21-year-old Shay House is a foster youth advocate and LGBTQ activist from Oakland, California. During her time in foster care, she lived in more than 40 placements and attended 23+ schools. But against all odds, Shay persisted in her academic goals. This fall, she will be starting her junior year at Mills College where she is majoring in Politics and Urban Inequalities. This month, Shay shares her story with us and offers advice for foster kids and their advocates.
Q: What accounts for your academic success, and what educational advice would you have for the hundreds of thousands of children in the foster care system?
Honestly, I credit my academic success to my fear of becoming a statistic. I’ve grown up knowing that because I don’t have a family to support me or help me during hard times, I have to succeed academically. My future opportunities in life are literally depending on it. My advice to foster youth is to dream big, never settle for mediocrity and be your strongest advocate. Be firm, persistent, and unwavering about the quality of education you deserve – knowledge is the only thing that can never be taken away from you.
Q: You aged out of California’s system last year. What was that like? How has this past year been for you?
Since I was already enrolled in college and living in the dorms, my life didn’t dramatically change overnight as it does for so many other foster youth. I did however experience some major money problems. I stopped receiving my monthly check of $859, which had helped me pay for clothes, food and transportation. Consequently, I ended up going through all of my savings in just a few months. I now have a job in San Francisco where I work 25hrs a week to regain financial stability. It’s tough to balance work with my full course load, but I’ve learned to manage it well. I’m just relieved I’m not homeless or incarcerated like so many foster youth who age out.
Q: As a foster care youth advocate, what are your thoughts on how the advocacy community, and the country, is dealing with issues affecting current and former foster youth? What’s working and what could be done better?
Simply put, more needs to be done to rectify the injustices foster youth encounter while in the custody of the state. It is a broken and outdated system that is robbing youth of a chance at life. There needs to be more programs that empower foster youth to use their voices / stories to change the system for future generations. I firmly believe that it takes someone who has experienced the inner workings of a system to be the one to change it, thus we absolutely need more current/former foster youth at the table giving their expert opinions on how we can better serve our nation’s foster youth.
Q: What was it like growing up in care as an LGBTQ women of color, and what are ways in which child welfare systems could better protect and nurture LGBTQ foster youth?
Growing up in care as a lesbian woman of color was a bit of a roller coaster. I spent my adolescence ‘in the closet’ in order to remain under the radar and not bring any unwanted attention to myself. Life was already difficult enough. I’m Black; I’m female; I’m a foster youth, and now a lesbian?? The day I finally came out, I discarded all of my old clothes, and piece by piece I crafted the wardrobe I have today, which is authentically me. Being closeted made life easier, because I didn’t receive backlash from the public for not fitting in with societal norms, but it was never easy for me on the inside. I felt like I was at war with myself. I wanted to do one thing, but at the time I was petrified to be the open lesbian I am today. When I finally let people know who I was, I received a lot of backlash from my foster parents and foster siblings. The child welfare system should create an LGBT center specifically for foster youth where LGBTQ mentors are available. It would also be great if there was mandated LGBTQ training for foster parents.
Q: What public policy would you like to someday help implement that would significantly improve life outcomes of our nation’s foster youth?
I would love to help implement a law that requires policy makers to consult with former foster youth before proposing any kind of legislation that affects youth in care.