Foster America’s alumni ranks officially gained 10 more changemakers on Thursday evening. The fourth cohort of Foster America fellows concluded their 18-month fellowship at an alumni induction ceremony that celebrated their work and included remarks from celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni and experienced child welfare executive Anne Williams-Isom.
The Cohort 4 fellows – alicia nance, Angie Thies, Asad Bandeali, Cassandra Finley, Cherrelle Turner, CJ Acosta, Icy Jones, Mathangi Swaminathan, Takkeem Morgan, and Wade Carlson – worked across the country to effect change in the child welfare sector.
For the first time, fellows were placed in jurisdictions in Indiana, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and Baltimore. Foster America also deepened its roots across Minnesota, with a group-centered approach at multiple levels of government. In Puerto Rico, Foster America created a position in partnership with both the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation also facilitated placement in New Mexico and supported the Baltimore fellowships.
Fellows kept community needs and input at the center of all their work, from reimagining the child welfare system to better serve children and families in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, to creating prevention-based projects from the ground up.
“The fellows had an unrelenting commitment to identifying and addressing the true needs of kids and families with an unending eye towards equitable outcomes, and bringing more equity to the agencies,” said Sheela Bowler, director of strategic initiatives and innovation at Foster America.
Just a few months into their 18-month fellowships, in the midst of forging relationships with community members and agency staff, identifying their theories of change and digging into the work, COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns interrupted the gaining momentum. Within days, government agencies were scrambling to move their workers remote, and the needs of many families increased as many lost jobs, and schools and other support systems shuttered.
“Fellows and their systems really struggled, as we all did, to find the resources and capacity to move things virtual,” said Shannon Scott, Foster America’s director of learning and leadership development. “All of the fellows were creative and persistent, and drew on a deep swell of values and commitment to family to continue to move work forward despite a lot of challenges.”
Some fellows helped their agencies tackle the logistical challenges of equipment needs, while others advocated for the importance of creating virtual community engagement opportunities. All added pandemic response efforts to their workloads, while continuing to push along larger goals, like the planning and implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, federal legislation for child welfare agencies that provides funding for prevention-focused programs.
“While the systems and leadership within the systems went into emergency mode because they had to,” Bowler said, fellows “had the ability to take a step back and ask really tough questions that forced the systems to not just careen from one crisis to another, but think about where they were going and why. And that’s really hard work to hold.”
Fellows were able to make inroads in uprooting the many layers of inequality embedded in the operations of a system not designed to support children and families.
“We teach our fellows the six levers of systems change. They pushed on the hardest stuff – mental models and financial policy. They have pushed on the stuff that is nearly immovable,” Scott said. “They have found success in a time when there’s so much change that people can’t even map or track it. They’ve been able to see the throughlines to kids and families.”
For the Cohort 4 fellows, Thursday’s induction ceremony wasn’t the end of their time in child welfare. Some are staying on with their agencies, continuing their work and implementing the programs they created. Others are incubating their own organizations, creating projects for strategy work, for healing and support that can be helpful beyond a singular jurisdiction.
“They are the future of child welfare,” Bowler said. “What they value and want to see happen, deeply socially just-oriented bodies of work, that’s the future of where the field is going. Watch this space and see what happens in five, 10, 15 years.”