California Youth Connection, San Francisco
California Youth Connection website
Jody Marksamer, National Center for Lesbian Rights
Foster youth are among California's most vulnerable citizens. Many spend their adolescence moving from home to home and school to school, and when they "age out" of the foster care system at age 18, many are ill-prepared to live on their own — without families, jobs, or high school diplomas to shore them up.
The plight of California's 77,000 foster youth has gained much needed attention in recent years. And no organization has played a more vital role in advocating for that attention than California Youth Connection (CYC), which is helping to transform child welfare policy and empowering thousands of current and former foster youth across the state.
Every year since 1995, its recommendations have informed new legislation and policymaking to improve the foster care system, including laws that increased support for transitional housing, improved access to education and job training, and ensured separated siblings stay connected. In 2006–07, CYC's recommendations contributed to the enactment of an unprecedented 14 new laws and an additional $82 million for foster care in the state budget — the largest increase in more than a decade.
What is remarkable is that this is largely the work of current and former foster youth themselves. CYC's members are well-known in Sacramento and throughout the state, where they educate legislators and policymakers about the challenges that foster youth face and make recommendations for changes to improve the foster care system.
For CYC's foster youth members, this is a new and often profound experience. They learn new skills and build confidence in their abilities, even as they are working to improve conditions for thousands more like them. Studies demonstrate a strong correlation between participation in CYC's programs and improved outcomes for foster youth.
CYC's leadership team embodies this collaborative model. As executive director since 1994, Janet Knipe has overseen the organization's extraordinary growth from nine chapters to 28. She also set the standard for how to promote youth leadership, recruiting top CYC staff from among its membership and supporting them in their demanding leadership roles.
Knipe explains, "The challenges that youth face when they reach 18 — access to college, the need for housing and employment — are magnified for foster youth."
Another member of the leadership team is Tiffany Johnson, also a former foster youth, who joined CYC in 1991 because she wanted to improve the foster care system for her three younger siblings. She has held many of CYC's top staff jobs, and today, as associate director, she oversees all major program areas and is helping to build a strong foundation for CYC's future growth.
"Policymakers need to hear directly from foster youth so they can craft policies that ensure the same outcomes that we want for all of California's children," says Johnson.
For demonstrating the power of youth advocacy and improving the quality of life for California's foster youth, Janet Knipe, Tiffany Johnson, and Tonya Hightower are recipients of a 2008 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.