Addressing Trauma May Be the Key to Helping Foster Youth Succeed in the Workplace

Better Youth’s Real to Reel class goes over their pitches for television shows at Los Angeles-based Rightway Foundation. Photo: Heather Adams

Internships can often serve as an important leg up for young people trying to gain work experience and build relationships with employers.

But few foster youth participate in such opportunities.

A recent study of California foster youth at age 21 found that only 30 percent had completed an internship, apprenticeship or other on-the-job training in the past year.

One big issue for why many foster youth aren’t able to capitalize on the benefits of internships is trauma, according to the RightWay Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps coordinate an internship program for foster youth.

“People have an idea that trauma is something that only veterans experience,” said Andraya Slyter, director of programs at the RightWay Foundation. “But there are a lot of other people, foster youth in particular, that experience levels of trauma.”

That’s why the organization offers a special class for employers in its Creative Career Pathways Program (CCPP) and other providers who work with foster youth. The hope is that greater awareness of trauma and other challenges faced by foster youth will help with retention efforts.

Trauma or abuse “can lead to a person having negative perceptions or expectations about self or others,” Slyter said in an email. In the workplace, she said, an employer might give the youth feedback but the youth takes it as a supervisor not liking them, “which could negatively impact motivation or work performance.”

“This is why I advise employers to be intentional and constructive with their feedback,” Slyter said, “make sure to always point out a person’s strengths, and consistently offer support.”

The RightWay Foundation first started its trauma-informed training in 2016. Slyter said it has placed 50 transition-age foster youth in cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles over the past couple years, with their supervisors having gone through the three-hour training class on trauma.

Slyter said the training was important to create because the foundation functions as an employment center for foster youth, but once the youth got the job, that relationship was out of their hands. This training is about setting up both the youth and the employers for success.

“We’re trying to make our young people happy, productive, self-sufficient and satisfied,” Slyter said. “And we also want to provide that kind of support for our employers. It’s a team effort.”

First the training goes over the basics of how to be a supportive mentor to anyone. But instructors spend time explaining the trauma facing a “typical” foster youth and how an employer can best support the youth, Slyter said.

Slyter said the class is intentionally set up to be interactive.

Participants role-play certain situations they might get into with youth, such as being asked for money. They are also asked to take a quiz about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which is aimed at helping employers get a better understanding of how common traumatic events can be. Research on ACEs shows that higher scores on ACEs tests increases the likelihood of poor health outcomes later in life

Nurit Siegel Smith (formerly of Grand Performances and now with the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation) remembers being asked to draw a superhero with specific features showing how she could help foster youth: she drew big ears to reflect that taking the time to listen is a big part of the way she mentors.

“All of us thrive off of support,” Slyter said. “Transition-age foster youth aren’t any different.”

During Smith’s time at Grand Performances, a nonprofit that puts on a free outdoor summer concert series, there were two foster youth who had internships. She oversaw their clerical work at the office and also taught them how to write and communicate as part of the nonprofit’s marketing efforts. During the spring and summer internships, Smith learned they were dealing with things she has never had to, such as a dearth of affordable housing and lack of transportation options. That often made it difficult for them to come in or focus on their work.

It was taking the time to listen, Smith said, that helped her work with the foster youth, making scheduling changes when they could and being “sensitive to these incredible challenges in the foundation of her life,” she said.

Smith didn’t originally set out to work with foster youth. But when the opportunity came up to take the training, Smith knew she wanted to have another tool in her belt.

After starting at the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation, Smith decided to carry over trauma-informed mentoring to her new job. At her new job, Smith found that one staff member had experienced homelessness and grew up in foster care, and Smith started to see some of the same challenges she had been taught about at the training at the RightWay Foundation.

“I think mentoring is a critical, critical thing … to understand and support the whole person,” Smith said.

Syd Stewart, founder of Better Youth, Inc., had been working with at-risk youth, including foster youth, for years before taking the training. The organization offers youth in South L.A. opportunities to work on creative projects. But even she was surprised to learn employers can retraumatize youth.

Sunny Lovee writes out a pitch for a television show during Better Youth’s Real to Reel class on August 26, 2018. Photo: Heather Adams

“You can do this for years and years and you forget a lot of stuff you think you know,” Stewart said. “I think it’s always to your benefit and especially to the benefit of youth to constantly get refreshes on what you do, why you do it and what their [youth] needs are.”

At a recent Better Youth class, Stewart was able to put into practice some ideas from the training.

During a class on filmmaking, Jack Marder frustratedly looked down at a 24-page original script. He’s been asked to pick just three of the scenes to film for the class. Cutting down his work of art wasn’t going to be easy and he was running out of patience.

Stewart was able to see his frustration and kindly reminded him that it’s his artwork, and he has to do what he feels is best for it. She then offers to help him more one-on-one.

Her response — positive, supportive and understanding — was able to help Marder find the solution he needed, directing his focus to six pages of his script that he felt gave a glimpse into the story he wanted to tell.

The class is now working on a total of six unique films, ranging from documentaries to music videos to narrative storytelling.

“When a youth succeeds, it means we’ve done our jobs,” Steward said. “That we’ve invested well and the return is worth more than any stock on Wall Street. It’s a feeling like no other.”

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