Opening Night in SF for Foster Youth Museum

Opening Night in SF for Foster Youth Museum

By Annie Gardiner

Opening Night Highlights: 400 attendees, Senator Mark Leno on the podium, and the strong amplification of youth voices

Jeremiah McWright
Lost Childhoods at Grace Cathedral. Photo by Jeremiah McWright

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.

Foster Youth Museum image
“Foster Youth Luggage” by Ray Bussolari.

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.

Jeremiah McWright
Guests viewing Lost Childhoods exhibition. Photo by Jeremiah McWright

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.”

Jeremiah McWright
Senator Mark Leno speaking. Photo by Jeremiah McWright

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.

Jeremiah McWright
The Reverends Rebecca Edwards and Chris Chase, co-directors of Braid Mission. Photo by Jeremiah McWright

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.

Jeremiah McWright
Jamie Lee Evans, co-director of Foster Youth Museum. Photo by Jeremiah McWright

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.

For more information about Foster Youth Museum, visit www.fosteryouthmuseum.org

Annie Gardiner has volunteered with Foster Youth Museum since 2012.

Foster Youth Luggage

By Latrenda Leslie

When I was asked to pose for a photograph about foster youth luggage, the clear plastic bags that foster youth belongings are put into when they enter and leave a placement, I was eager and happy to take part.

The photo does not bring up bad foster memories for me. Unlike other foster youth, I had places with biological family where I could leave my most precious items. I did have my belongings put into plastic bags, but I learned to be detached from things while in care, because theft was so common.

Foster Youth Museum image
From placement to placement, foster youth carry their belongings in clear plastic garbage bags. Latrenda Leslie is featured in Foster Youth Museum’s “Lost Childhoods” exhibition at Grace Cathedral. Open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., Oct. 15 – Nov, 1. Admission is free. (“Foster Youth Luggage” by Ray Bussolari)

I kept nothing of value with me, so when I saw my clothes packed into the clear bags, it had no power over me. The strength I had as a foster kid was to accept the harsh consequences, like thievery among youth, and plan for it. What the picture means to me now, is a reminder of how many times I have moved after age 18 and after foster care. Instability is a common reason that youth enter care, and instability is a very common experience for youth after they exit care.

When you see my photo in Lost Childhoods at Grace Cathedral, I want you to think about the instability foster youth experience, and I want you to know that we carry on and that we are strong. And there are ways you can support foster youth in your community.

I hope to see you at Grace Cathedral, October 15 – November 1, 2015. Come any day, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.