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Being there is a term that came up a lot in our conversations in the YMEJ graduate seminar this year. In discussing ways to re-imagine experiences for court involved youth, our conversations often circled back to the support networks people require in order to live. Michel Bérubé (1996) makes a similar point in his book, Life as we Know It about his family and his son Jamie who has down syndrome. In his discussion of Jamie’s growth and development Bérubé notes that people with labeled disabilities are not the only ones who require a strong support network in order to survive and thrive. In fact, everyone benefits from such a network.
Our conversations in YMEJ centered on how to “be there” for a court involved young person, and for each other. We discussed the importance for all people (and especially young people) of having at least one person in your life who is going to stand by you no matter what. Beam (2013) has a similar theme when she quotes a participant’s phrase: “You gotta rock with a kid all the way”.
For me, the phrase “Being there” brings up memories of a movie with the same title starring Peter Sellars (the last movie released while he was alive). The film is a comedy, but also poignant in conceptualizing the phrase being there. The main arch of the film is that Chance (Sellar’s character), a gardener for a large estate has always been there. For all intents he is a non-entity, yet when people meet him, they mistake him for the owner of the estate and begin projecting their own thoughts and ideas about him. My point in bringing up the film (beyond the fact that it is fantastic and I highly recommend watching it) is that being there is itself a passive sentiment. I do not mean this as a critique, but to point out the multitude of ways to support another person without infusing your own thoughts, ideas, actions etc. As the movie highlights, being there is a passive, yet powerful act.
It is especially powerful when you consider the complications that inundate the various systems for court-involved youth. Being there for someone, rocking with them all the way, sounds somewhat simplistic. Of course, people engaging in this work will tell you it is far from simple. In truth, sometimes being there is not enough. But it is a place to start and something I believe, all people can decide to do. I think it helps when you collaborate, if you are going to be there for a young person, you need to have someone who is there for you.
In the YMEJ seminar we created a community that is by no means perfect, but I do think it is comprised of people who are willing to be there for each other. Being there for each other and by extension the people in our lives, we begin to weave a powerful network. It helps me sustain through the difficulties of this work. It helps me imagine the possibilities for making small shifts in the larger systems. This work cannot be done alone. Being there for each other is an integral first step.
The YMEJ graduate year-long seminar ended this week with an exhibition in Russell Library. Each member of our course conducted a year-long inquiry through participation in the course and a mentoring experience. Lalitha, one of the members of the teaching team, wrote a note to us on the course blog entitled, Becoming… which focused on our continued growth and development during the course and beyond. In the text, Arts, Media and Justice co-edited by Lalitha Vasudevan and Tiffany DeJaynes, Vasudevan quotes Maxine Greene “I am what I am not yet”. Though I am at the end of my experience in the YMEJ course, I do not see the work as finished and I look forward to building upon my experience as I continue my doctoral career. Since I began my course work at TC I have begun to look more deeply and pay more attention, one area that YMEJ helped me hone was my attention to media and the different types of media that are produced, specifically around issues of court involved youth.
In my own work, I am sinking myself into disability studies in education and the possibilities this stance provides for thinking about teaching and learning for all young people. Therefore, when I saw the recent print advertisement for New Alternatives for Children (NAC), I felt it was a perfect connection between the YMEJ course and my own interest in disability studies. New Alternatives for Children is a “child welfare agency child welfare agency exclusively devoted to serving children with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses” (http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1854796).
The recent ad campaign (both print and televised) is produced by Grey New York and is titled, “Rethinking Foster Care” and geared at educating (or perhaps re-educating) New Yorkers about foster care in the city and especially for those young people with labeled disabilities. First, how do we as recent participants in YMEJ seminar ourselves involved (and for many committed to) in re-thinking or re-imagining space for court involved youth analyze a video spot, such as the one for NAC? Their campaign is called, “Rethinking Foster Care” but based on the video, I do not think they are rethinking the experience of foster care for young people with labeled disabilities. Instead, I would argue they are perpetuating deficit-based conceptualizations of the young people the organization aims to serve. This is a difficulty and beauty of interdisciplinary work. As terms or ideas stretch across different ideologies and philosophies, it is up to the people using them to make an attempt at conversation, collaboration and shared understanding. Difficult work and that is also messy.
