In 2011, the Detroit public school board approved an anti-bullying policy written by a group of homeless youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. The decision was a cause for celebration at Ruth Ellis Center, a local residential program and drop-in center that supported the youth as they turned their personal experiences with bullying into public reform.
Their transformation was facilitated by Out and Up Front, a yearlong program launched by Ruth Ellis to ensure that youth advocacy is done in a therapeutic, trauma-informed way.
“A lot of organizations that work with youth experiencing homelessness know that sharing a personal story is a really valuable way to help people see why these issues need to be addressed,” says Jessie Fullenkamp, Ruth Ellis Center’s director of outreach services. “But not everyone realizes that process can be exploitative and traumatic.”
Serving as a Coach and Confidante
Celeste Bodner, executive director of a national network of foster youth known as FosterClub, says agencies should view themselves as a professional basketball team. Staff members are responsible for developing an advocacy strategy and finding speaking opportunities such as legislative visits and professional panels, she says, in addition to coaching youth “players” on their presentations.
Just as coaches pay attention to the well-being of their athletes, Bodner says youth workers should also seek to reduce the trauma that can occur when youth share difficult memories. FosterClub runs an intensive training program in which youth learn to frame their stories and practice presenting them in small groups and one-on-one.
According to former youth participant Daniel Knapp, young people can move as slowly through the preparation process as they want, allowing them to get to know staff members. These relationships help mentors see more easily when a youth is upset and encourage youth to be honest when they don’t want to share something publicly.
“You earned that story,” says Knapp, who now sits on the FosterClub board of directors. “It’s not just something you give away freely.”
Learning to Say (and Hear) ‘No’
Over at the Ruth Ellis Center, staff members 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. Fullenkamp says the agency follows up with youth after each event to hear their feedback.
Ruth Ellis also teaches young people about the many things that can change in the policy process, she says, showing youth how to engage their communities in an initiative even if policymakers don’t act on their requests. Both she and Bodner agree that youth can benefit from the advocacy process regardless of the final outcome.
“Young people in care are made to tell their story over and over again, and it’s not in their control,” Bodner says. “This is the first time they get control over it for a lot of young people, and it’s the first time they see it used for a good purpose.”