What is the topic of your Enhancing Life Project research, and what are you currently working on?
The topic of my research is exploring how youth in foster care transcend adverse experiences, particularly experiences of grief and loss. I have an article in press right now based on this research which addresses youth’s experiences of non-death loss, trauma, and ambiguity in foster care, and that is being published in the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. Also, recently, the inspirational book by youth in foster care for youth in foster care was published by the Child Welfare League of America—it’s received some great endorsements, such as one from Deepak Chopra, so that's pretty exciting! All of the young adults who contributed to the research will be receiving hard copies of the book so they are excited too!
What are some ways that your project is publicly relevant — implications for public policy, public discourse, etc.?
We're challenging the dominant discourse about how society has portrayed youth in foster care. A lot of people have this mindset of oh, those helpless children, we need to save them, and that's completely inappropriate. These young people are equipped with their own intrinsic resources, and they are empowered to say "You know what, I'm more than what you think I am, and let me show you how." And I think that this inspirational book is a perfect testimony to that, because these young people are sick and tired of the negative statistics and being told they are not going to be successful in this world.
Through the Enhancing Life Project, I have had the opportunity to reflect upon the voices and visions of young people in foster care. You can do lots of different things with data—you can publish data in an academic journal article, you can present findings at national and international conferences, but I think what's innovative about what we've done here is that we've taken these quotes, and we've used them to amplify the youth’s voices in a positive way so that the media can reflect on this work and say, "Okay, here’s where we’re missing the mark. These young people deserve to be portrayed in a positive light." In addition to these youth-centered resources, my research is helping policymakers and people who are a little farther removed from working with the children directly to see that they policies that specifically address the youth’s experiences of grief in foster care are lacking. It's encouraging policymakers and practitioners to look, reflect, make some changes, and recognize that there's a need here.
Are there any specific places that public discourse "gets it wrong" the most about youth in the foster care system? What are some ways that you can see it moving in a positive direction?
I think that sometimes public discourse portrays children as the problem rather than the solution, and until we start to change our understanding of the children whom we serve, we could be doing more harm than good. Children are part of the solution, so when we talk about them, or around them, or exclude them from the conversation, we're doing a disservice to our children and youth. Overall, there's been this negative perception of youth in foster care in public discourse, and I think we're starting to see movement in the right direction, but we really need to be challenging the "adults", who are in a position of privilege and power and who are making all of the decisions; we need to listen to children and hear what they have to say about their experiences in foster care. It is important for us to facilitate child-centered, youth-centered, and family-centered practice, and the only way we're able to do that is if we speak with and listen to children, youth, and families.
Have you recently taught an Enhancing Life Studies course?
I taught a course this past semester on enhancing human well-being via embodying social work ethics and values, and it drew upon the wisdom of social justice greats such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Immaculeé Ilibagiza, and how these individuals engaged in nonviolence to achieve social justice and social well-being. We discussed the six core values of social work, which are: social justice, the importance of human relationships, the dignity and worth of the person, service, integrity, and competence—and these are all embedded within the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. It was a fabulous course. I really enjoyed it.
Who were your students for the course, and what were some of the assignments they did?
Students were Master in Social Work students who were interested in looking within to explore their own personal values and understanding of life purpose and meaning. Every week, students engaged in a different activity to explore the core social work values, and it was always a surprise—every week I had something else planned for them, whether it was role play, or doing a class activity, or whatever it was, I kept them on their toes—and I did that on purpose, because that's how life rolls!
Do you have an example of one of the role playing activities that you had your students do?
This one was interesting—the students were separated into groups, and then I gave each group a scenario, and I said "Okay, now approach this scenario as if you were violating all of the social work ethical approaches or values—what would be the worst thing you could do?” They would have fun with it and really go to the extreme—before they presented to the class, they would say to their classmates, "Okay, we just want to let you know that this isn't how we really think or feel”—they're social workers so they were very challenged with role playing situations that contradicted social justice and social well-being. So they did these horrendous, unethical, discriminatory, really contentious role plays that involved many of the “-Isms” that we unpack in social work, and then I'd say "pause," and then I looked at the other students in the class and say: "What are your recommendations to have the group re-do this scenario so that they're actually embodying core values instead of desecrating them?" And so all the students would give their feedback about "Here's what you need to do," and they had the group re-do the scenario on the fly, based on student feedback, in a way that would embody the core values. The groups did an amazing job incorporating the feedback from their peers and demonstrating their skills as respectful, competent, and compassionate social workers!
Was there anything throughout the course that was a surprise—either something about the course material that surprised your students, or something that surprised you about how your students responded to the course material?
Yes, interestingly, I wasn't expecting that this course would bring me to tears as much as it did. I teach courses on grief and loss, so I'm no stranger to personal and emotional material, but this course brought me to tears many times, because I was listening to students talk about the social injustices they've experienced, the lesson's they've learned, and their powerful conviction to making the world a more loving, compassionate, and just place for all human beings—and that brought me to tears, because it was just so powerful watching them being vulnerable and sharing that with one another, and then talking about how they want to use that information, and those experiences, to make the world a better place. I believe, for my students, that they also discovered that this course was not what they initially anticipated: I think that they thought they'd be sitting there with the NASW Code of Ethics, and being distant from the material they discussed, it was the exact opposite: they were challenged to go within and embody the core social work values, not just in the classroom, but in their everyday life—so, it was powerful.
What are some core ideas that you're hoping stick with the students?
If there's anything I hope they take away from the course, I'd say “love": The importance of loving oneself and loving others, the value of human relationships, that all people deserve dignity and respect, to live a life of service using their own unique gifts, and remembering that life will bring its challenges and injustices but these can be transcended—either through actions, or, if not through actions, then attitudes—so, ultimately, I would say that life is full of mystery, and it's here to be discovered lovingly, with one another.