On Thursday, California State University, East Bay played host to the Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (PEERS) Transition Age Youth Summit.
The ballroom where opening sessions were held showcased a buzzing mix of 200 people: teenagers clutching coffees, college students greeting one another excitedly, and a huddle of child welfare professionals shaking hands and hanging name tags around their necks. One baby slept in his mother’s arms as several performers checked on the sound system.
The summit’s intent was to foster collaborative dialogue on how best to aid youth aged 16-25 as they move into independence. Most of the summit’s participants were in this age range, and had experience with the foster care system, the juvenile justice system and the state’s public mental health system.
Haydée Cuza, executive director of PEERS and Chronicle blogger co-op member, opened the event, introducing the young adult leadership team members, who had worked for a full year in preparing for the two day convening.
The focus of the summit was collaboration between youth and providers, and it is this same idea that is at the root of the work that PEERS is doing. According to Cuza, the PEERS team is a collection of young people working to create a meaningful summit for their fellow transition age youth as well as a meaningful work experience for themselves. In preparation for this event, the leadership team learned the marketing skills necessary to research and put together an event of this scale.
“It was all them,” says Cuza. “I just signed off on a few things. I’m not even stressed about the event, just proud and excited.”
Her enthusiasm was not misplaced; the array of speakers and artists kept the room engaged for the whole morning, before summit participants broke into collaborative groups to do art, discuss policy and share their stories. The team even brought in the Foster Youth Museum from the Youth Training Project of California Youth Connection, which the Chronicle reported on in April. The museum was set up in an upstairs room to showcase the foster experience for the summit’s participants.
Leila Steinberg a music producer and founder of the non-profit Aim4TheHeart.org opened the conversation part of the day by asking the audience about their biggest challenges. The young people in the audience opened up immediately, calling out a number of factors, from overcoming “fatalism and loss” to “structural violence” to “breaking the cycle and judgement of foster care.”
This push for response characterized the intention of the morning as a whole; it was not a lecture, it was a collaboration. This became clear as hip hop performers took the stage, imploring the audience to sing the hook and keep the beat, rousing the audience, and emphasizing the importance of this community.
Steinberg highlighted one point in particular that stood out in this conversation: the need for healing that works, the need for something that causes effective change, the need for inspiration. Music was one example she cited often, but the idea stretched to all art, physical activity or other generally positive pursuits.
“How do you medicate yourself?” she asked. “How do you replace the unhealthy with the healthy?”
Sade Daniels, youth advocate, public speaker, former foster youth and also a Chronicle blogger co-op member, followed up Steinberg, taking the was the stage amid enthusiastic cheers from the audience. She began provocatively, asking the audience “why are some providers scared or unprepared to work with transition age youth?” As a former foster youth and current child welfare provider, Daniels is uniquely situated to pose this question in a way that is effective. She began by citing trends that transition age youth are familiar with; this young adult demographic is the least likely to be adopted and the least likely to find any placement.
Daniels cited her own experience as rationale for this phenomenon. According to her, she was a “horrible little 16-year-old girl,” head-strong and bold but simultaneously mean to authority figures and generally difficult. However, this speaks to the idea at the core of her speech: young adults are not perfect, they do not know everything, but they know enough. And that fact alone is worthy of respect.
“You deserve to be heard,” she told the crowd. “The youth are the revolutionaries.”
In an interview shortly after her performance, Daniels explained the importance of this kind of conversation with youth.
“It’s one thing to get up there and tell your own life story,” she said. “But it’s another to teach. You need to give the youth something tangible to take with them.”
You can find more information about PEERS or about Day 2 of the summit at http://www.peersnet.org.