FCYU120 cover image See all stories from issue #120, Spring 2015

[SUBSCRIBE NOW]
RK-IL image Get great stories in 'Transition to Adulthood Resource Kit'
ISBN: 9781935552185
[BUY NOW]
The Path to Advocacy
From finding your voice to changing the system
Represent staff
headshot

Five former foster children who now work as youth advocates came to the Represent office recently. The advocates talked for two and a half hours about how they got from childhoods that included abuse, homelessness, parents in jail, prejudice, and feeling unwanted to where they are now—getting paid to help others through similar struggles. The five—Vanessa Fuentes, 30, of New York City’s Human Resources Administration; Jarel Melendez, 28, and Pauline Gordon, 27, both of Lawyers for Children; Kevin McKee, 25, of Youth Power!; and Benjamin Muhammad, 21, of Fostering Advocacy Change and Empowerment (FACE)—have all made terrific use of their tough experience. Throughout our conversation, problems in care turned into policy suggestions, and solutions became tips to be shared.

All five advocates described a similar path from hurt, fear, and helplessness to a meaningful life helping others. Their observations about that journey will guide us through this issue about advocacy, which we’ve divided into four sections: (1) find your voice; (2) learn to communicate; (3) help others; and (4) change the system. We conclude with their advice for readers in care. We’ll meet each of the five advocates along the way, starting here with Pauline Gordon.

youthcomm logo
  www.representmag.org

Pauline is a survivor of child abuse, and she went into care at age 14. She said, “My advocacy started with writing for Represent. I was able to find my voice there, network with other foster youth, and raise awareness about issues that affected many of us. Through Represent I got invited to attend events where I would speak about issues in the foster care system to various organizations.

“At one of those events, I was recruited to be a youth advocate for the Mental Health Association in New York, helping youth with mental illnesses get what they needed. I went to college while I worked. Then I worked as a Regional Youth Partner at Youth Power! and started a master’s program in social work. Since September 2014, I’ve worked at Lawyers for Children as a youth advocate.”

Pauline has taken on more and more in the last 10 years, from telling her story, to speaking out for other youth, to pushing judges and other officials to get those youth what they need, to lobbying for systems that work better. But it started with her saying, “This is what happened to me.”



1. Find Your Voice and Start to Heal

Kevin McKee, now a professional youth advocate, found his voice onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when he was 19. Kevin had made it to the final stage of an Urban Word poetry slam competition, spitting rhymes about his childhood and life in foster care. He was 7 when his father went to jail for life, and 13 when his mother died. Kevin and his brothers were sent from their home in San Diego to live with his mom’s relatives in New York City.

“I’m half black, half Puerto Rican, and my mom’s side, the Puerto Rican side, didn’t really embrace me, so I was placed in foster care at 14,” Kevin said.

Writing about it all was “super healing” and made him realize that, even though he’d often felt powerless, he’d “had a voice the whole time.” People listened. Kevin’s caseworker’s director saw him performing on TV and offered him a job as a peer advocate, which he took—eventually. He first toured with the poetry slam competition and was featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices, a program about poetry slams.

The experience released something in Kevin. “I started to advocate for myself, like to get my school to accept transfer credits and to get my housing subsidy increased so I could go to school full-time.”

After getting his associate’s degree in writing and literature, Kevin worked as a youth advocate consultant for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) for two years. He became a youth advocate for the Mental Health Association and joined Youth Power! as a regional youth partner in 2014. YouthPower! is a statewide, youth-led network of young people who are fighting to improve the foster care, mental health, special education, and juvenile justice systems. All YP! members are or were involved in those systems themselves.

Like Kevin, the other four people at Represent’s roundtable said that telling their stories was the first step to becoming advocates. Benjamin Muhammad, at 21 the youngest advocate at the table, went into care at birth. At age 5 he was placed with his aunt and uncle, who eventually adopted him.

“My aunt encouraged me to write down my issues. Poetry was the first way I communicated the things bottled up inside me,” he said.

Pauline, Jarel, and Vanessa all made some peace with their pasts by writing at Represent and also by finding therapists, mentors, and friends they could trust with their secrets.

Jarel admitted, “I had a lot of resentment growing up in foster care—the family piece, the gay piece. I was a hot mess! But I found a therapist who understood me and didn’t judge me, and it was life-changing.”

