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Our Voices, Our Future: True Youth Leadership in Action by California Youth Connection

Youth sitting together

Jasmine was 15 years old when she entered the foster care system. She was in turmoil navigating a system she had heard nightmares about. Her high school had a group of students in foster care who were visited, week after week, by a woman from California Youth Connection (CYC), a statewide youth advocacy organization working to bring positive change to the foster care system.

The woman’s consistency and her pitch impressed Jasmine, who after several weeks decided to check out her local chapter.

From the first moment she stepped into a CYC meeting, Jasmine felt welcomed. As she has moved around the state, she has stayed connected to local chapters. “I could go Fresno right now, or Redding, or Pasadena, and I’d know people personally. That’s the way CYC is set up. It’s family. I just joined a family; they welcomed me with open arms and I never left,” she says.

CYC’s mission is to develop leaders who empower each other and their communities to transform the foster care system through legislative, policy, and practice change. It was founded in 1988 by current and former foster youth aged 14 to 24 and a few adult allies. The young founders recognized not only that the system was failing them, but that there was no real way for young people to help shape the child welfare policies that defined their lives.

From its inception, CYC was built to ensure that youth voices were at the forefront of conversations about the child welfare system. Over the last 31 years, their youth-led advocacy has resulted in the passage of dozens of new laws that have profoundly improved the lives of the 60,000 children and youth in California’s foster care system.

What is the main factor in their success? Knowing that youth advocacy requires more than just taking a stand, it involves holistic support to ensure that young people are genuinely able to lead.

CYC’s youth members conceive of and implement every decision, process, and strategy at the local, regional and statewide levels. For example, each of CYC’s 35 local chapters meets monthly. Youth members agree on the meeting agenda, which is then facilitated by a young leader.

“In these meetings, we strategize about ways the foster care system can be improved,” remembers Zimbabwe Davies, a member of CYC from 2008 to 2013. “There’s food, you have a chance to meet new youth and you start to develop relationships and bond. It’s an incredible atmosphere. Everyone’s energy bounces off each other. I’d say something and people would add their ideas; everyone contributes to it.”

At the statewide level, CYC has an all-youth policy and legislation committee with two members from every region. This committee does most of the legwork around advocating for policies and legislation that positively impact the foster care system. Youth members also plan and design every aspect of the quarterly statewide meetings and the CYC’s two annual convenings. Youth members serve on the CYC’s Board of Directors.

This empowering process is especially valuable to youth in the foster care system. “Youth want to help change the system right now. We want to be part of the system so we can make that change from the inside... CYC is like, bam! You can have a voice and create the change you want to create with other young people. You don’t have to wait until you’ve got a bunch of degrees,” says Zimbabwe Davies.

When Jasmine joined CYC, she was struggling in high school, more the result of instability than academics. Now, she considers herself an advocate. “I have traveled up and down the state, met with professionals in so many capacities: senators and assemblymen, lobbyists and department heads. I have seen the government at eye level. To be a part of it is just unreal and incredibly empowering.”

The majority of CYC’s adult staff is former foster youth, which keeps the organization authentic and creates the space for youth members to continue developing as leaders. “The young people use their voice within our organization to make sure we are staying true to our vision and mission,” Christi Ketchum, CYC’s Regional Coordinator.

Before CYC, I was trying to find my way. After CYC, I felt empowered.

“When you hear CYC as a foster youth, you automatically feel empowered. It’s like the Marvel Universe for foster youth,” reflects Zimbabwe. “The support is what made me feel empowered. It was genuine and organic. I wasn’t pressured into it; I didn’t have to do it. What I was hearing from the adults was: if you want to be part of something that creates change for foster youth, you can do this and we’ll hold the space for you. That spoke to me. I had never experienced that.”

CYC has clearly defined roles and practices for adult volunteers – called supporters – and staff: Listen to what the youth are saying about their lives; think about things that are affecting their lives; identify the root cause; and think about solutions. When there are policy developments to know about, educate them.

Working together, staff, adult supporters, and youth leaders build relationships with policymakers and people with decision-making power so they can inform them about what is happening and what needs to be done.

