Five Questions with Casey: Paula Young on the Importance of Engaging Youth

Posted April 2, 2016, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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As a senior asso­ciate for youth engage­ment for the Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive, Paula Young works to con­nect young peo­ple to authen­tic part­ner­ships with car­ing adults and ulti­mate­ly empow­er youth to direct their futures and advo­cate for sys­tem change. 

Pri­or to this role, Young over­saw Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group’s race dis­par­i­ty port­fo­lio and child wel­fare agency assess­ment process at the Foun­da­tion. Young also has worked with the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive in Michi­gan, where she facil­i­tat­ed a statewide youth lead­er­ship board and devel­oped pol­i­cy for old­er youth in care. She holds a master’s degree in urban plan­ning from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pittsburgh.

In this Five Ques­tions edi­tion, Young shares why it’s impor­tant to engage young peo­ple in deci­sions that affect their future.

Q1. What does youth engage­ment mean in child welfare?

Noth­ing about us, with­out us” is our guid­ing prin­ci­ple. True youth engage­ment in child wel­fare brings young peo­ple to the table to dis­cuss pol­i­cy and prac­tice. It means adults and youth are part­ner­ing togeth­er to advo­cate for trau­ma-informed and rela­tion­ship-dri­ven pol­i­cy reforms. On a per­son­al lev­el, youth engage­ment also means involv­ing young peo­ple in deci­sions that affect their future. They need to have a say in their indi­vid­ual case plans and per­ma­nen­cy goals. Often­times, these plans are tem­plate dri­ven and fail to cap­ture impor­tant details about each person’s spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances. And when a young person’s voice is absent from these impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions, it’s unlike­ly that her or she will be com­mit­ted to see­ing a plan through.

Q2. Why is youth engage­ment crit­i­cal to chil­dren and young peo­ple in fos­ter care?

Empow­er­ing young peo­ple to advo­cate for them­selves fos­ters com­mu­ni­ty advo­ca­cy and civic engage­ment. Even more, when we tap into a young person’s direct expe­ri­ence, exper­tise and wis­dom, it alters the out­come. We see bet­ter results and a big­ger impact when young peo­ple are engaged and heard.

Q3. What drew you to do this type of work?

I grew up on the South Side of Chica­go as a white Jew­ish girl in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly black school. Every day, I saw and heard exam­ples of how insti­tu­tion­al racism and inequity affect­ed young peo­ple and how my white priv­i­lege pro­vid­ed me with dif­fer­ent oppor­tu­ni­ties. I also attend­ed a syn­a­gogue that focused on social jus­tice and encour­aged us to help cre­ate a bet­ter world. Work­ing to improve out­comes in child wel­fare is about chang­ing our val­ues and ensur­ing that the most under­served chil­dren and fam­i­lies have access to the resources they need to be healthy, whole human beings and to cre­ate healthy com­mu­ni­ties. To do this cor­rect­ly, we need to lis­ten to and draw from the direct expe­ri­ences of those we serve.

Q4. How does the Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive engage young people? 

Our mis­sion is to ensure that young peo­ple suc­cess­ful­ly tran­si­tion from fos­ter care to adult­hood. Local­ly, sites give young peo­ple an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take on lead­er­ship and advo­ca­cy roles, such as serv­ing on a youth board. Nation­al­ly, we sup­port the Young Fel­lows Pro­gram and Youth Lead­er­ship Insti­tute, which bring young peo­ple togeth­er from across the coun­try to take part in fed­er­al pol­i­cy reform. We incor­po­rate feed­back from local sites and Young Fel­lows into our pol­i­cy agen­da and the strate­gies we imple­ment. We also work to ensure that youth voic­es are not tok­enized and that young peo­ple receive com­pen­sa­tion for their time and expertise. 

Q5. What advice do you have for case­work­ers, advo­cates, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and oth­ers who want to engage young peo­ple in their work?

I encour­age every­one in this field to lis­ten open­ly and with the intent to learn and act. Chal­lenge your­self to mean­ing­ful­ly con­nect with young peo­ple and to avoid mak­ing assump­tions about what you will hear. Allow young peo­ple to make mis­takes, learn and grow — and be sure they know that they have a sol­id foun­da­tion to return to. Final­ly: Bal­ance high expec­ta­tions with com­pas­sion and urgency with the patience that work­ing with ado­les­cents requires.

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