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Clicking on the “Annie Casey Foundation” link from the first paragraph of the original newsletter, led me to a site where foster kids tell their stories. Reading about one young girl, Megan Hill’s, journey though a myriad of schools, Hill eventually, “went to the Community College of Philadelphia for a month but could not keep up with her classes while living on her own and working”. It’s a story that hits close to home, in my family of eight kids , only two of whom went to college. Though foster care kids are specifically mentioned in this article I think the underlying reality of an unstable and inconsistent household is certainly implied. With that said, opening the discussion to inquiring about about how an unstable living situation, with frequent moves and changes, can be so detrimental to education, I thought of the question – How can we, as an educated person or an educator, impart to our students , how vital an education is when attempting to navigate our journeys of life in this country?
When the reality of one’s life is such that each day may bring an immediate challenge, who could possibly focus on long term goals or plans? To me, the idea of being able to think ahead , past today, past tonight, or next year – is a luxury. It’s not a luxury I always had in my life, and because of this , and because of the freedom I found through education, I want so badly to motivate , mentor and push others towards education, yet I understand how quickly it can become an abstract or unpromising “solution” to how to fix the “right now” issues that in some way or another hold back, restrict, or stand in the way of continuing one’s education.
This concept and ones similar have often had a debilitating affect on me , because of the paramount size of the issues at hand. Today, I want to choose to believe in something Socrates said.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
“In attempts to improve the nation’s outlook, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act was signed into law by President Obama last January. The act lets foster care organizations look at educational records to better help support foster care youth and prevent educational turbulence.”
As I read the above article, I found myself thinking a lot about the role that the law plays in facilitating real, substantive change in people’s lives. Laws designed to protect are often paradoxical things. The construction of this article moves from Harold Sloke’s story of struggle, to the intervention of a change agent, a teacher who “saved him” from “prison” and helped him to graduate, to an ending statement about the law that President Obama signed in January that helps foster care agencies better work with students because they now have access to their educational records. While there is actually no formal link connecting the teacher’s advocacy and help of the student with this particular law, there is the assumption that knowledge of the student’s circumstances allowed the teacher to enact change in Harold’s life. For me, this creates a falsely singular narrative privileging the law as the tool used by the teacher to “save” the student. It often seems that human connection and empathy can never alone be honored as the agent of change in educational narratives, at least those popularized in media.
The idea that merely because something is enshrined in the law does not mean this equivocates to its enactment in practice, adoption in public consciousness, or reality in the classroom is not new. I think of the many parallels found in human rights laws that have ultimately, done little to meaningfully change the circumstances of the people for whom they were designed to protect. Until education about these laws exists, until consciousness is transformed, there is often very little real change in the everyday existence for marginalized populations. Laws without education are often rendered impotent. Laws without agents of change, such as the teacher who “saved” Harold Sloke, are often little more than words on paper. Essentially, while the law may be a starting point—and not one I want to disparage—there are many other pieces that will need to be acknowledged for real change to occur. As with many issues in education, it is never just one panacea that hinders or helps a student who is struggling. To paint it in this way, in broad strokes, I think simplifies a story that is far more nuanced.
In October of 2014, several classmates and I visited the New York Family Court to observe its Transition Planning Court (also known as Part 90). This is where foster care cases are first processed. During our visit, we observed voluntary cases in which parents were bringing their children (biological and fostered) back to the court due to a variety of circumstances.
This is an obviously emotional place, and I could write at length about any number of thoughts I had that day. By its nature, a courthouse can be an imposing thing, pinning those who walk within it under a powerful thumb of law and institutionalized order. Observing the strikingly disproportionate number of black and Latino folks arriving for their court hearings also heightened my melancholy and frustration with how deeply institutionalized the connection between race and court involvement is.
In the spirit of inquiry though, I want to share just a few questions that I ended up asking myself as I observed the intake cases that day. I listened to a variety of stakeholders describe the circumstances that led them to return to the Family Court, from case workers and parents to the children themselves. While listening, I realized that I had what we’ve called in our seminar a type of “blind spot” – I was heavily favoring what the children themselves said about their situations. It made me reflect on the blind spots that I may have when working with students and parents in a school setting. So, I leave these questions here for you and I to each ponder:
Through what lenses am I viewing my students and their parents/caretakers? Do those lenses change when I am in a classroom? When I am in a courtroom?
How am I valuing my students’ narratives and their parents’/caretakers’ narratives, both in and outside of the classroom? How am I transferring or referring to those narratives to the classroom?
