As part of the Lean Startup for Social Enterprise course that I took through Be Social Change, I started conducting customer development interview with youth in care. This exercise forced me to step back from all the generally positive feedback I’ve had from social workers, child welfare administrators, and other adults in the youth development space to ask a more fundamental question: Will the youth themselves find my programs useful?
So far I’ve interviewed three young people either in care or recently aged out to determine how they set goals for themselves, what internal qualities they possess to help them along, and what other tools and supports they have to reach their goals.
My conversations with them tended to meander, but I was able to gather a lot of knowledge and insight from each young person I spoke to. Already there are some common themes emerging. Note that this is a totally unscientific study with a tiny sample size, but what I learned seemed worth sharing:
1. Young people in foster care develop systemic thinking skills early on. Because they are exposed to the workings of a massive bureaucracy that impacts their daily lives, youth in care know where the pain points are. They see exactly where all the moving parts fail to connect because a lack of communication and coordination. And they sense the irony of how a system meant to serve the interests of children can come woefully short of its goals.
2. Young people in foster care have big dreams for themselves, often involving a career that will help them “give back” and help others. Everyone I spoke to had academic and career goals, and they were confident that they had something to offer to society. Because they’ve lived through considerable challenges in life, they want to make the path easier for others. One individual I spoke to intends to open his own business helping the less fortunate by providing services such as childcare, tutoring, mentoring, and prepping youth for adulthood. Another wants to run her own group home or open her own child welfare agency. And yet another dreams of becoming a criminal justice lawyer. We need to help make this happen!
3. It’s setting short term goals that’s the problem. The youth I interviewed report having no difficulty setting long term goals for themselves, such as “graduate from high school and apply to college.” What’s difficult is identifying and taking all the little steps needed to reach that ultimate goal.
4. “Good kid” and “bad kid” are not only morally reprehensible labels; they are completely inadequate for understanding the challenges of our young people. High-achieving youth in care may look like they are holding everything together admirably well, but they may struggle regularly with keeping their motivation levels up and following a positive path.The fragility of their lives is horrifying: I know someone who is a terrific student, but contends with pressure to enter a gang. Another youth I interviewed is in college now, but has come frighteningly close to dropping out. The trouble with the ones who do reasonably well in school is that they tend to get neglected because they’re “good kids.”
5. The problem isn’t “scholastic aptitude.” Yes, mileage will vary from individual to individual, but what often determines whether or not someone drops out, gets a GED, or graduates from high school is not “intelligence,” but the ability to deal with mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing circumstances. Even for someone who sets her sights on college and regards school as a safe haven, it takes a great deal of strength and maturity to be able to “leave problems at the door” and focus on schoolwork.
6. Demonstrating grit is essential. During our conversations, each of my interviewees articulated a determination to prove to others and to themselves that, in spite of all outward appearances and life circumstances, they could “get it together” to meet their goals. One person said she’s encouraged by “doubters” because she’s driven to prove that she isn’t “dumb.” Another said he lives by the mantra, “If they can do it, so can I.” Still another said that being exposed to life outside of her family of origin and neighborhood community gave her the push to do whatever she could to be successful.
7. Having caring adults in their lives matters. This should come as no surprise. Even the memory of a loving grandmother who supported a child through her early school years can help keep that young person determined to enter college.