Kevin added that, “Therapy doesn’t work for everyone, but find something that lets you emotionally recharge. You can’t effectively advocate when you’re running on empty.”

Jarel said, “The gym helped me. Doing yoga and meditation was huge.”

For Benjamin, it was “my faith, and being around other Christians. That’s very powerful for me.”

Mentors also came up a lot. Vanessa said, “If it wasn’t for people like my Represent editor Autumn or my mentors Elizabeth and Lillian providing support and guidance, I would have given up. I didn’t have a mom or dad, but I did have great mentors.”

Whatever the path, our advocates agreed that the first step is telling the truth and finding self-acceptance. Two stories in this issue show how two people did just that, one while she was still in care and one much later.



2. Learn to Communicate Effectively to Advocate for Yourself

Once you’ve broken your silence, you’re on the path to advocacy. The next step is to learn how to speak to those with power, so you can get what you want. Being strategic means thinking about your goal and saying only what helps you get it. Our five advocates described how, as Vanessa put it, “you get more bees with honey than vinegar.”

Jarel Melendez agrees—he said you must get the f-bombs out of your system so you can advocate calmly. “You don’t talk to a social worker or an attorney or a judge the same way you talk to your friends. Before you go into that courtroom, let it out. A family member, a friend, a social worker, someone you trust—you let them have your real talk. You scream, ‘I’m so frigging mad! Why can’t I have this?’ Then, when you go into that courtroom, you’re like [calm voice], ‘OK, your honor, I’m ready to discuss what I need.’ If you’re screaming in the courtroom, someone else is going to speak on your behalf.”

Jarel sharpened his communication skills as a teen at Represent. “That was my first outlet for talking about my issues, but I knew it was larger than me. I may never see that young person who read my article, but I know there’s another little Jarel. I wanted to learn and to share my knowledge.”

Like the other advocates, Jarel moved from self-expression to speaking for others. “I knew I was gay since I was five years old. I tried to bring awareness and educate closed-minded folks about what LGBT means. That was my first advocacy issue, before foster care.”

Jarel started an LGBTQ support group for foster youth, called Circle of Youth, 11 years ago, when he was 17. During college, he taught 4th graders as part of an AmeriCorps program. For the past seven years he has been the Youth Advocate Coordinator for the Adolescents Confronting Transition (ACT) Project at Lawyers for Children, a nonprofit that provides legal representation and social work services to children in foster care.

Pauline remembered how scary it was to speak up at first: “When I was young in a room with much older people, I sometimes felt like my opinion wasn’t worthy because they knew so much more than I did. It’s important to know your experience means something. Speak up even though you’re in a room full of adults with fancy degrees.”

You can’t just blurt, though. Pauline said of her work with youth, “Sometimes young people are dealing with so much trauma and so much aggression, they’ll come in yelling, ‘I need these services, I want that, F- you, F- the system’ and the social worker won’t want to help them.”

Another key strategy is to stay on topic. Vanessa said, “You have to be emotionally intelligent and you have to use strategic sharing. You can’t just share everything about your life to a judge. If you’re trying to get housing, don’t talk about other things.”

Jarel, Pauline, and Benjamin all gave credit to the ACS Speakers’ Bureau, which was closed in 2012 because of funding cuts, for helping them craft their message. For more on a program that can help foster youth communicate effectively, see "Foster Youth Take Charge". For an example of advocating intelligently to get what you need, see "Pushing for Healthy Food In My Group Home."



3. Connect, Cooperate, and Help Others

Some of the five advocates knew each other before our roundtable—Kevin, for example, took over Pauline’s old job when she went to work with Jarel. But even those who just met networked during the conversation, sharing resources they could take to their clients. Advocacy work rests on cooperation and connection, not competition. And that mindset of cooperation helps turn your painful past from something to hide into a gift to share with the people you help. Vanessa Fuentes is a good example of that.

Vanessa came to New York from Mexico on her own at age 15. She couldn’t speak English; she couldn’t get enrolled in school right away; she couldn’t get a job; she was homeless and in foster care; and she experienced discrimination as a gay youth. She’s built that staggering array of disadvantages into qualifications in her career.

She got her green card soon after she aged out and started volunteering at the New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (known as The Center). “I registered people to vote, answered phones, photocopied—that’s how I started in my career,” she said. She did an internship with AmeriCorps and then went to work for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), teaching students from all over the country to organize and working to create better and safer schools for LGBTQ students.

