Monday, January 3, 2022

Serving The Needs Of Housing Insecure And Foster Care Youth: An Interview With An Afterschool Innovator

Junia Kim prepares for the arrival of youth at Project re:Fresh.
Credit: Amir Aziz.  Source: Oaklandside

By Sam Piha

I first learned about Junia Kim and Project re:Fresh through an article my colleague forwarded to me. After nine years of teaching in the East Bay, Junia created Project re:Fresh, an afterschool program focusing on the needs of housing insecure (foster care, homeless and unsettled immigrants) youth. I wanted to learn more about serving the needs of housing insecure youth in afterschool programs, and to do this, I researched more about the issues and interviewed Junia. Her responses are below.

Q: Can you define what you mean by youth who are housing insecure?
A: We use the McKinney-Vento definition - essentially students who are homeless, multiple households in a home, couch-surfing, unaccompanied immigrant youth, etc. 

Q: Can you describe your program, Project re:Fresh?
A: Project re:Fresh is an in-person project-based learning pilot designed with the intention to meet the specific needs of 6th-12th grade youth impacted by foster care and insecure housing. We believe that centering our design on the needs of youth who are often overlooked results in programming that is thoughtfully designed, trauma-informed, and engaging for all youth.

[To learn more about Project re:Fresh and Junia, read this Oaklandside article or listen to this KCBS radio interview.]

Q: Can you describe what you were doing before you created your afterschool program and what inspired this move?
A: Prior to this learning pilot, I was in San Diego participating in High Tech High’s New School Creation Fellowship. The goal there was to immerse myself in a resourced, public project-based learning environment while also intentionally focusing on how to best meet the needs of foster youth in Alameda County (and explored the idea of a school with a free housing component). Before that I was a public-school teacher in the East Bay.

Q: Is there anything in your personal background that inspired you to address the needs of foster youth?
A: As a teacher I always had a student or two who was involved in the foster system or just had unstable housing situations. I remember in my fourth year of teaching, checking in on a student for a week because she was at home alone and hearing from my principal that she had housed that student’s sibling for a weekend a few years earlier. It made me realize there were many ways to open your home to your students, and I feel grateful that in Oakland, it wasn’t uncommon to see other veteran educators wholeheartedly embracing their role in the community. 

In my 7th year in the classroom, I became more involved with Foster the City where I became aware of the unique needs of foster care in Alameda County and California. I wanted to get more personally involved, but also recognized the importance of supporting students within the context of a larger social ecosystem. I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues who are also thoughtful and intentional, and as I continued to look ahead, I felt that I wanted to try to see if we could figure out some way to more seamlessly marry the social work side and education side to support our youth who need it most.

Q: Can you say something about the needs and challenges of foster care youth?
A: California has a highly concentrated number of foster youth in comparison to other states (1/6th of the US foster youth population is in California) and as a result, unlike other public systems, there aren’t a lot of other states to look to for comparison data or practices. Despite the high concentration, numerically, in Alameda County, the number of middle-and high-school aged youth in foster care for a year or longer actually range between 300-400 youth. This number appears manageable, but the geographic spread and unstable placements make it so that regular tangible support is hard to maintain, which then directly contributes to opportunity gaps in learning and social development. Furthermore, aside from systemic difficulties, youth who have been in the foster care system for an extended period of time understandably have experienced multiple traumas that directly result in higher rates of adult instability. 

The hardest thing for me though is just realizing that despite all the strengths and assets our youth bring to the table-- creativity, persistence, self-control, empathy, etc-- there are so many personal, social, and systemic challenges that they often must navigate without consistent, trusted sources of guidance. 

Q: Can you offer any advice to other afterschool leaders who want to better serve the needs of foster care youth?
A: I know the term “trauma-informed care” is a buzzword right now, but it is so important to not only understand our students and what happened to them and the context that we are in, but also to do the internal work to recognize where we need to learn and unlearn. In terms of practice, things that have worked well for us so far are explicitly recognizing the validity of lived experiences as we work on the design and reiterations of our program, treating feedback as a gift, and explicitly centering kind words between youth and staff. We also actively recruit staff who reflect the racial and experiential makeup of our youth and hold to values that include de-centering ourselves and identities that hold privilege in the Bay Area, acknowledging the value of failure, and seeking to maintain clear, reliable systems.

Q: Do afterschool leaders even know if some of their participants are in foster care? 
A: I think depending on the school, district, and program, after school leaders might know what their students are impacted by, but I think that just depends on the intake choices leaders have in their programs. 

I think this is what makes our program special -- we intentionally recruit in areas that we know have a higher concentration of students impacted by foster care and insecure housing, but we also intentionally describe our program as being for students impacted by adverse systems. We believe our students are not their circumstances and that a program designed for a specific group’s needs would actually support the general population as a whole.

Q: Should afterschool leaders reach out to include more foster care youth in their programs? If yes, how would they go about doing that?
A: In my opinion, from program to program, leaders need to first determine if they are able to support students who have been impacted by various levels of trauma as there are multiple circumstances that adversely affect youth. The short answer honestly would be, I don’t think there is a “should” for anyone -- yet the after-school space for me is a place to help level factors that directly result in inequity in our community.

If working with impacted youth is a goal, it really is important to make sure that the resources and capacity to support the youth are there. It’s not a one-size-fits-all best practice, but for us we’ve really benefited from starting with what we hope to see and working backwards from there. It is also an extremely difficult ask for a student to publicly volunteer the parts of their identity and history that are the result of adverse circumstances, so we make sure that while we protect their demographic information, we intentionally create a community built on shared experiences. At the same time, these shared experiences are not necessarily their adverse experiences and trauma, but their interests, joys, hobbies and dreams. Long story short, everyone has different visions so it really is a case by case basis. I would say to surround yourself with feedback and intentionally seek to work with your community. 

Junia Kim is a California native and has been an educator in the East Bay since 2012. Most recently she was a school leader resident and New School Creation Fellow at High Tech High where she founded Seen52, an organization intent on supporting students impacted by the Alameda County child welfare system 52 weeks out of the year.  In her free time, Junia enjoys phone calls, stories, aerial arts, and backpacking. She holds an M.Ed in Language and Literature from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an M.Ed in Educational Leadership from High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

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