Early in the fall term, our YMEJ seminar read a brief article by NPR’s Melissa Prax called “The Impact of Foster Care on Students’ Education.” In the article, Prax mentioned the story of Harold Sloke, a teenager who entered South Carolina’s foster care system at the age of 12 and ended up attending a dozen high schools before graduating. The sheer number of schools that Sloke attended is shocking. Moving (even once!) can have a major impact on a student’s ability to feel supported and to believe in his or her ability to progress academically, socially, and emotionally. That said, what sticks out to me even more is how much that progress can be hindered or supported by the educators, caseworkers, and other adults in the student’s life.
Sloke’s explanation that a lot his caseworkers believed he “would never graduate, so they kept passing (him) along, and (he) kept getting into trouble” reminded me of another article I’ve read recently, written by a student and his teacher. The student, Jamie Burke, is in high school and has an autism diagnosis. As his verbal speech is very limited, he communicates with technology known as facilitated communication. He and his teacher, Biklen, relate the concept of presuming competence in students with diagnosed or perceived disabilities, which is as it sounds – the practice of presuming a student’s capabilities, rather than presuming deficits associated with diagnoses or perceived differences. They are careful to note that this does not “require the teacher’s ability to prove the existence or validity (of that competence) in advance; rather it is a stance, an outlook, a framework for educational engagement” (Biklen & Burke, 2006, p. 168).
My personal background and interest in Critical Disability Studies and inclusive education has led me to consider how that stance may be taken up when working with court-involved youth. The notion of presuming competence seems to fit well into the discussion of how educators, caseworkers, caregivers, and other stakeholders may work with students in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. As Sloke’s explanation suggests, the adults around him perhaps presumed failure rather than success. That presumption likely makes it easier to see certain behaviors (whether physical, emotional, or related to school work) for their surface value, rather than probing into the deeper reasons behind those behaviors to work with the student in making a plan to change them.
I’m left considering how a broader educational framework of presuming competence could support students who experience frequent moves, rough transitions, abuse, and neglect. While counselors and advocates are critical to supporting these students and presuming their success and capabilities, how can we move toward an inclusive framework that emboldens all people involved in these students’ lives to contextualize their challenges and presume their progress? What does inclusion look like, and how is it even understood, in the juvenile justice and foster care systems?
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
According to San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, there are 65,000 children and youth in foster care in California—by far the highest population of any state. Each year over 4,000 foster youth “age out” of this system. Within the first 2 to 4 years after emancipation, 51% of these young adults are unemployed, 40% are on public assistance, 25% become homeless, and 20% will be incarcerated.
Importantly, attention is being turned to this crisis and individuals and communities are mobilizing. In a recent report on KALW Local Public Radio in San Francisco entitled “A Starting Place for Former Foster Youth,” journalist Rachel Wong highlights individuals in the San Francisco community who are experimenting with new ways to support these young people educationally, professionally, and personally. Wareene Loften, age 73, is featured in the story as a striking example of the power of leverging individual talents to make change in the lives of others.
After one year volunteering as a mentor at Guardian Scholars, a program at the City College of San Francisco that provides support for foster youth, Wareene Loften “recognized pretty quickly how much the students struggled with housing.” As a real estate agent, Loften felt that her skills and services could be put to good use. At first, Loften helped by locating open sublets for individual students in local residences. Then, in December 2012, she convinced an owner of a home near City College to let her rent the house and then sublet it to four Guardian Scholar students. In doing so, Loften was able to do what she thought was best for her students— to provide opportunities for independent living and a flexible payment schedule. “I pay the rent upfront, and they reimburse me, so I’m giving them that leisure time to get their money together,” she says.
The project has been a success with Loften’s ingenuity and outlook on foster youth being praised by tenants like Darrel Molett:
Not a lot of people believe in foster youth. They believe we mess things up more than fix things. And she took it the other way around. She said we fix things more than mess things up.
Looking forward, Loften is looking to expand her model and hopes to recruit more likeminded people to join the cause. The fate of too many young people in California and across the country is at stake. As she explains,
Somebody needs to do it. It just has to be done.
Because the Youth, Media & Educational Justice course is a year long, as opposed to a final paper, we were asked to bring an ‘artifact’ to the last class–something that represented where we were in our thinking about the course, the topics, the experiences, as we left for winter break. Below is my artifact: a “love letter” that I wrote for myself and to my classmates, reflecting on becoming a mentor for a court-involved young person.
* * *
Dear Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Fam,
It’s been nearly two months since my last love letter. To you. To us.
Like last time, it’s challenging to know exactly where to begin.
To reflect on and dissect and pinpoint and pull apart where we have been.
What we have done.
Who we continue to become as a collective. An entity. A family.
