Through the advocacy work I do within my community, and across the state, I have learned the ingredients for effective youth-adult partnerships that drive sustainable policy and practice changes. The key component, which I have witnessed firsthand, is a pluralistic approach to dealing with the issues related to child welfare. The benefits of a pluralistic model are shared control, and EVERYONE feeling heard and valued. This model includes the professionals and youth with lived experience, not one without the other. It is also essential to keep in mind the degrees of youth participation, as demonstrated by Roger Hart’s research. Coming from a former foster youth who had experienced every level of involvement, I promise you this research is worth reading!

The first step towards effective youth-adult partnerships is mutual respect. Professionals should respect youths’ experiences for what they are, and youth should respect adults for their power in driving changes within the system. Both parties need one another for the most significant amount of impact on children and youth in care now and in the future. No one is trying to point fingers or place blame, however, favorable policy and practice changes cannot occur if people do not accept the issues that need addressing. Youth want to be heard and have their opinions taken into consideration on decisions directly impacting their lives or the lives of those that follow us.  

Youth must be seen as organizational assets to community-based care agencies across Florida and can offer insight into the effectiveness of current policy and procedures. Who better to provide this feedback than the consumers of the system, youth with lived experience! Identifying areas of improvement and teaming up with system professionals is the best way for laws and systemic changes to occur. Companies hire employees because they are experts due to completing their fields of study. Former foster youth are experts in specific areas because they have the firsthand experience that most child welfare professionals lack. These experiences can help professionals make better decisions that impact a significant number of lives. When participating, there should be, in this mutually beneficial relationship, compensation for youth. This simple act shows youth how much you value their time and vulnerability in sharing their traumas.

Joining hands with One Voice IMPAACT’s initiatives has provided me with the training and support to take my advocacy to the next level. You can help make a change in your area or state-wide by doing any number of things, big or small. Everything counts! Joining a leadership council as a youth or supporting adult would help to ensure professionals hear our cries for help. Second, take a moment to step back and evaluate your current perspective of foster youth. How can you help prepare, equip, and support young leaders within your area? Lastly, help spread the word! Youth voice is a critical component for sustainable changes to policy and practices within the child welfare system. We can all learn from one another, but we must do it in a respectable manner where all parties feel heard and valued.

My name is Rayla James, I am twenty years old, and I currently live in Brevard County, Florida. I am a senior at the University of Central Florida working towards my bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. I advocate on both a local and state level, using my experiences in foster care to help others feel heard and inspire future resilient leaders.