Opening Night Highlights: 400 attendees, Senator Mark Leno on the podium, and the strong amplification of youth voices
I knew something special was about to happen when I walked up the stairs to Grace Cathedral. It was nearly dusk when I opened the front door and the majestic setting filled my senses: the stained glass, softly glowing in the evening light; the notes from a trio of musicians filling the nave; and a steady flow of people, pulling me stage left into the world of Lost Childhoods.
An exhibition of Foster Youth Museum, making its San Francisco debut, Lost Childhoods chronicles youth experiences in foster care. The first of its kind, this traveling exhibition is revealing the voices of foster youth, all too often silenced through the heartaches of loss, and the powerlessness of institutionalization.
In the words of Ipo Ma’e, a former foster youth who spoke at the opening reception, “The museum is helping heal people like me and is giving our voices back.”
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors immediately see the impact of foster care, with a display on hygiene products, and a description about the lack thereof in group homes. It is not uncommon for young women to be denied menstruation products and thus use make shift pads stapled together from toilet paper. Likewise, dental floss and other oral hygiene products are absent making foster youth more prone to cavities and compromised oral care. Another exhibit reveals common foods that are served in group homes, where healthy meals are wanting.
A blend of large format photos, artifacts from current and former foster youth, art, and video portraits, Foster Youth Museum has become the largest collection of its kind and both youth and the public are taking notice. During an Oakland, CA gallery exhibition, some 2,000 people viewed the exhibit over one month. At the iconic Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, upwards of 6,000 will take part during its two-week run, from October 15 to November, 1, 2015. Admission is free and the church is open daily, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
As I continued through the exhibit, I stopped in front of a black and white photo of Latrenda Leslie holding a clear plastic bag with her belongings. This photo, featured in the exhibition’s promotional materials, tells the story of the infamous “foster youth luggage,” into which foster youth place their scant belongings when moving from placement to placement. When you view the photo, Leslie says she wants you to “think about the instability foster youth experience.” And she wants you to know that youth are strong and carry on, but they need your support.
The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, welcomed 400 visitors to the opening reception for Lost Childhoods and called out the importance of this exhibition when he said, “Grace Cathedral has never hosted anything more important than Lost Childhoods, which is putting a face on one our most vulnerable populations – foster youth.”
Senator Mark Leno has long supported the needs of foster youth. Working closely with California Youth Connection, the nonprofit behind Foster Youth Museum, Senator Leno has carried a significant piece of foster youth legislation through the California political process nearly every year in office. He says unequivocally, “Foster youth are our youth – the youth of the state – and we have to take full responsibility for their stories and experiences and make sure the next generation has better experiences.”
Foster Youth Museum represents a new trend in museums, one that combines art and social justice. Art is potent and reaches people in ways that other media do not. Jamie Lee Evans, co-director for Foster Youth Museum, says, “Each time we exhibit Lost Childhoods, we have an opportunity to engage communities – communities of faith, youth advocates, and the general public – in a conversation about what it means to support foster youth around housing, healthcare, education and connection. The Lost Childhoods exhibition is where art meets advocacy, and it moves people.”
The Reverends Rebecca Edwards and Chris Chase can tell you what happens when you are moved by the intersection of art and advocacy. Co-directors of Braid Mission, exhibition sponsor, Edwards and Chase saw a private exhibition of Foster Youth Museum last year, and as a result, not only changed the direction of their ministry to focus on meeting the needs of foster youth in San Francisco, but in the words of Chase, became “singularly focused on finding the largest stage in the Episcopal Church to expose the powerful stories and art of foster youth.” The historic Grace Cathedral, visited by some 200 people daily, was the obvious choice.
As visitors progress through themes of developmental disruption, institutionalization, powerlessness and loss, they arrive at a point of transformation. This part of the exhibition tells youth stories about healing and redemption; after all, the current and former foster youth who share their voices in the museum may have been “lost,” but they are indeed resilient.
Education plays prominently in the museum for its role in healing and transformation. There’s a stunning photo of a young woman reading on a marble bench in the foyer of a library, a massive sculpture to her side.
One display features diplomas, while another shows colorful graduation stoles. You might wonder why a youth who has so little and has worked so hard would let go of his or her graduation diploma – or any of the objects in the museum for that matter.
Put simply, the museum is a vessel for healing. And museum contributors very much want the general public to understand what it means to grow up in foster care, so that members of the community can provide support and connection for foster youth, like Braid Mission was inspired to do with their mentoring program for youth in foster care.
If we are to improve the experiences and outcomes for foster youth, we have to look beyond the role of the government and child welfare professionals, to now include the general public. Foster youth live in our communities and our neighborhoods, go to our schools and places of faith, and want what everyone wants – connection, dignity and love.
