By Martin do Nascimento and Anthony Pico
In our ongoing Fostering Conversation series, Aunt Bertha’s Anthony Pico speaks to Zaid Gayle, founder and executive director of Peace4Kids. In 1998, Gayle left a career in the film industry to begin Peace4Kids, a nonprofit on a mission to create a stabilizing community for kids living within the often unstable foster care system. Over the past two decades, this grassroots organization has served thousands of foster youth in South Los Angeles, specifically the city’s Watts, Willowbrook, and Compton neighborhoods. Its mission, says Gayle, is not only helping kids form lasting connections with peers and adults with similar foster care experiences, but also rewriting the prevailing narratives surrounding foster youth.
[This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
ANTHONY PICO: How do you explain Peace4Kids and the work you do to someone with no experience with foster care?
ZAID GAYLE: Our motto is ‘community as family‘. What I describe to people is a community that is flexible, a community that grows, a community in which the young people themselves direct the types of services we provide.
On Saturdays, we’re here at the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club, and we have young people who come in from age four all the way up to age 18, 19. And that is our signature activity during the week.
We have about 50 volunteers who come on that day to support the 100 youth who come to the program. The youth will get into activity-based groups. There’s a lot of project-based learning that may happen during the course of the day, but the idea is that they will learn and grow together and develop certain skills and assets that we, over time, have learned are really important for young people in care.
What kind of skills do you focus on developing?
One is effective communication. The idea behind that is that our young people, even earlier than most children, need to learn how to express what they need and use language in a way that gets people to have clarity about how they can support them.
The second one is community as family. The concept behind that is that young people who are in care traditionally don’t get the chance to interact with other people who are going through the same experience. So there’s a shared cultural heritage, and when you come together, you become the predominant culture.
The third one is personal responsibility, and that is specific to this idea of choice. We want our young people to recognize that, yes, things have happened to you. And those things have been unfortunate through no fault of your own. The reality is that you still have a choice. And that’s a really difficult one for our young people because they feel like, well, I got put in this home. I didn’t get to choose who I’m living with. And so we focus on this idea that the one thing you will always have dominion over is how you think about your circumstances.
And then the last one is respect. Respect is really a foundational principle. But for youth in foster care, while respect is important, it’s [also] about respecting that their feelings and their emotions are warranted.
A lot of times we have young people who say, ‘I shouldn’t feel the way I feel,’ and we want them to respect the fact that their feelings are valid. Those [feelings] are core to who you are, and they are there to help propel you to this greater understanding and this greater realization of who you can become. That’s where the superhero narrative starts to come in.
Before we get to the superhero work, Peace4Kids does research that’s directed by the youth you work with. Can you talk about that a little bit?
For a long time, our young people had been coming to us and saying, ‘Look, we feel that the social workers who interact with us, the educators who interact with us, they have these negative opinions about us.’
So in 2018, we did a survey polling the public in Los Angeles. We had close to 2,500 respondents and the question that was asked was: In the media, what types of storylines are most likely to be depicted for youth in foster care? The top four answers we received, you can probably guess, were ‘criminal,’ ‘drug addict,’ ‘survivor,’ and ‘victim.’
The more positive paradigms — we asked talked about foster youth being portrayed as mentors or loving children or parents or heroes — barely registered.
For us, the results left us with a new kind of programmatic challenge. How do we begin to disprove this negative archetype? How do we begin to dispel these myths in a way that has a larger-scale impact?
At least part of the answer was in the development of superhero narratives, right?
When we started this research work, one of the things that was really striking to us is that our kids in the program were really attached to superhero narratives.
If you look at Batman, he’s probably one of the more famous ones that everybody knows — his parents were killed and he was raised by his butler, a non-relative caregiver. And it’s because he witnessed his parents being murdered in front of him that he decided he was going to fight injustice every day of his life.
Superman, his home planet was blown up. But because of his adoptive parents who took him in and created a home for him, he grew up deciding that he was going to defend Planet Earth at all costs. Right?
We realized there were all these narratives that existed about superheroes who had a foster-care experience, but that people in our society don’t think about young people in foster care as superheroic.
So we started asking ourselves: ‘How do we get people to see our young people in that paradigm? And how do we get our young people to see themselves in that paradigm?’
We decided we needed to take our young people on these journeys so they can understand how what they’ve experienced is informing who they are today and the vision for who they want to become.
Video: A Home for Heros
Produced in 2018 for Peace4Kids
It sounds like you’re working with the youth in your programs to reframe their experience in foster care. Is that right? How do you do that work?
The most visible thing we do is when our young people reach the ages of 16, 17, 18, we have a rite of passage for them. We tell them, ‘Now you get the opportunity to tell your story. What’s your hero’s journey?’ And the young people create their own narratives on video.
What we’ve discovered from this process is the power of storytelling and of anchoring yourself to an identity. It becomes a marker for you in time. And it allows the young person to gain perspective on why the things that they experienced in their childhood matter.
Another thing Peace4Kids does is help people who work in foster care rethink their own work. Can you talk about that?
We’re training our young people to step into places like the Department of Children and Family Services to do some implicit bias training. … So, in the places where folks are having the direct impact on young people in care, we’re training our young people to disrupt the ways people think about them that they don’t even recognize.
You have to get people to see that they are perceiving these young people in this particular light, and that, as a result, they are responding to them in ways they are not even cognizant of.
What’s been the response to those trainings?
There have been foundations who fund our work and who really get it and are excited about it. At the same time, it’s hard to go into a space like child welfare and say, ‘The way you think about the young people you are tasked to serve, you’re in some ways the cause of their poor outcomes.’ That’s not something that somebody wants to hear.
So, the trick for us has been to get people to that discovery without shaming them.
The same thing is happening with educators: Educators all believe they really care about these young people. But it’s like, ‘Yes, but you are disciplining them at a higher rate, and you’re kicking them out of the classroom because of behaviors that are being exhibited, even because of the language that you use.’
We always give this example: I want you to imagine that you’re a kid in foster care. You’ve just been removed from your parents’ home. [A teacher] pass[es] out a field trip slip and says to you, ‘Take this home to your mother.’ In that moment, you’ve reminded that kid that they’ve been removed. If you’re not sensitive to a population and engage with them in a way where there’s all these microaggressions in the course of a day, then that kid is going to have some behavioral reactions because they do not feel safe in that space. They do not feel welcome. Which I think is what anybody would do in any circumstance in which they feel, ‘I don’t belong here and you don’t care about me.’
And some of these unconscious biases extend to public policy, no?
The example I’ve been giving to educators is this: In the state of California, they’ve lowered the number of credits that a youth in foster care needs to earn in order to graduate high school [to the state minimum of 130]. The rationale behind it is, well, [foster kids] move a lot. Credits get lost. They don’t get the opportunity to have the full educational experience because of all the changes they’re enduring. But what you’ve communicated to them is that [they’re] not capable of reaching the bar like the others, so we’re going to lower it for you. And that does not set young people up for success, nor does it make them feel as though they’re capable.
Just because a young person has been removed from their home doesn’t mean that they’re that different from your experience in your childhood. And if you think that you’ve developed the tools to adapt and manage, to move to some modicum of success, then these young people have the same opportunity to do so.