A new report from Foster Youth in Action identifies youth organizing as one of the strongest and most beneficial tools for engaging foster youth, calling on philanthropies and community organizations to support more youth-led political organizing opportunities for current and former foster youth.
Foster Youth in Action is a youth organizing group that was founded by the California Youth Connection (CYC) in 2008. Their nationwide network of current and pending partner groups connects youth in 23 states.
In addition to moving the needle on policy, youth-led organizing aids in healing from trauma, building self-confidence and establishing social capital — valuable connections and relationships with groups or individuals that can enhance a young person’s agency. Those are worthy goals for all youth in care, but foster youth don’t necessarily always get those opportunities from other, adult-led engagement options.
The report compares youth-led organizing to common routes to involvement in policy work, such as government-sponsored policy advisory boards and advocacy groups hosted by nonprofit organizations. Highlighting stories from California Youth Connection, the Denver-based Project Foster Power, and other youth-led advocacy organizations, the report illustrates the power of successful youth organizing and shows the results it can bring.
“At the individual level, participation in youth organizing promotes youth’s psychological wellness and academic engagement, as well as their sociopolitical development,” the report says.
Project Foster Power is one example. Just over a year old now, the group’s youth organizers started their work by engaging their peers across Colorado in a listening tour that ultimately spawned the group’s policy priorities and the first campaign, which was focused on foster youth rights.
As one of Project Foster Power’s youth leaders put it, “organizing helped me go from feeling powerless to a force to be reckoned with.”
Organizing requires youth to learn and unpack histories – both their own and that of the system – and that can offer a sense of hope and personal agency, important factors in healing from trauma.
One of the main issues identified with alternative engagement methods is that they tend to represent a narrow slice of foster youth, usually those who are “higher-functioning,” according to the report authors. Those youth not only reap the social and emotional benefits of their advocacy, their stories also shape lawmakers’ perceptions and policies. But that experience can sometimes come at a cost.
“The thing to be aware of is there’s a risk of tokenizing young people,” Haydee Cuza, executive director of CYC, who herself has experience in foster care, said during a recent webinar about the report.
The report contends that youth organizing is especially successful in engaging marginalized and disconnected youth. The community-centered structure and youth-driven recruitment provide a sense of empowerment and collective experience rather than the pressure to perform for policymakers or adult leaders.
“When you do feel comfortable opening up, you just realize that you, too, can become a leader … it’s more of just providing that space where it can feel like home and you’re not judged,” Cindy Barrera, a youth advocate with CYC said during the webinar.
While some organizations are providing foster youth with organizing opportunities, availability is limited relative to the number of young people involved with the foster care system. The report authors argue that institutions and communities interested in engaging foster youth should dedicate funding and organizational support to promoting more of these opportunities.
The authors offer six key practices as a sort of road map for facilitating the creation of youth-led organizing, including creating a physical home for the group, cultivating critical analysis of systemic issues and developing youth-driven campaigns for change.
The report calls on philanthropies explicitly to generate funding for this cause, as policy advisory youth groups created and facilitated by government entities often result in the most restrictive engagement environment.
Anna Genarri, a policy director with FYA, encourages the organizations and funders facilitating these spaces and opportunities to really check their agendas and policy priorities and take a backseat.
“If you’re going to partner, can you really, truly support youth-led work?” she said during the webinar