It was just an ordinary day at the office until Sokhom Mao noticed an email in his inbox from the White House.
Three weeks later, he was on a plane traveling from his home in Oakland, Calif., to Washington, D.C., to be honored as a 2015 White House Champion of Change. On May 19, Mao received the award, along with eleven other former foster youth, for his work to improve the lives of current and former foster youth.
Oakland hometown hero Mao, just 28, has more than a decade of advocacy work on his resume, having logged countless miles to Sacramento to speak with legislators about the needs of youth in foster care. Two of the causes Mao has long championed and which he carried to the White House are housing stability and higher education.
“No foster youth should be homeless,” said Mao in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “In order for foster youth to succeed and make it out of this really challenging situation of the foster care system in America, foster youth need to have a place to call home.”
While in D.C., Mao participated in a White House panel discussion about improving educational outcomes for foster youth, moderated by Roy Austin, deputy assistant to the President for urban affairs, justice, and opportunity.
He took that opportunity to share with the administration the need for housing stability in order for foster youth to go to college and get a job. “A place where they can be self-supporting while going to college, providing for their family, and finding a job: Those are essential life needs.”
Two years after entering foster care, Mao, then 14, entered the transitional housing program at Sunny Hills Services’ Bay Area Youth Center (BAYC,) in Hayward, Calif.
“BAYC really provided all-around support in terms of what I needed to learn to live on my own,” said Mao.
He went on to San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in criminal justice, as a member of the first cohort of Guardian Scholars, a program that provides support to foster youth as they complete their college degrees.
During Mao’s junior year, he took in his 11-year-old brother, moving him into his apartment in Oakland to keep him from going into foster care, at a time when relative caregivers received little to no support. Last year, California passed legislation to remedy this problem, and Mao talked with the administration about the need to expand support so that more foster youth can be cared for by relatives.
After aging out of foster care, Mao was a leader in the advocacy effort to provide additional years of housing, education and employment support to foster youth by extending foster care up to age 21 through the passage of California’s Assembly Bill 12 (AB12,) which became law in 2012.
BAYC, the program Mao credits with giving him the support he needed as a teen in foster care, was the first licensed provider of Transitional Housing Placement Plus Foster Care, one of the new placement options created by AB12.
Through the California College Pathways Program, managed by the John Burton Foundation, Mao has also been active in the effort to bring educational support programs like Guardian Scholars to colleges around the state.
Matt Rosen, Executive Director of Foster Youth in Action, who nominated Mao for the Champion of Change award, noted that his advocacy work has many facets.
“At such a young age,” said Rosen in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change, “Sokhom has become an important civic leader in work that includes, but is certainly not limited to foster youth issues. His work in local issues, especially around public safety and violence prevention is so impressive.”
Mao currently serves on the Juvenile Justice Commission and LGBTQ Task Force of Alameda County, and is chairman of the Oakland Citizens’ Police Review Board in addition to his full-time job as a data specialist at the California Social Work Education Center of the University of California at Berkeley.
Two years ago, when he was just 26, Mao launched a campaign for the Oakland City Council. Although he bowed out of the race before the election, and threw his support behind another candidate, the experience taught him how to run a campaign, and that just might come in handy someday.
“I don’t have any plans to run for public office again at this point,” he said, then added with a smile, “but if you ask me in ten years, it might be different.”
In the meantime, Mao is exploring options for graduate school. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy.