Perspectives from Former Foster Youth Illuminated in Faith & Contemporary Issues Conversation
By Kevin Clark
Preparing to see youth tokenized, rather than given equity in the public sphere, irks me.
I’ve seen foster youth contribute to the “aesthetic appeal” of forums and conversations, with usually about 30 seconds given to intersperse a hurried timeline of events. Yet, The Forum, a weekly Sunday morning conversation series, in which faith and contemporary issues are discussed, was distinct.
Valentino Luna and Latrenda Leslie, both prominent fixtures within the Foster Youth Museum, from which the topic for this weeks Forum was generated, were given just under a full hour to share their personal experiences, provide recommendations for improving the foster care system, and reflect on how faith and God played a part in their lives. An important conversation ensued throughout the morning, as a crowd of over 40 engaged with former foster youth narratives.
The Reverend’s Christopher Gray Chase and Rebecca Nelson Edwards, along with The Very Reverend Malcolm Clemens Young, graciously guided the conversation about faith and foster care in Gresham Hall of Grace Cathedral. The three reverends, with their white clerical collars symbolizing humility and hope, sat on the stage in the front of the room, with Latrenda and Valentino nestled in between.
The conversation delivered precisely what it said it would; it gave the audience access to foster youth perspectives. After a short round of introductions, the conversation quickly turned towards providing Val and Latrenda time to recount traumatic experiences –like Valentino’s past history as a child sex worker on the streets of Los Angeles – and the triumphs – such as both of the former foster youths’ successful transition into adulthood.
The Reverend Rebecca Edwards, co-director of Braid Mission, made it clear that the Foster Youth Museum was created to memorialize foster youth narratives. “The Foster Youth Museum was compiled by foster youth who wanted to convey their experience in foster care… it’s incredibly powerful.” This power seemed to have arisen out of the conviction and vulnerability that was present in the answers that Valentino and Latrenda gave.
When asked about his relationship with God, Valentino mentioned, “God was always with me, because no matter whose life I came across, they were going to leave. And I still have this amazing connection with God, because he got me through things I never ever believed that I could get through.” He would pray and talk to a statue of the Virgin Mary, and ask for the guidance and support he was not receiving from other sources.
Latrenda mentioned that she likes to believe that God made it possible for her to always have someone, even if it was one person, to support and guide her through her life.
As the conversation proceeded, members of the audience brought forth question cards to the front of the room. Questions such as, “how can religion or spirituality be offered to youth in an ethical and non-pressuring way,” and, “how do we support foster youth between the ages of 15-18” were answered with personal reflections on personal experiences in the foster care system. Latrenda recommended that foster youth be given the right to interview prospective foster parents before being placed, and motioned for more personal choice when the child welfare system recommends mental health treatment.
One of the final questions posed was about the foster youth community after transitioning out of foster care. Valentino mentioned that, “We’re [foster youth] definitely on our own… We’re a stray bullet.” However, Latrenda spoke about how her resourceful character was instrumental in finding a community after she emancipated from the system. “I was fortunate… I was very connected to a lot of foster youth, so I do feel like I have a big foster youth community, or a family as I would call it… I developed a big family.”
The Lost Childhoods exhibit will be on display at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco until November 1st. For more information, contact Jamie Lee Evans at Jamie@calyouthconn.org
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.