nothing worse than to know about an issue or a topic and know there’s problems and know your friends or your daughter or your son might go through the same exact thing and just turn the other cheek.”
Panelists shared many experiences in advocacy, ranging from the national level to their local communities.
Joshua highlighted an internship experience through Foster Club All-Stars that allowed him to interact with other youth and leaders from across the country. “We all kind of came together and shared our perspectives about what our own state and counties were going through,” he said, “and it was all kind of the same things that were going on in our lives but our states and cities were doing different things.” He shared that he hopes we can address common social issues with greater uniformity in the future so that all youth have an opportunity to thrive nationwide.
The young adults on the panel spoke at length about the gratitude they feel having opportunities to use their voices to help improve the systems around them.
Talia expressed her appreciation in this regard for her job at OFC. “They regard our input as valuable. Everyone is able to have a seat at the table, even though I don’t have the degree quite yet,” she said.
“While we are young,” Destiny stated, “we are still huge, huge assets.” Destiny went on to say that there were times she felt she was only being invited to the table as a token, but she expressed deep gratitude for the many organizations serving youth that did make her feel that her contributions were valued and acted on, like Star House, CMHA, and the Columbus Foundation.
What do you think some best practices are for making sure that youth who take the time to share their perspectives feel empowered by the experience and also valued for their time, energy, and insights?
“Not only do we come with a list of complaints, we come with a list of solutions,” Cloé said, as she and other panelists called for their leaders to do more than just pay lip service to their ideas.
“I think that Secretary Ben Carson and his staff have made a huge impact on so many young people with the Fostering Youth Independence (FYI) program,” continued Cloé. “Unfortunately, I think that while there is recent improvement about allowing youth to be involved in the conversations that matter, the people in charge are not taking the advice that has been presented to them. In some cases, I feel like it’s more that youth are invited to the table for organizations or policymakers to say they did it, when they really don’t take our advice at all.”
Further, on this topic, Michael stated, “Pizza isn’t payment”, and he went on to outline concrete ways that community organizations and leaders can ensure youth and young adults are valued for their time, efforts, and insights. He suggested offering financial compensation*, allowing youth to hold the same decision-making weight as adults on advisory boards, and valuing lived experience as much as an advanced degree.
“You can’t put a price on lived experience,” Michael continued. “There’s definitely value there in lived experience that goes unrecognized oftentimes, and you can ameliorate that by providing positions within your organization to employ youth and young adults and address their needs and efforts and time so that they feel supported, too. If they need housing, and you’re a person that’s trying to redesign a housing system – provide them with housing. Provide them with transportation. Fix the barriers so that they can grow then and grow in time and be valuable to you and stay stable, reach a point of stability so that they can give back.”
What are some actions you can think of that our city, state, or nation should be doing to better support youth in the areas of housing, education, workforce, health, or support systems?
“Are all of the leading organizations that are experts in each of those domains,” Michael posed in response, “are they all in the same room working together to realize that youth are a population that need to be supported?”
Destiny seconded this question, adding that as separate arms they are all doing good things, but that, “It would be really useful for them to all collectively come together as one, bring some youth in, and then talk.”
Destiny also put forward that we must address public education around reproductive and sexual health as critically important ground to cover in order to help youth thrive.
Some panelists specifically touched on how COVID-19 creates further difficulties for youth in these areas of wellbeing and stability.
Joshua mentioned healthcare as a challenge, in particular during this pandemic, and that although it has been extended until a certain age in Ohio, this still might not be enough for some young adults to be and stay healthy at this time.
Cloé wants there to be more attention on young adult employment, particularly for those without support systems. “We lost our jobs, can’t get unemployment due to severe delays or to pay us at all, because we can’t file for unemployment due to the nature of our work, and are really just sitting ducks,” she said. “Other than the risk of putting ourselves on the frontline in harm’s way of COVID-19 to work in grocery or factories, we really do not have a lot of options for employment, and without family to turn to things can get really tough.”
In particular, during this time of social distancing and isolation, youth are at risk of not being able to access the support systems that they need.
“There are an abundance of programs and resources in the community that can help assist those who are in care and who have transitioned out of care,” Cloé said, touching on another issue that needs tackled, “but the majority of the time the problem lies with unawareness of the programs or an unwillingness to participate in them by those who have the power.”
She offered an example of efforts of the YAB and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, to support youth with additional housing resources through the federal Fostering Youth Independence (FYI) legislation. That support isn’t reaching the youth in need because local authorities have discretion in how it is implemented. Another example she gave is the ability for youth who have aged out of foster care to receive Medicaid services through age 26. In practice, relatively few young people take advantage of this resource.
Talia agreed that this was an excellent resource for youth, but that she had only been made aware it was an option after she started working in her position at the OFC. She also noted the importance of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which allows foster youth to remain at their home school if they have a new placement in a different area, but may be relatively unknown to those who could benefit from it.
What question(s) did we not ask you that you wish we would have?
Offering a glass half-full perspective to our previous question, Destiny shared: “It would have been nice for you to ask the opposite question, what are the things that the community or workers are already doing to help, to shine some light on the good, not what needs worked on?”
As advocates and community leaders, we must take seriously our responsibility to include and amplify the voices of those with lived experiences. We must learn from other practitioners and do our best to implement best practices that have been informed by youth and those with lived experience. We must do all we can to ensure that resources are widely advertised, that we remove barriers to accessing them, and most importantly, that we listen well.
After all, there could not be a better time to see the glass half-full.
*Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio offered financial compensation to the each of participants in the webinar