My recent posts here on The Chronicle of Social Change have focused on Alameda County’s AB12 Homeless Youth Demonstration Project. I’ll have more on that effort in the coming months, but I’d also like to introduce you to some of the inspiring young advocates that we at the Foster Youth Alliance (FYA) have been privileged to work alongside over many years.
Melinda Clemmons, FYA communications manager, has interviewed former foster youth who have chosen to work as advocates in the field of child welfare. First up, Ashley McCullough…
We’ve been wanting to catch up with rock star Ashley McCullough for a while now. A recipient of a Community Hero Award from the Foster Youth Alliance and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 2011, Ashley moved to Baltimore last spring to start an exciting new job with a national foundation.
Building upon her excellent work as a Youth Advocate Fellow with FYA member WestCoast Children’s Clinic and Alameda County Social Services Agency, Ashley now works with state and county administered foster care systems around the country. In one of her recent projects, she’s helping launch a youth advocate program in Virginia modeled in part on Alameda County’s own pioneering program.
“Systems are seeing the positive effects of having paid consumer voice in house,” Ashley says. Yet while Ashley is the first to tell you that youth voice is crucial to effective policy, she points out that “it’s not enough to have a compelling story…you have to touch all the levers to create real change: policy, consumers, fiscal responsibility and reinvestment, work plans, and champions, those who will actually do the work.”
“I’m proud to have been a part of our AB12 work in Alameda County, where former foster youth were brought in early on to provide foster youth perspective on how the law should be implemented.” As a Youth Advocate Fellow, Ashley offered her laser sharp insights during focus groups on how best to honor the law’s call to make “youth voice, choice, and preference” central to the AB12 experience.
As a program for ‘non-minor dependents,’ AB 12 had to shift the practice of child welfare to embrace the fact that young people in the program are adults – equal partners in pursuing their goals and developing both independence and responsibility. Ashley and the other Youth Advocate fellows knew exactly how best to provide that, and many of their suggestions are embedded in Alameda County policy and practice.
“When you’re trying to change lives, it’s about relationships,” she says. “I’ve thought a lot about permanency. The whole point is to have a permanent connection to someone who is crazy about you, and is home for you.” As a former foster youth who is currently in the process of being adopted as an adult, Ashley knows first hand “what’s missing in a lot of the efforts toward permanency.”
“We need to talk with young people about grief and loss. It’s not enough to tell them how much you love them, to give them placement stability. Someone needs to tell them they are worthy of love, and help them make meaning of their own grief and loss so they can self- regulate and avoid the behavior that only exacerbates their problems, and which is almost always a symptom of grief and loss. I call it ‘self-actualization.’”
After graduating from Stanford without having addressed her own grief and loss, Ashley says, she felt she was “always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was so used to the chaos, I didn’t have a feeling for calm so I constantly created my own chaos, and pushed people away if they got too close.”
This passionate advocate believes “anyone can help a young person make meaning and learn how to stop the narrative in their brain that keeps them in chaos. It took me a long time to figure this out. That’s why I feel it’s what we should be focusing on now, the qualities of healthy relationships: love and worthiness and forgiveness.”
“In addition to therapy, in addition to permanency, in addition to placement stability– knowing that you are loved because you exist. That’s what young people need.”
Profile by Melinda Clemmons, Communications Manager of the Foster Youth Alliance