Advancing Advocacy Through Youth-Adult Partnerships in Mississippi

Posted December 16, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young people and staff with Mississippi Youth Voice

Part­ner­ships between youth and adults are cen­tral to the work of Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice, a group of young peo­ple with fos­ter care expe­ri­ence who are lead­ing efforts to improve poli­cies and prac­tices for youth in care across the state. Mem­bers of the Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi-based group advo­cate for them­selves and their peers, devel­op lead­er­ship skills and cre­ate resources for youth in and tran­si­tion­ing out of fos­ter care.

This post turns the spot­light on Debra Jenk­ins-Kear­ney, who sup­ports the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work in Mis­sis­sip­pi, and Claire Graves, who coor­di­nates Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice. Graves is also the Mis­sis­sip­pi site direc­tor for First Place for Youth — one of the Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive® sites. Jenk­ins-Kear­ney and Graves answer ques­tions about the impact and impor­tance of youth-adult part­ner­ships in their work.

Who are the mem­bers of Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice?

Jenk­ins-Kear­ney: Youth board mem­bers are ages 18 to 26, have fos­ter care expe­ri­ence and have made a com­mit­ment to lend­ing their voic­es to pro­mote the suc­cess of oth­er Mis­sis­sip­pi youth in fos­ter care. The group recent­ly accept­ed five new mem­bers, bring­ing the total to 11.

Graves: We have young peo­ple who are work­ing, who are still in school and every­thing in between. All of the mem­bers are achiev­ing dif­fer­ent goals in their lives. They all have a real desire to be an active par­tic­i­pant in chang­ing the child wel­fare land­scape in Mississippi.

How has Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice cham­pi­oned youth-adult partnerships?

Jenk­ins-Kear­ney: The group has real­ly been instru­men­tal in facil­i­tat­ing change and cre­at­ing space for social ser­vice agen­cies to expe­ri­ence the pow­er of part­ner­ing with young peo­ple. One way this has been achieved is through train­ing ses­sions with child wel­fare pro­fes­sion­als. Mem­bers of Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice part­nered with staff at the Mis­sis­sip­pi Depart­ment of Child Pro­tec­tion Ser­vices [MDCPS] to plan and facil­i­tate a series of 10 in-per­son train­ings on youth engage­ment, youth rights and fam­i­ly-team meet­ings that reached more than 700 social work­ers from every coun­ty in the state. Youth were able to con­nect the con­tent of the train­ing to their own expe­ri­ences and pro­vide a unique per­spec­tive all while deep­en­ing their rela­tion­ships with key state agency staff members.

Graves: Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice was invit­ed to speak at the MDCPS annu­al lead­er­ship con­fer­ence that catered to the child wel­fare agency’s social work super­vi­sors, direc­tors and state lead­ers. The agency has some incred­i­ble lead­ers who are com­mit­ted to youth engage­ment. These lead­ers asked Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice to dis­cuss spe­cif­ic areas where the agency is doing well and where it can improve in terms of sup­port­ing tran­si­tion-age youth. Pri­or to the pan­el, the young peo­ple had lunch with the state’s com­mis­sion­er of child wel­fare and talked with him one-on-one about how ser­vices for youth in fos­ter care could be designed to bet­ter sup­port their suc­cess. These are just a cou­ple exam­ples of real­ly great part­ner­ships that these young lead­ers have devel­oped in their first year.

What are some of the long-term goals young peo­ple are work­ing toward?

Jenk­ins-Kear­ney: One of the things Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice would like to take on is pol­i­cy and prac­tice change. One way these young lead­ers believe they can achieve this is by strength­en­ing their advo­ca­cy skills. To sup­port this, the Casey Foun­da­tion pro­vid­ed a series of train­ings to Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice and MDCPS staff on strate­gic shar­ing. The train­ings focus on appro­pri­ate and safe sto­ry­telling and how it can be used to advo­cate for change in prac­tice and pol­i­cy. This pro­vid­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty for mem­bers of Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice to deep­en their under­stand­ing and prac­tice of advo­ca­cy mes­sages to sup­port and advance their work.

Graves: Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice is inter­est­ed in grow­ing in sev­er­al ways. One way is doing more direct pol­i­cy work focused on a cou­ple of issues in which they want to see progress. This fall, mem­bers estab­lished two work­groups: one focused on improv­ing men­tal health ser­vices and access for young peo­ple, and the oth­er focused on increas­ing the num­ber of youth in care who are able to learn to dri­ve and get their driver’s license. These work­groups are off to a strong start devel­op­ing con­crete pol­i­cy solu­tions to some of the key issues they see fac­ing youth in care in Mississippi.

Ide­al­ly, we’d like to see Mis­sis­sip­pi Youth Voice grow beyond Jack­son so that we have oth­er chap­ters through­out the state, part­ly so that more young peo­ple can have access to this work, but also because dif­fer­ent parts of the state have dif­fer­ent issues that should be prioritized.

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