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Design — the creative process used to transform current situations into preferred ones — is something to which everyone should have access. But they don’t. The current, un-preferred situation is that design is elitist — available only to those with education, mentors and the conviction that they deserve, and have agency to act on their own behalf.

A short while ago, I wrote about a design workshop I facilitated for the foster community in Washington DC, on the transformational effect that having an equal voice has on people who feel largely invisible. That work, and that workshop, are part of a long-term project initiated and supported by the Larson Family Foundation and in partnership with Community Solutions and their Built for Zero program, founded to end chronic and veteran homelessness.

My role in this work has been to listen to, learn from and prototype with foster communities across the country (Springfield, MA; Denver, CO, Phoenix, AZ and DC). We are now using what we’ve learned to develop an online learning module with a goal to prepare foster communities to use design as one of their key tools for collaborating with youth in fixing the broken foster system.

“The child welfare system is sometimes described as a highway to homelessness. An estimated 20 percent of young adults who are in care become homeless the moment they’re emancipated at the age of 18. And nationwide, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care” (National Foster Youth Institute).

That’s a sobering statistic. Half the people who are homeless as adults in America were part of a system intended to prevent them from becoming homeless.

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We have learned, in these last 4 years of listening and working with foster communities, that young people want, and are missing, trusted relationships with mentors. By “trusted,” youth mean people who care; who will take their calls when the young person is in need. By “relationships,” they mean continuity over time; relationships that do not fall victim to case worker turnover or the episodic support of agencies that focus on one brief time period or aspect of a young person’s life. Trusted relationships result in meaningful mentorship — counsel on the mundanities of life like getting a driver’s license, balancing a checkbook, filling out a job application or navigating a bus route.

Perhaps the most important revelation that has emerged from this work is the difference between the way youth think of themselves vs the way the “system” sees them. The system makes decisions about youth based on a menu of labels: “troubled,” “mentally or physically disabled,” “runaway,” “criminal.” Youth, on the other hand, think about their dreams for the future: freedom, independence, earning a degree or technical education, getting a job, traveling the world and taking photos, giving back to other young people who are stuck in the broken foster system. These dreams, and the voices of youth who have them, are rarely heard. Not because people who devote their lives to helping foster youth through the system don’t care or don’t devote themselves fully to trying to help them, it’s because there simply is no venue to speak to young adults as equals or to listen. That's what we're hoping to change.

If design transforms current situations into preferred ones, it stands to reason that  young people living in unsustainable and un-supported situations should have access to its power.

I’m at work now on a digital learning module with step-by-step guidance for how foster communities can help youth develop a voice and sense of their own agency — collaborating with youth to map their current and preferred journey to independent adulthood. We will make the module available free to every interested community and organization, capturing feedback to help us refine and improve its effectiveness. What we hope to get when we give design away is a generative system that fosters youths’ agency, voice, resourcefulness and independence.

For more detail on the work we’ve done so far, and the role that design is playing in giving young people their voices, here’s an article from the Community Solutions blog. Please get in touch if you’d like to participate or know more.  

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