Vanessa moved on to her next job after GLSEN via a remarkable coincidence. One day she was walking down the street and recognized the former head of her foster care agency, Safe Space, from her picture on the website. She boldly said, “Hi Lillian, I’m Vanessa, and I’m also from Mexico,” and told her story. Lillian offered Vanessa a job, saying, “You understand the agency like nobody else because you received the services from us.”

Volunteering and doing internships are great ways to check out different kinds of work and to get some experience on your resumé while you follow your heart. Jarel said of his LGBTQ group Circle of Youth, proudly, “I’ve been running it now since I was 17, for 11 years.” After a year at Baruch College, Jarel took a year off and he too did an AmeriCorps program.

“I was placed in a diverse team of people from all over. Everybody brings their perspective and their backgrounds, and you gotta work together. We were like, ‘Let’s check our personal drama and help these children.’ ”

Benjamin Muhammad got his start at the Senior Youth Council in Washington County, New York, and soon focused on foster youth. He began meeting once a month with Judge Kathy Davidson, a Supreme Court judge in Westchester County, giving her his perspective on the challenges youth in care face.

From there, Benjamin went on to work with Oregon’s Foster Club as an All-Star intern, where he got leadership, public speaking, and advocacy training. He spoke at conferences to other foster youth and child welfare professionals about foster care, led workshops in Italy, and spoke to senators in Washington, D.C.

Benjamin was one of several at the table who was upset when the ACS Youth Speaker’s Bureau got cancelled in 2012. So he helped to create an alternative. Through his college, Hunter, he found the National Center for Child Welfare Excellence. With their help, he said, “We started a new youth-led project called FACE (Fostering Advocacy Change and Empowerment). We’re picking topics we want to change in the foster care system within New York State.” FACE is modeled on similar programs on the West Coast. For another example of a foster youth who overcame obstacles to help others, read "From Homeless and Addicted to Youth Advocate."



4. The Bigger Picture: Change the System

If you hear the same complaints year after year, you start to ask, “Why is the foster care system set up that way?” And if you interact with agencies and lawyers and other advocates as well as youth in care, you begin to learn how policies get made. Personal advocacy over enough years leads to ideas for policy change.

For example, only 3% of foster youth graduate college. The biggest reasons are lack of money and emotional support so a new group of advocates—including former foster youth Jessica Maxwell—came up with a plan. They formed the Foster Youth Success Alliance, which is pushing New York State to pay for college for foster youth.

While he was in college, Jarel saw a flyer at The Center advertising the youth advocate job at Lawyers for Children. He thought, “Oh, that’s cute, I’ll forward it to my young people in Circle of Youth.”

But as he learned about Lawyers for Children, he thought, “Wow, this is a law firm. The issues I want to advocate for need to change with policy. And lawyers are usually the ones behind getting policy change, so this is a no-brainer.”

Asked what they would change about the foster care system, Jarel and Vanessa agreed that there need to be more housing options for youth aging out. Jarel complained, “ACS transitions young people into one of two housing programs. New York New York III or NYCHA, that’s it. New York City housing is pricey, but we need to think outside the box.” (For more ideas on housing, read our story "Seven Housing Suggestions for New York City.")

Vanessa said the supportive housing apartment she moved into at age 21 was depressing. “There wasn’t a lot of light. The rent was very cheap but I hated it. Now I live in Jackson Heights, and I love it. I decided where I wanted to live and found my apartment on craigslist.”

Kevin thought there should be better aftercare services. “After being institutionalized in the system, you start figuring out who you actually are. I’d provide therapy from aging out until at least 30.”

Pauline called for “more communication and collaboration across systems—foster care, mental health, juvenile justice, even education systems. We can better advocate for a young person when these systems talk to each other. Foster care and education need to communicate when young people are moving home to home, and their credits are getting lost when they have to switch schools. The young person may have substance abuse problems, and you can’t treat those separately from the mental health piece.”

Vanessa also wants more youth to get the benefits of a mentor: “When I aged out, I went to live at Chelsea Foyer, a supportive housing program, and you could sign up for what sort of mentor you wanted—what kind of personality, what career, and other things. I had to check off the boxes, including that they were comfortable with LGBTQ people, and my match was perfect. Chelsea Foyer has a mentor coordinator and a whole system. I wish there was more of that in care.”