My first viewing of the television spot brought me back to something Cris Beam (2013) writes about in To the End of June when she discusses the different reasons people adopt children. One reason Beam discusses is altruism. Mary, a participant in her book states, “People should do it because the kids need. Otherwise, they are going to be disappointed” (p. 94). I think advertisements like the one for NAC complicates this statement because of the way people with labeled disabilities are positioned throughout history. Often seen as the neediest of the needy, in fact, sometimes this is referred to as narcissism (Siebers, 2008) and becomes an albatross for a person with a labeled disability who requires help and support. But not due to vanity or self-love, as it is sometimes positioned in society. And it is true, kids do need and the NAC commercial makes this clear. It also has an underlying savior mission.
Since the disability rights movements in the 1960’s and 70’s and the development of the scholarly field of disability studies people have been analyzing and theorizing about the disability itself. Many disability studies scholars view disability as a socially constructed and note that the environment in which a person with a disability lives is disabling. This takes the concept of disability outside of the person, moving away from a medical model that maintains disability as a problem within a person that should/could be fixed. While the NAC commercial does not position youth in foster care with disabilities as needing to be fixed, they do use the term special several times. Making the claim that a special child needs a special parent. Furthermore, the article states that many young people with disabilities live in hospitals or other long term care facilities because their parents are unable to care for them http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1854796).
I wonder (as Beam discusses in her book) what types of supports and structures should be offered to birth families to support care for all children? Also, what do we learn from the distinction made between types of children and how they are positioned through foster care/adoption? How does this support thinking about our own definition of re-thinking or re-imagining? Finally, as we (the YMEJ graduate seminar students) are becoming how do we continue to use this class to inform our future teaching, research, and ways of being in the world?
Here is a link to the television spot: http://vimeo.com/92176294
More information of New Alternatives for Children: https://www.nackidscan.org/what_we_do/index.php
Information on the advertising agency: http://grey.com/us
NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently ran a feature story entitled “Strained Foster Care System: A ‘Meter of Our Social Programs.’” By interweaving the stories and commentaries of Claudia Felder, a 21-year-old young woman who spent over 10 years in the foster care system, Claudia’s adoptive parent and social worker Kim Felder, Chris Beam, author of The End of June, and Alex Morales, CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, Arun Rath creates a complex picture of a foster care system struggling to support the 400,000 kids in its care. That is equivalent, Beam reminds us, to the total number of students in all Chicago public schools—elementary, junior high, and high school combined.
While it is important to recognize that there are foster care stories with happy endings, as in the case of Claudia Felder who found a social worker who would listen and in her a mother to trust, Morales reminds us that others whose lives are mediated by the courts are not so lucky. In the LA foster care system, for example, there are only around 3,000 homes, a fifty percent decrease from five years ago. As Morales describes, “The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or courts,” so young people are shuttled to group homes, institutions often characterized by bleak conditions and overcrowding. Beam adds that for many older kids who don’t end up with families by the time that they are 12 or 13, adoption no longer seems like a viable or even appealing option. Instead, many decide to run out the clock and age-out of the system. But that, Beam argues and Claudia confirms, is a dangerous solution. Independence without family support is a challenging endeavor. “You need to have somebody in your life,” Claudia explains.
So what do we do? How do we repair a broken system representative of a broken society? While there is neither a silver bullet, nor single answer, Beam identifies the need for more outreach influenced by a redefinition of family.
“ …what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I’m going to stick by you. I’m going to care about you. I’m going to love you for a long time”
Beam’s definition of family may seem simple, yet its essence is complex and compelling. Family need not be traditional. Family need not be biological. Family is connection, care, and consistency. All youth need a family.
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