Hello from Baltimore!
On Tuesday, August 29, 2017, STAR TRACK and Point Source Youth (PSY) hosted a focus group on family and kinship strengthening at Youth Empowered Society in Baltimore. Ten young adults, several of whom consider themselves chosen family, gathered over pizza. The group tossed around a stuffed toy in the shape of an emoji to make sure only one person was speaking at a time.
This focus group was built collaboratively. At July’s PSY Baltimore Pilot meeting, pilot partners discussed the family and kinship strengthening program that STAR TRACK is initiating. The ideas behind family and kinship strengthening programs are to 1) recognize that some young adults experiencing homelessness want support engaging with families and loved ones around issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or other issues impacting the family and to 2) provide that support in concrete ways for young adults and the families that they choose.
Family and kinship strengthening programs can take different forms; community outreach, family therapy, or psychosocial groups are some of the iterations. Justin Sage-Passant, longtime family therapist at Eva’s Initiatives in Toronto, says “Family conflict does not mean conflict with all family members, or conflict at all times.” This idea is a core tenant of family and kinship strengthening. Where are the sources of connection? Is there financial, emotional, or psychic support? How can any or all of these be strengthened? If family is important to young people, it should be important to their allies in service provision to help answer these questions.
The first collaborative focus group at YES was premised on a core belief of the partners-- that any program should be meaningfully informed by the experiences and expressed needs of young people. The group was led by Stefani Levin, a feminist and harm reduction-oriented therapist at STAR TRACK, and Jade, Youth Consultant with the PSY Baltimore Pilot and leader at STAR TRACK’s NextGen program.
What did we learn from this group? We learned that family members making sure their own basic needs are met can have difficulty prioritizing the needs of young people, even when those young people are facing homelessness. We learned that the foster care system can separate siblings and that visits with family do not replace the positive psychic benefits of living with family. We learned that youth find much to be grateful for from the people in their lives. We learned that youth identify many ways individuals and systems have let them down. We learned that young adults care deeply about protecting and nurturing their children and younger siblings.
Most importantly, we learned that family is a verb. “Family is not blood,” one young person said, “Family is the one you show your loyalty to and the one who shows it back to you.”
“Family is someone who’s there for you when times are heard.”
“They give their 100% like I give 100%.
Verbs convey action, and family and kinship strengthening is a way to support youth the action of connecting with, seeking support from, or processing their histories and relationships with family members. The young adults we talked to expressed interest in this support and helping design the STARTRACK family and kinship strengthening program, which will be the topic of our next focus group, over pizza or perhaps Chinese food. Stay tuned for an update an update. And in the meantime thank you to all of the young people and adult allies who are giving their 100%, it's not easy work and it's worth celebrating.
Stay tuned for an update from our second focus group!