Recently I read an article titled, “If It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, How Many Children Does It Take to Raise the Village?” That inspired me to think outside the box. Harry Wilson, author of the article, is the Associate Commissioner for the country’s Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. He encourages all elders to consider creating a new approach to strengthening our villages – one that involves inviting our children and youth into the conversation. Now that’s a win-win-win; for the village, its youth, and the responsible adults who guide them forward.
According to Wilson, “The National Research Council proclaimed recently that 75 percent of American youth are doing quite well, but a quarter of our young people are missing some or all of their protective factors and lack critical developmental assets. As a result, these young people are deemed seriously “at risk”. For these young people, at least, the “village” has not lived up to its commitment.”
This is certainly true for the thousands of youth who quietly “age out” of the public foster care system in this country. Every year when they turn 18, they launch out into the world alone without the resources, skills or connections they need to succeed. One day they are surrounded by an array of supports. The next day they blow out their birthday candles and find themselves with no support at all. Without any safety nets, many end up homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, prone to substance abuse, and stuck in a life of poverty and hopelessness.
The reality is that our children are voiceless and powerless. They do not vote. They count on responsible adults in their “villages” to advocate on their behalf. Some do. Most don’t. When I read Harry Wilson’s article suggesting that we invite our youth into the conversation I began asking, “Who is best qualified to teach us about what our young people are experiencing in foster care in America?” The answer was crystal clear: the children themselves. They can give us the inside perspective that will enable us to assess how healthy our “villages” are. They can help us articulate what is working and what we need to change. They can help us weave reality-based social responsibility into the fabric of our everyday lives.
We have successfully used this inclusive new village model in our sibling connection work. The results of inviting young people into the conversation and spending time listening ripples out into families and communities: social workers change their practice, foster/adoptive parents make sibling connection a priority in their families, and legislators and the public are beginning to understand the important role long connections play in a child’s well-being.
What we are learning is that our children and youth who experience foster care would appreciate additional opportunities to join with the elders in their villages – to forge meaningful relationships, to make sorely needed improvements, to humanize the foster care experience, to educate and inform their village elders about the realities they face every day, and to become valued members of their communities. It would behoove us to invite them in, listen to their stories, and partner with them. Imagine what rich learning will take place if we choose to collaborate with the very children we are seeking to serve.
Harry Wilson states, “When elders welcome young people, accept their fresh perspectives, and tap into their abundant energy, they create a much stronger village. In these enlightened communities young people are celebrated for their citizenship and see themselves as the collective hope for the future. At the end of the day the village and the child are indispensable to one another, are in tune with each other, and will share lifetimes of moving ahead together.” Let’s do it!