The hotel ballroom in downtown Sacramento was packed. Nearly two hundred youth and child welfare professionals had gathered for an evening of performances by current and former foster youth. When it was her turn at the microphone, fifteen-year-old Sade Daniels noticed that the lively tenor of the crowd, amped up from the preceding musical performance, dissipated as it was announced that Sade would be performing an original poem.
“You could’ve heard a pin drop,” said Sade, now 26, recalling that first public speaking engagement. “So I thought, ‘they hate this!’ but after I was done, everyone stood up. It was weirdly validating.”
Young professionals like Sade and Ashley McCullough, 28, who both experienced foster care in their teens and now work in the child welfare field, are frequently called on to speak at conferences and other gatherings intended to improve the system.
Through her original stories, poems, and speeches, Sade conveys the impact of her time in care, which included eight placements beginning at age 13. She also shares the expertise she has developed in her job as an on-site residential advisor at Bay Area Youth Center (BAYC,) a transitional housing program for foster youth ages 16-21 in Hayward, California.
Whether she is delivering a keynote address or performing a poem, Sade is clear on her purpose: “I’m not there to entertain you. I’m there to educate you.”
While her audiences give her standing ovations and glowing reviews– leading to more speaking engagements– the process takes a toll.
“There’s a sacrifice you make when you’re doing this,” she said. “If you’re really working to improve something, it’s going to bring stuff up. It always leaves me questioning…if it’s helping, if I’m exploiting myself, if it’s worth it.”
Sade is an expert at being an expert. Before she agrees to speak or perform for an organization, she researches it online and asks to speak with graduates of their programs.
Having control over the content of her speech is essential to Sade. At one conference, where she was on the agenda to speak on the second day, she stayed up all night rewriting her speech so she could address comments by some of the attendees that revealed misperceptions about young people experiencing foster care.
“I risked breaking my contract by doing that but I did it anyway. I’m very much committed to my truth whether I’m speaking from my own experience of being in foster care or my professional experience working with at-risk youth.”
Ashley, currently finishing a program assistantship at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland, recalls one panel presentation she participated in at a symposium on foster care in which the moderator tried to direct the narrative by asking her to talk about “the good things foster care had done for me,” Ashley said. “And I thought, ‘are you kidding me?’”
That panel served as a critical turning point for Ashley, helping her define her own truth about the child welfare system even as it was, she said, “the beginning of the end of serving on panels for me.”
A junior at Stanford University at the time, Ashley objected to foster care being framed as “this temporary haven presenting lots of opportunities” that would not be available to youth if they weren’t in foster care.
“I did benefit from opportunities available to me while I was in care, including an internship in Washington, DC,” said Ashley, “but none of them were worth the loss of all my sibling and other biological family connections.”
She was on that panel not to extol the virtues of foster care but to fix the system.
Now when she speaks publicly about child welfare, she, like Sade, makes sure she is in control of the message.
One story Ashley often tells is about the thank you cards she wrote upon graduating from Stanford. “Most people give them to parents or siblings. I gave them to programs. I should have been giving them to my grandmother and my sister but I had been made into a family of one by the system.”
When she gives keynotes now, Ashley speaks from her expertise as a professional in the field, and her message is clear: “I believe the system should work harder to keep kids in their own families, rebuild existing families, and help young people create attachments to whomever is going to be there. Long term foster care should be the last resort.”
When young people are in the audience, Ashley wants them to know “how valuable and loved they are and that they can affect their own lives by understanding how important their own thoughts and opinions are.”
Sade smiles as she remembers a conversation she had with some foster youth she works with at BAYC who asked where she was “flying off to now,” as she headed to another event.
“A speaking engagement about foster care,” she told them, and happily reports that their next question was: “How can I get into that?”