Bright Idea: Prepping Youth to Speak in Public and to the Media

 a young woman speaks into a headset

Since 2004, the FosterClub All-Stars have proved an important point: When former foster youth speak about the child welfare system, people listen.

The All-Stars are a group of 18- to 24-year-olds who serve a year-long internship for FosterClub, the national network for youth in foster care. All-Stars receive intense training and opportunities to speak to the public, the media and legislators.

“You have an obligation to train and support youth if you give them speaking opportunities,” says Celeste Bodner, executive director of FosterClub. Bodner and several All-Star alumni spoke at the National Pathways to Adulthood 2009 Conference, held in San Diego this month. They had the following advice for youth workers interested in preparing youth to speak out:

Turn experience into expertise. For instance, young people who have lived on the streets might become “experts” on homelessness—not only telling their own stories, but also doing research on the problem, arming themselves with statistics, and becoming well-versed in possible solutions.

Help youth shape their stories. Teach youth that they don’t have to tell their whole story—only what is relevant to the particular occasion or article.

Ensure that every story has an “ask.” Public speaking engagements can, in a way, exploit youth if there’s no goal behind them. Ensure that youths' public and media appearances have a goal, such as garnering support for the building of a new drop-in center or recruiting mentors for children of prisoners. That way, “Our past is part of helping to make things better,” says Anthony Reeves, a 2006 FosterClub All Star.

Teach youth to “plead the Fifth.” Let youth know they don’t have to answer every question or talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable or that might negatively affect their relationships with family and friends.

Manage youth’s expectations. Make sure they understand that reporters are doing a job, that sudden attention from a media appearance will eventually go away, and that not every offer (say of a job or friendship) that results from their moment of fame is one they should accept.

Don’t let youth “play injured.” If a young person is going through a bad time or just having a bad day, keep them on the sidelines.

Don’t put youth in the spotlight during a crisis. If the media is contacting you because of something bad that has happened in your program, the appropriate spokespeople are your executive director or a trained public relations professional.


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