Partner Spotlight: Youth Empowerment Program (Colorado)
My name is Betsy Fordyce and I’m the Director of the new Youth Empowerment Program at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center in Denver, Colorado. I’ve always been fascinated in how the law can be used as a tool to help people. For the past 10 years, I’ve had a front row seat at the powerful intersection of law and social work. I became passionate about supporting foster youth during their transition period out of the system and into adulthood. The traditional formula involved us (the adults) deciding what was best for them (the youth), but we now know better from developmental research that this approach generally leads to poor outcomes. We need to start changing the conversation and help all of those working in the child welfare system shift their views on how to most effectively engage youth as partners in these cases. Instead of making all of the life decisions for youth, we need to recognize the value of youth voices in shaping those decisions.
We can be really well-intentioned lawyers, judges, and providers, but try as we might, we can’t identify the challenges of the system from the inside or relate with other foster youth based on shared experience. The unspoken struggles that our youth may face connect them in unique and powerful ways. I’ve also noticed generational differences that subtly affect our perceptions. While professionals are used to identifying flaws in youth behavior or decision-making, other youth see strengths. I’m constantly amazed at how accepting and authentically open our young people are with each other. They’re connecting on the most basic human level, free of the narrow filters and complacency that we somehow develop with age and professional experience.
Working with Foster Youth in Action, I have really deepened my understanding of what youth empowerment means and also gained insight as to how it looks in practice. When you build a new program, you often don’t know what you don’t know. That has been our initial experience in youth-led organizing – a process of constant learning. A group of Children’s Law Center staff, key community partners, and six young people joined together at FYA’s initial training on the foundations of youth-led organizing. It was powerful to witness the youth’s own excitement in imagining the impact their voices would have in forming a shared vision with their adult allies.
FYA has been an incredible support system for us in sharing best practices, answering all of our questions, and encouraging us to keep the momentum going. We are so grateful to be joining this network and learning about the exciting work of other states! We’re looking at several bills that other states have rallied behind and now asking ourselves, why can’t we do that here in Colorado? These include exciting initiatives, such as tuition vouchers and driver’s license accessibility, but I know with our new youth coalition identifying their own priorities, foster youth in Colorado will be organized and taking action in no time.
The best way for us to make positive change in the child welfare court system is to raise up the voices of the foster youth themselves. It may take time to educate all of the various people in the room, but I know our youth are up to the challenge. I can’t wait to see their fresh perspectives on old problems and to watch the ripple effect of their work as it reaches other foster youth they may never even meet.