As an intern at Foster America this summer, I had the chance to attend a quarterly convening in Minnesota with the fellows and staff. Each quarter during the 18-month fellowship program, fellows gather from across the country for a few days of collective training and reflection led by Foster America faculty. The convenings usually are located in a jurisdiction where fellows are currently placed, and include visits to local child welfare organizations. Since my start in May, tales of convenings past and hopes for future convenings floated around the office. So, I had a faint idea of what this magical convening was, but I did not fully know what to expect.
On Monday, June 24th we packed our bags and journeyed to the Twin Cities. Although I was already familiar with most of the Foster America staff, I had never met any of the fellows. Cohort 3 and some alumni from Cohorts 1 and 2 started trickling into the Union Depot conference room and just like that, the convening commenced. Foster America faculty member Brian Clapier, a University of Chicago Policy Fellow at Chapin Hall, led a session on the Theory of Change in which each Cohort 3 fellow shared their individual theories to small groups. This activity contextualized not only specific projects at the agencies but also the fellows as individuals. With such a solid foundation, I felt ready to take on the rest of the week.
The next day, Alicia Grunow, an expert at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, led a session on improvement science. I understood improvement science in terms of its general theory, but never knew the practices and procedures. Utilizing PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycles, both the fellows and the staff participated in an activity in which each group had to predict the next number in a sequence of a hypothetical technological initiative. I went into the convening expecting little of the material to directly apply to me, an undergrad student, but I quickly realized that each skill and theory taught were widely applicable and valuable for people of any age and any sector.
Later that day we traveled via bus to Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis. Admittedly, this site visit was my favorite part of the convening. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, NAZ takes a two-generation, results focused approach to achieve Northside prosperity. With tools such as a family coach and partner sites—including schools and housing facilities—NAZ is committed to long-term support and solutions for predominantly African-American families living in the Northside of Minneapolis. Founder and CEO Sondra Samuels and her team carried themselves with such passion for their work. I saw that passion translate into results and success. The session at NAZ helped me see that with enough dedication and spirit, improvement is possible and no community is stagnant.
Sondra said something that resonated with everyone: “This community isn’t broken; the system is broken.” She used a gardening metaphor to explain her sentiments, along the lines of “when all the flowers die in a garden, you don’t blame the flowers. You blame the soil. We need to change the soil- the system- so that our people can thrive.” I will take those words with me into all the work that I do.
The state of Native Americans in the child welfare system was a major focus throughout the convening. We heard from speakers who represent the Minnesota Department of Human Services as well as county and local agencies. Among the presenters were Nikki Farago, Priscilla Day, Louise Matson, and Terri Yellowhammer, who informed the fellows and staff of the Native American experience in the system. Although the experience of white children in foster care has continuously improved in Minnesota, Native Children have the highest out of home placement rate in the country. Even with the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978, some jurisdictions act as if it’s an optional law. What stood out to me most was the idea that this pain cannot be remedied by a single act or law. Healing between Native Americans and white people will take generations, just as it took generations to develop such a conduct of discrimination. That was a valuable lesson for me to learn: we must continuously make amends and support our Native American counterparts. This is a lifetime commitment.
Although I did not entirely know what to expect for the convening, I can truthfully say that my expectations were exceeded and beyond. Thank you to all the fellows who welcomed me with open arms and gave me much needed career and life advice. I gained valuable skills and knowledge that I will take with me to my undergraduate life and one day to my professional life. I wish I could attend the next convening and all the ones after that!