Gang member, poor kid, ward of the court, foster youth, violent felon, lost cause …
Growing up I was often told who I was by the adults around me before I ever had the chance to figure out who I wanted to become. Often, that made me doubt my ability to have any control over my life. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been learning how to overcome obstacles rather than learning how to utilize opportunities.
That’s typical for a youth caught in the cycle of growing up in the hood: the pain, the trauma, the incarceration, the hypervigilance that follows throughout life, the struggle to create a life after leaving the system. It’s all too familiar for youth who grow up like I did.
To help heal is to understand; we must first understand what it’s like to experience what youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems — like I was — go through at such a youth age.
I was born and raised in the impoverished neighborhood of North Fair Oaks, Redwood City, California. My mother is a product of the gang culture and became a mother as a teenager. My father committed suicide shortly before my second birthday and his family made the decision not to be a part of my life for the next 17 years.
I was raised by my mother, but she worked multiple jobs to support us, so the times I would see her she would often be asleep on the living room couch before I headed off to school.
I spent most of my childhood years close to my grandmother, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I learned to grow up fast by taking care of my grandmother, along with my older brother. As I grew up I struggled to find my identity. I was a young biracial, lesbian kid confused about my place in the world. With little guidance at home, I soon found myself on the streets with other lost, misguided youth.
Influenced by the gang culture I grew up in, it was no surprise that I joined street gangs, looking for love and attention in the wrong places.
Being a girl and smaller than everyone else, I was determined to prove myself. In the streets it’s all about your reputation and I built a reputation of being ruthless, crazy, down to always break the law and have little regard for anyone else’s feelings. Living a life like that didn’t just turn me cold inside.
It resulted in many trips in and out of juvenile detention and bouncing around from group home to group home. I attended more than 12 different high schools because of my frequent displacements.
But my development was also stunted by a court order to take psychotropic medications at age 13 to “manage” my behaviors. That stripped me of the chance to naturally grow, develop and actually feel any emotions. To this day, I still struggle in this area. Sometimes in very emotional situations my emotions come in tidal waves, hard to control and confusing to understand. At other times where more emotion should be shown I struggle to feel any. Which makes it difficult for me to form close personal relationships because my emotional growth extends past the here and now but trying to play “catch up” for all the years I lost.
During the years I spent navigating both the juvenile justice and foster care system I felt like my life was frozen. I was of course growing older, but my emotional and mental intelligence was like that of the 11 year old I was when I first entered the juvenile justice system.
Being only 13 years old when I was given a general placement order and sent into the foster care system I was hardly prepared for the traumatic experience of homelessness after going AWOL from different group homes around California. I found myself a kid on the streets in the cold with nowhere to go and no one to call for help.
I had felt helpless before, but what I had experienced in those times — sleeping in laundry rooms, cars, friend’s houses, abandoned apartments, staying up all night because there was nowhere safe to go, stealing hygiene products from stores to bird bathe in park restrooms to stay clean, and street hustling to eat— are things no kid should ever experience. These experiences were unimaginable, but they helped manifest a deep empathy and passion for change within me.
When I was first released from the juvenile justice system at age 18, I was tasked with the biggest job of my life yet, rebuilding my life. Despite the adversities I faced growing up, I resiliently affirmed my belief in myself and my potential to succeed by working hard to change my life and pursuing a higher education no matter the obstacle.
In June 2014, I became the first in my family to earn a high school diploma and in June 2018, I became the first in my family to graduate from college with an AA degree in psychology. Today, I attend the University of California at Santa Cruz on a scholarship, studying psychology and the history of consciousness. One day, I hope to become an art therapist and earn my Ph.D. in developmental psychology, specializing in working with underrepresented populations, specifically youth in the system.
Education and art have been my means of liberating myself from the chains of my past traumas. I am not only learning how to heal and work through my own pain, but I am building my toolbox to help others heal and defy the odds, too.
I have learned that life is not only about helping ourselves, but how in becoming better people, we can help others do the same. Influenced by my challenges, the opportunities to inspire and grow in my life have shaped me into a leader with the voice of the underrepresented. Even though I had a hard upbringing, I would not change a thing because it all made me who I am today and has given me my purpose in life.
Missy Hart is a recent graduate from Foothill College. Where she earned an associates degree in psychology. She now attends the University of California, Santa Cruz working towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in the history of consciousness. She aspires to earn her PhD in developmental psychology. Her career goal is to open a group home with an art therapy program for youth in the system.