One example of this process in action is the 2018 passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 2247, which established a youth-focused process for planning stability. The bill requires advanced notification process for placement changes, and guarantees young people access to youth-centered services such as family meetings, restorative justice, and facilitated mediation before making a change.

“Young people were supposed to be getting a seven-day notice for placement changes,” explains Christi Ketchum. “In our meetings, many of our members were saying that wasn’t happening. They were getting a notice at school that they wouldn’t be going back to their home that day. Many kids weren’t even able to go back and pick up their belongings. The [law means] no placement changes between 9 pm and 7 am. Youth can now report placement issues with a foster care ombudsmen and make a case about how they’re being treated.”

Getting – and staying – real

Feedback loops and mechanisms for youth leadership are built into CYC’s DNA but that does not make it easy. All decisions require youth input, so if there are not enough youth at the table, nothing happens. There are a lot of transitions among youth members, many of whom are dealing with trauma and challenging life situations.

“Being a supporter means being down through the good, bad, ugly and awesome,” explains Christi. “I can’t ask you to come facilitate a workshop when you don’t know where you’re sleeping tonight. We have to meet them where they’re at. They’re young: our members are 14 to 24. Sometimes it gets tiring and challenging – but this is part of the job. So self-care, healing and wellness are important for the staff as well.”

CYC is careful not to engage in “tokenism,” where youth are brought out to share their stories to fundraise or show off an organization’s impact but do not have any real decision-making power within that organization.

Zimbabwe says he has experienced both: “One time, I got a stipend to talk to journalists and newspapers. I felt important. But when I got a little older and could see that nothing’s changing in the system, I was like, okay, they’re using me. You get a young person to be the poster child; you get $10K for your organization – it’s like a win. But it’s not a win when you just give the youth a stipend and then it’s over. Every organization needs an alumni association that allows them to continue to change the system.”

CYC creates a through line for members to ensure they have opportunities for continued growth and leadership, even years after they leave foster care and move on in their careers. The opportunity to create real change, to be part of a larger movement and network – a family—is the reason so many youth join CYC, and stay with it.

“Our young people are actively trying to change the foster care system. They are not always as polished and professional; they are real and raw and some are dealing with things right now,” explains Christi. “We work with our young people and we give them opportunities to grow and develop their leadership. You need to hear from those most affected by the issue, and it isn’t always pretty.”

Zimbabwe credits the organization with helping him take charge of his life. “CYC let me know that I can take control of my destiny and I can create my own movements – it helped me get to where I’m at today, the work I do as a film producer, producing stories about foster youth. It’s embedded in me now to advocate for other people.”


Tips from Youth for Authentic Youth Leadership

  • What’s the best way to see if your organization is really youth-led? Ask the youth. Ask: How do you think you can help and support? What would you like to see?
  • Ensure that young people are true collaborators, involved in all parts of the process, not just at the end to put a youth face on it.
  • Allow young people a seat at the table – it has to be an ongoing thing.
  • Stop thinking about measurements and think more about quality over quantity. Engage on a personal level. Think about how intentionally you are working with young people so you are actually doing them a service.
  • “Stop having people reading scripts; stop with the tokenism where it is about the organization moving their agenda forward.”
  • Show respect. Do not ask for their opinion and then not take it. You do not have to do everything they say but acknowledge that each young person’s word has as much value as everyone else in the room; acknowledge that they are an important stakeholder who has as much desire and need to be in this room as you do.
  • Be considerate. Do not be condescending. Make the youth comfortable and welcome so they feel like they belong. Have conversations. Speak plain English instead of jargon so everyone can be involved in the process and feel safe while doing so.
  • Let your egos go and let the young people pilot the plane.
  • Be intentional about supporting each young person while advocating for systems change. Use language that’s empowering: Instead of saying, “don’t do this,” help them stop and think about what they really want to do.
  • Be real, honest, transparent and consistent. Young people can tell if you are being genuine. You can do good work and be real at the same time.

To learn more, visit calyouthconn.org.