Since my last love letter, we have continued to work tirelessly and creatively to locate where exactly youth, media, and justice intersect and overlap; we’ve jumped head first into conversations about and experiences of realness, and messiness, and about possibilities.
…But since my last love letter, I’ve also seen the bruises on the pale, thin wrists of the young woman I mentor–painted on her by the handcuffs of a police officer who arrested her in her living room, in front of her 9-year-old brother and 10-month-old sister;
…bruises from handcuffs of police officers who were responding to a 911 call from her own mother who didn’t want her in the house.
What do I say to this 15-year-old girl as she shows me her bruises and shares her side of the story?
She speaks to me, a weak staccato quiver in her voice, and tells me about an altercation she had with a girl in the group home last night; about how she doesn’t feel safe here in the group home anymore.
What the hell do I say to her—as the scent of my perfume wafts up from the folds of my warm, knit sweater, and reminds me of my family, of summertime, of feeling free and warm and safe—as my mind darts from one image to another, trying to picture her living room, her mother, the journey from Brooklyn back to the group home in lower Manhattan, (in the back of a police car?)—as I unconsciously glance down at my watch: 7:00pm. We have another 30 minutes here. I’ll be home in time to walk the dog and stir the pulled pork brewing in the slow cooker before my sister gets home. Before I lock my door, turn off the lights, and curl up in my warm bed and drift into sleep stressed out about the readings I didn’t yet do for class tomorrow…
How do I listen to her and react to her when according to the “rules” for mentors I can only give this girl a “side-hug” for safety reasons?
What the hell do I say to her when with every passing moment I’m increasingly blinded by my own privilege? By the inarguable fact that I will never know what any of this actually feels like.
Cause like, all I wanna do right now is hug this girl and tell her it’s going to be alright. And tell her that she’s safe here. And ask her a million more questions about what this feels like and what the deal is with her father? And why it is that she is the only one out of the four children in her family who lives in a group home?
I rub her back quickly, a give her a side-hug, and all that comes out of my mouth is, “I’m sorry.”
And she looks at me, with glassy eyes, and the corners of her mouth pull down like she’s holding the other side of a magnet below in her hands, and she nods.
And my mouth takes a similar shape, and my heart gets heavy, and there’s a sharp zing that pierces my core as I take a deep breath in an effort to push the tears that are threatening to emerge back into my eyes.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The following Tuesday, I’m told she is AWOL.
And I wonder if I’ll get paired up with someone else.
I’m still there every Tuesday, collaging and laughing and spending time with the other young women. But the mentoring sessions at the group home feel different, they’ve lost a bit of meaning. They’ve started to feel like a Tuesday night chore, and I feel like an asshole for thinking that.
I don’t see my mentee for three weeks.
And then last week the mentoring supervisor tells me she’s back. That she doesn’t know where she’s been, but that it may not have been the safest situation, and there may be some trauma involved in the situation.
My stomach lurches at the news—I’m relieved that she’s safe, I’m excited to see her, but I’m also absolutely terrified to know where she was, what’s happened, and what the hell I’m going to say to her.
I am not qualified for this shit.
The supervisor tells me that she almost cried when they told her that I’d been coming even while she was away. She couldn’t believe I’d still been there even when she was not. The weight of her decision to go AWOL took on a new meaning when she realized that there were other people involved and affected by her actions. They had her sign a commitment contract, binding her participation in the mentoring program. I don’t know what that means. I don’t necessarily understand the “procedural rationale”. But okay.
I see her from across the room. Her hair is straight, not braided in cornrows or tucked under a fitted as usual. She looks smaller than I remember.
We make eye contact and a big smile spreads across her face.
I stand up.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, with a familiar staccato quiver in her voice, “I missed you,” as she hands me a folded up piece of loose leaf paper, “I wrote you a letter…I’m sorry.”
She gives me a full-on hug. And I full-on hug her back. Screw it.
That night we play bingo. As we prepare our cards, she tells me bits and pieces about what happened at the group home that made her leave, and where she’s been since. We eat pizza, and laugh as B5 and G32 are called…I’m happy she’s back.
…This is not a success story. It’s not meant to depict an event in which all loose ends are gathered and re-tied tightly. There is still a lot of shit going on. She has had 3 altercations in the few days since her return. I still do not know what to say…
But that moment of reunion was one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced. This is the work. This is why a course like “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” exists. This moment solidified for me why taking on a mentor role in the life of a court-involved young person could fundamentally change the game. How do we work to make invisible children—whose lives are silenced, disrupted, misunderstood—more visible?
I may not be qualified for this shit, but I’m learning and growing and humbled and terrified. And it is now more than ever clear that it’s worth it.
In love and gratitude,