Young people are often their own best advocates and their voices can be leveraged to promote pathways to long-term success. Youth advocacy and civic engagement is especially powerful for vulnerable populations, such as youth who are homeless, in foster care, or justice-involved, who can draw upon their own experiences to impact change. This kind of youth organizing can lead to positive policy and practice changes “by youth, for youth” and helps young people develop important knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions for success in adulthood.
This webinar featured the voices of young people and highlighted programs that are effectively leveraging youth voice and advocacy to promote policy change and support youth development, putting youth on pathways to success in education, work, and civic life.
Annie Blackledge is the Executive Director for the Mockingbird Society, with the mission to improve foster care and end youth homelessness. Previous to this role Annie worked for Casey Family Programs, in a senior advisor role with the U.S. Department of Education, focused on improving services to vulnerable student populations, including foster and disconnected youth populations. Prior to joining Casey Family Programs, Ms. Blackledge worked for the State of Washington as the Program Supervisor for Dropout Reduction with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and as the Education Program Manager for the Children’s Administration, Department of Social and Health Services. Annie has more than 20 years of experience in education and youth services and an extensive background in serving vulnerable youth; child welfare; dropout prevention, intervention, and reengagement programming; collective impact; and policy and program development. Annie is an alumnus of the New York State foster care system.
Jamel Bonilla is a Youth Organizer at UTEC, Inc. in Lowell, Mass. Jamel was raised in housing projects in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was 17 when he was convicted of armed robbery and incarcerated for 18 months. Upon release, he floated from one dead-end job to another, was nearing homelessness, and battling drug addiction. Now 23, Jamel has paid, full-time employment in food services at UTEC, Inc., a nonprofit youth-serving organization in Lowell, Massachusetts. He has also completed his first semester at Middlesex Community College. He serves on UTEC’s Youth Council, which meets every 4-6 weeks and provides input on UTEC’s operations. Jamel was also nominated by his peers to serve on Teens Leading The Way (TLTW), a statewide policy making and advocacy organization, where he has had multiple opportunities to share his personal story in advocating for passage of an expungement bill, which would offer youth with criminal records a cleaner slate. This bill garnered a great deal of support, even passing the Massachusetts’ Senate in 2016. Jamel has quickly become a leader in this statewide network. In February 2016, Jamel spoke alongside the Governor of Massachusetts about the need to fund gang prevention programs. In July 2016, Jamel was featured on the front page of the Boston Globe in a story about the expungement bill. Jamel hopes to study psychology and someday be a youth worker. Jamel is committed to not only improving his life, but the lives of others.
Tyler Donhardt is a Network Representative at The Mockingbird Society. He is responsible for planning and facilitating events, trainings, and high-level speaking engagements. Tyler enjoys being an advocate on behalf of homeless youth in Washington state by providing his leadership, personal insight, and experience of foster care and homelessness. He believes that every youth should be given a chance to succeed and excel, and is especially interested in enabling the personal development of every youth as an individual.
Geoff Foster is the Director of Organizing and Policymaking at UTEC in Lowell, Massachusetts. With over twelve years’ experience in youth work and community organizing and campaign management, Geoff is responsible for government relations and communications for UTEC. Geoff also oversees UTEC’s community organizing programs including a statewide youth-led policy-making coalition called “Teens Leading The Way.” Geoff most recently worked with the Massachusetts State Senate to pass legislation for juvenile expungement and was named Youth Worker of the Year in 2013.
Michelle Palmer is a 21 years old member of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC). Michelle has been a member of OFYC for four years and has served in a leadership position for the last two years. OFYC allows Michelle to make a difference for future youth involved in the foster care system. One of Michelle’s biggest accomplishments with OFYC has been her involvement in the passage of Oregon’s Extracurricular Activities Bill and the Savings Account Bill. She is currently involved in the process for passing the Siblings Bill of Rights. This bill is particularly meaningful to Michelle because she lost contact with her sister for six years after going into state custody. Michelle believes that if the Siblings Bill of Rights had existed years ago, then she would still have a relationship with her sister.
Matt Rosen is Executive Director of Foster Youth in Action, a national nonprofit that is building a movement of youth leaders and their allies to transform foster care policies and the lives they impact. Matt brings more than 16 years of leadership and management experience in community youth development and youth civic engagement. Most recently, Matt served as Vice President of Programs for the San Francisco-based Youth Leadership Institute, leading the organization’s efforts to deepen its work in youth organizing and youth-led policy advocacy. Matt is an experienced program designer and trainer, as well as the author of several publications, toolkits, and curricula in the areas of youth development, youth philanthropy, and youth-led policy advocacy. He attained a Masters in Social Work and Urban Planning from the University of Michigan and started his career in housing and community development in Detroit. When he’s not raising money, writing emails, or talking on the phone, he likes to spend time with his family and friends and take an occasional bike ride.