She threw out some specific suggestions: “ACS could reach out to corporate sponsors. UBS bank has a great partnership with Good Shepherd and they recruit mentors from there. ACS could run a campaign on the subway reaching out to other banks for mentors.”

Jarel said his mentor paid for his yoga and meditation classes and was always there to listen to his troubles. Like Vanessa, he wants the foster care system to “support those relationships and partner with community organizations. Now ACS has a Family Team Conference, and they say ‘bring a foster parent, bring a birth parent,’ but they never say ‘bring a mentor.’ ” The mentor idea has many champions, including New York’s Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión and professional youth advocate Virgen Nuñez .



Closing Advice From the Advocates

If you’re a foster youth struggling just to stay afloat, it may be hard to see how you could possibly get from where you are now to where Vanessa, Jarel, Pauline, Kevin, and Benjamin are. They shared what helped them become successful advocates: Near the top of everyone’s list are therapy and mentors.

Another lesson our five advocates offered was that trying a lot of different things—jobs, internships, and volunteering—helps get you closer to work that’s meaningful. Getting involved in larger political movements can also inspire and connect you to something larger, as Represent writers found during the Black Lives Matter protests.

Pauline, for example, has worked at the Mental Health Association, Youth Power!, and Lawyers for Children while getting a BA and now a master’s. With every job, she learned more about what she’s good at and what she likes.

Similarly, it took Vanessa years to find the right job. She started with direct service: Her job at Safe Space was working in a drop-in center for runaway homeless youth. “It wasn’t really a good fit for me because I was not prepared mentally to deal with the trauma that a lot of these kids have experienced in their lives,” she said. That closeness to kids in crisis was too much for her at that point in her life.

After that, Vanessa worked at Advocates for Children of New York, as a paralegal with attorneys representing children with special education needs. Then she was a high school counselor, and now she is the Special Assistant to the Deputy Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration (HRA) in the New York City government. HRA provides SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), cash assistance, and Medicaid, among other public benefits. Vanessa now looks after people going through some of what she went through.

“My job at HRA is the perfect job,” said Vanessa. She likes being the one who helps the person in need sometimes, but she also likes interacting with other government agencies and figuring out how to make a complicated program work.

After advocating for youth for more than 10 years, Jarel may be ready to move on. “I want to try something new. I chose a master’s in business administration (MBA) so I’d have flexibility with regards to career choices.”

But, he said, “I will always be an advocate, that won’t disappear. With an MBA, I can go to a for-profit company and make a lot more money, but I will still advocate in some capacity, whether it’s funding or being a mentor, or something else.”

None of these five make a ton of money, though they’re supporting themselves and doing fine. They all bring up another benefit of their work that’s not financial—it feels good to help others. Even though Jarel may head into the private sector, he said of his job at Lawyers for Children, “It still gives me a sense of fulfillment and pleasure.”

Benjamin, the newest advocate, has discovered that “Developing young leaders brings me joy. Before it had to be me up on the stage, and now I like pushing kids up there and developing advocates.”

We asked the advocates for parting words of advice for our readers in care. Not surprisingly, they had some.

Pauline: Know your rights. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to certain things.

Jarel: Travel everywhere with a notepad. Write down what you want to say before a meeting. Take notes in the meeting. If I’m not happy with my worker, I will go to her supervisor. There’s always someone higher than that person. As you go up your chain of command, write down the name of everyone you meet. Get business cards and write the date and where you met that person.

Benjamin: I always ask a lot of questions and keep asking for clarification. But I wait to respond until I’ve thought it through.

Vanessa: If there aren’t leaders, be the leader.

Jarel: Don’t give up.

Benjamin: We’re all VIPs. You’re as good as anyone.

Jarel: There’s value in your knowledge—who knows what you want better than you?

Pauline: You can be anything you want to be; don’t let your past hinder that. You may not have had much control over your life, but now you have a voice and a support system and you can take control. Don’t feel haunted by your past.



GET INVOLVED

FACE is recruiting members ages 15-24. Visit their Facebook page: facebook.com/facenys. Read about FACE in our story "Foster Youth Take Charge."

Youth in Progress is a statewide group of youth advocates. Find out more at youthinprogress.org

Youth Power! is a youth-led network of New Yorkers from the foster care, juvenile justice, mental health, and other systems. Check them out at youthpowerny.org.

(FCYU-2015-04-02)