If there is one thing that has moved me repeatedly in working on behalf of foster youth, it has been the notion of permanence – and what it means to have permanent connections in this world of ours. In the face of instability, as youth move from placement to placement, I understand that Foster Youth Museum is coming to represent a permanent home where objects, stories and photos – previously silenced – will be held in a safe repository and shared respectfully. “With community support, we can make this vision a reality so we invite people to support Foster Youth Museum with a donation,” says co-director Evans.
The morning after the exhibit, I can still see a large soft purple teddy bear looking up at me from a vitrine. I feel myself tearing up – not because it represents loss but because, in a world of impermanence, it signifies the power of connection and devotion.
Braid was founded in the fall of 2014 as a brand-new ministry of the Episcopal Church, with a unique mission – reaching out to youth in foster care. As we have confessed many times over the past year, however, Chris and I really had no idea what we were doing.
We knew that the needs of foster youth were great, but not because we were experts in foster care. We knew that our church needed to explore how to interact with the world in dramatically different ways, but not because we had any sort of model that inspired or guided us. And we knew that God had put a crazy call in our hearts to start something new that would braid together the church and the world.
And so, as we began to immerse ourselves in the world of foster care, we ended up at a California Youth Connection (CYC) fundraising event, which included a display of Lost Childhoods, which is traveling exhibition of Foster Youth Museum. It took less than half an hour to fully peruse the displays, but we emerged with a much deeper and more emotional understanding of the mission we had unwittingly undertaken. Lost Childhoods made clear to us in very tangible ways how much can be lost and broken in the experience of foster care, and how many ways there are to help.
If It’s Broke, Fix It
You see, before we began this work Chris and I had a naive belief that the foster system worked. We assumed that if something in our culture was truly broken, we would have heard about it. Foster Youth Museum turned that assumption on its head, by revealing to us the countless cracks in the system where youth have watched their physical and emotional needs fall through.
Over the past year, as we have spoken about the challenges foster youth face, we have discovered that most people share our old assumption. In the Bay Area, if people have heard about the needs of foster youth, it’s through Sleep Train commercials, which spread the message that anyone can help a foster child by donating pajamas, shoes, school supplies, and other essentials. These items can help foster youth feel more normal, but unfortunately their needs are much, much deeper.
The good news is that we have yet to meet someone whose heart has not been stirred by the real stories of foster youth: The stories of youth who have been in 50 placements in 18 years; the stories of youth who have been in four schools in one year; the stories of youth who have been deeply wounded by being separated from their birth parents. When people hear these real stories – the kinds of stories the Foster Youth Museum has masterfully curated in Lost Childhoods – people ask, “How can I help?”
Braid’s Community for Foster Youth
At Braid, we have built a mentoring program for foster youth that is one answer to that question. Through our immersion in the foster care system over the past year, we learned from former foster youth that what they often missed was community – specifically, adults who have no power in the system, no official role to play in determining their home or school placement or their permanent record, who show up just because they care.
Braid’s mentoring program surrounds youth with community before they face the pressures of aging out of the foster system. Each young person is matched with his or her own team of three mentors, and they meet weekly with at least two of those mentors to do something fun. Our mentors do not have to be people of faith – in fact, many of them are not. They just have to be willing to be a consistent and loving presence in a young person’s life for one hour a week.
A Sacred Moment for Foster Youth
We have recruited wonderful mentors to begin this program, and yet we still find that most people we encounter have no idea how many foster youth right here in San Francisco are suffering, lonely, and afraid. We have often wished we could share the real stories of foster youth with a much wider audience, which is how the idea of bringing Foster Youth Museum’s Lost Childhoods exhibition to Grace Cathedral was born.
The cathedral has been an iconic landmark in San Francisco for decades, and every week it welcomes hundreds of visitors from around the world. Our hope is that everyone who comes through the doors of the cathedral next month leaves with much greater awareness of the needs of foster youth and how individuals can help in their community.
Our greater hope is that Lost Childhoods will inspire those who already spend a good deal of time within the doors of Grace Cathedral and all the other churches it represents. We have found that The Episcopal Church has a good reputation in San Francisco for getting outside its walls in service to others, but we can always do better. Many times in the last year we have heard from social workers and directors of nonprofits that they have been “waiting for the church to show up.” It is past time for people of faith to respond with vigor and action to help foster youth, and we want The Episcopal Church to lead the way.
We believe that these stories, images and artifacts in Foster Youth Museum are sacred, as sacred as anything that has ever happened inside Grace Cathedral. It is our honor to sponsor the exhibition of Lost Childhoods and we know the sacred artifacts will be a beacon of inspiration and hope for all who encounter them.
Please join us at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, October 15 – November 1, to view Lost Childhoods, the art, artifacts, and video portraits of youth in foster care.
Braid Mission is a spiritual community that brings together the young, entrepreneurial spirit of San Francisco with the needs of youth whose life experience has included the challenge of being in foster care. The Revs. Christopher Chase and Rebecca Edwards are co-directors. As a ministry of the Episcopal Church, Braid is committed to social justice and ethics, and is generously sponsoring the Lost Childhoods exhibition at Grace Cathedral.