Jay: Thank you for speaking with me today, Cathy! As an advocate and someone with lived expertise in the foster care system I’m very excited to have this opportunity to speak with you. My first question for you is to tell us a bit about who you are and your work as it relates to this project.
Cathy: Yes, thank you, Jay. My name is Cathy Moffa, I use she/her pronouns. I began at Juvenile Law Center in 2013 and I have been working with the Youth Advocacy Program at Juvenile Law Center for ten years now.
Jay: Why is it important for advocacy around child welfare and the juvenile legal system to be youth centered and youth led?
Cathy: It is important because the ones experiencing the issue are best suited to create the solutions. They are the ones who understand the intricacies of the problem the best. It is their stories and experiences that are key to guiding what changes we need and how we implement those changes.
Jay: Are there any challenges to implementing this model? And you know how this toolkit addresses those challenges?
Cathy: There are various barriers that people run into trying to implement this model but gaining agency support and having respect for the process it takes to develop a trusting relationship with young leaders are two challenges. It takes a significant amount of staff time to run a program, so it is essential to earn the buy in of your organizational management to continue to find ways to build out your program. One of the challenges other organizations may encounter is getting buy in, funding and the support needed to sustain and expand a program like this. Additionally, in one of the chapters of the Youth Advocacy Toolkit, I write that ideally, youth-led programming cannot be a not be a side project of other staff at an organization because of the incredible amount of staff time programs require to support the needs of the youth and the specific expertise that is needed to guide program members to build their own advocacy strategies. In our Youth Advocacy Program, we saw the need to hire dedicated full-time social service professionals because there is just so much that needs to be considered and planned out including providing individual support for the program members.
Another challenge organizations may face when implementing this model is acknowledging that there is a process of building trust that people need to go through when it comes to working with young people. We are from Philadelphia, so I am familiar with the motto of the 76ers, trust the process; similarly, the process of building a working relationship with the youth in the program will take time and patience. Youth in the program might have struggles or instabilities impacting their ability to come to the program, and some of those struggles may be a result of their experience in the juvenile legal system or the foster care system. It even takes time and patience to find the best mode of communication with each youth program member. It is key to find ways to build wrap around supports so that you can continue to support youth in the program. Staff must respect it takes time when working with young people and building trust with them. Organizations that want to implement youth councils or youth boards must consider it takes a significant amount of time to build relationships and trust with youth members before they set expectations and deliverables with deadlines for the work.
Jay: Who do you hope will use this toolkit?
Cathy: I hope advocates, other professionals in the field, people who are looking to build youth programming, or people who are looking to improve their current youth programming will use this tool. While primarily for professionals in the field, I think it can benefit anybody who does youth led advocacy, including youth.
Jay: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for budding advocacy groups or for youth who are trying to pursue this work?
Cathy: You will make mistakes, so trying to build your program mistake-free will prevent you from having a sustainable program. I think if people have an intention of being flexible, consistent, and are willing to shift, pivot, add, and change, based off what works best for young people then you will have a successful program. It really comes down to being humble and being able to accept critical feedback. I think people can get stuck in the point of view that their work is the best so when problems arise, they default to blaming something or someone else for the problem. If people are receptive to feedback especially from the youth program members, they will keep growing and youth will stay in the program. It is a very humbling field. If you do not place yourself in a mindset that allows you to self-reflect and be humbled by the experience, you are not going to have members stay with you. We cannot do this critical our work without youth.