By Debbie A. Powell, Acting Associate Commissioner for the Family and Youth Services Bureau
In 2010, a group of homeless youth stood before the Detroit public school board urging them to include harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students in the school district’s anti-bullying policy. The young advocates—members of a yearlong program called Out and Up Front that is run by Ruth Ellis Center, a grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Program—spoke of the years of bullying they faced in the public schools and how hard it was to go to school when they didn’t feel safe there.
A year after that public meeting, the school board had approved a new, more comprehensive anti-bullying policy drafted by the young people.
At FYSB, we know that stories can be powerful. Hearing about the lives of young people who have had traumatic experiences—such as abuse, neglect, family conflict, homelessness and violence—can help others understand their experiences and take action. Just as important, creating change can empower young people and make them feel that their trials were worth something.
At the same time, telling a traumatic story over and over again in a public forum can force young people to relive harrowing times. Young people need caring adults and peers to guide them as they share their pasts publically. Daniel Knapp, a member of the board of directors of FosterClub, a national network that supports foster youth in their advocacy, says, “You earned that story. It’s not just something you give away freely.”
‘Trauma-informed’ Youth Advocacy
Out and Up Front and FosterClub are models for how youth can speak publically about their experiences in a therapeutic, “trauma-informed” way that ensures young people’s emotional safety. Staff members are responsible for developing a public speaking strategy, finding speaking opportunities, and coaching youth on their presentations. Staff also work hard to reduce the trauma that can occur when youth share difficult memories. Youth learn to frame their stories and practice presenting them in small groups and one-on-one with staff and their peers.
Young people can move as slowly through the preparation process as they want. Adult and peer mentors get to know each young person well and are able to watch for signs that a youth is upset and needs to step back.
Staff members also proactively address the power dynamics that can occur when young people collaborate with adults. For example, youth know they can say no to a speaking engagement at any time and can decline on-the-spot questions they feel are too invasive. The groups follow up with youth to hear their feedback.
Young people who take part in advocacy learn about the patience it takes to make change happen. They learn how to engage their communities no matter what the result. For maybe the first time in their lives, they see themselves and their stories as powerful.
Debbie Powell is the Acting Associate Commissioner of Family and Youth Service Bureau, where she advises the Commissioner of ACYF on family and youth issues. Before coming to FYSB, Powell held senior leadership positions for more than 20 years in grants management and the management of federal programs that serve low-income families.