As the public policy fellow at Good Shepherd Services (GSS), I work daily to understand what is happening in the city and how GSS is being affected. I have continually pushed myself as I am the main contact for elected official offices and the holder of this information. My job can be overwhelming and stressful at times, but I have also come to realize that it is up to me. It is up to me to decide each day what I want to focus on and learn more about. I am no expert but I am so thankful that I have this opportunity to understand the ins and outs of a major nonprofit in the city and what advocacy is all about.
Advocacy is tough work and hasn’t always been my strong suit. My supervisor, Annie, makes it look easy and challenges me to be my own advocate as well as an advocate for GSV and GSS. As Annie always says, “advocacy is an art”, and by this she means it is not black or white; it is all about speaking up and out. She emphasizes that there is plenty of money to go around and for GSS to have, but we must fight for it. This is where my team steps in.
The New York City budget timeline falls between January and July. In January the mayor proposes what the city's spending priorities are for the year. Businesses and organizations will apply for discretionary spending at this time as well. February is when the city council holds hearings on the preliminary budget, and when we push to them where and why we need money. In March the city council will issue their recommendations to the mayor based on this information.
The State budget timeline is similar, and as advocates my team and I push for funding at the state level. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a bus up to Albany with other city advocates. We were advocating for the Fostering Youth Success Alliance, also known as FYSA. FYSA is a coalition I have been in since joining GSS. They offer a college program known as Fostering Youth College Success Initiative (FYCSI). In the past 8 years, over 2,000 students have accessed FYCSI and attended over 100 different public and private colleges across New York State. These funds have been especially critical during the pandemic and can go towards student tuition, personal expenses, room & board, transportation and books. For the fiscal year 2023-24 our legislative ask is to increase state funding to $10 million. Our statistics show that 63% of foster youth want to attend college but only 20% enroll, and only 1 out of 20 foster youth in New York State will complete a college degree.
As I attended this advocacy day I heard stories directly from foster youth and now adults who had been greatly affected by growing up in foster care and why that affects their education. The odds are stacked against these participants, and as badly as they want to attend college, they need financial support. College is expensive and hard and when you turn 18 you are likely thrown out of the system and left to take care of yourself.
Education is something that I have definitely taken for granted. It was never a question if I would attend college or not. That was the norm for me and my peers. My parents worked very hard to help my brothers and I to be able to attend college, and I am forever grateful for this. This is a privilege which many people will never have and will wish they did. Not always having to worry about money and paying for college made it easier to focus on studying and socializing.
As the foster care youth spoke, they explained that without this money they were so focused on making it to the next day that sometimes that they had to go without basic necessities and work long hours just to be able to eat. FYSCI lifts a weight off their shoulders. It brings a sense of security they may have never had. In fiscal year 2018-19 FYSCI offered support to 570 youth with $6 million in funding. This year, FYSCI is anticipating enrollment of over 1,100 students and asking for $10 million.
As I listened to FYSCI youth advocates tell their stories and say how this program greatly helps them, I felt passionate and the work I do behind the computer and in the office which I don’t always love felt worth it. I am an advocate for quality education, and these students inspired me to keep doing the work even when I don’t feel like it. They inspire me daily to find my fire and my voice. It is still a great work in progress but I am thankful for the perspective these students showed me. I am thankful to push myself and grow each day as a public policy fellow.
Not only is education a social justice issue, but so is support. At 18 there is no way I could have been financially stable on my own, and at 23 I can still say the same thing. Being in school from ages 5-18 there is no time to make money, nor should you have to as a kid. The majority of your time is spent in school gaining an education. Many youth are kicked out of the foster care system and expected to figure things out for themselves. I am passionate that everyone should have access to a college education and have support while doing so. It is hard to think about these things, but as social justice advocates we have to keep encouraging others to advocate for themselves and each other. By advocating for money my team and I are able to encourage elected officials to help grow Good Shepherd Services and partnering programs and organizations. Sometimes my work behind the scenes does not feel impactful, but I know it is needed. The students in FYSCI showed me this. They are why my team and I do this work. Every youth deserves an education. Every youth deserves support and stability. Everyone should be able to ask for help. Advocacy is important work; this is how major changes are made. This is how policies are changed and voices are heard. I was surprised to see how willing council members and state elected officials are to listen. They are the advocates that help put these changes into action, but only if we speak loudly and proudly.
Advocacy work is joyful work. It feels good to know that GSS and FYSCI are impacting youth to set them up for future success. It is a reminder that youth are resilient and deserve to have their voices heard. Just like I do, and so do you. So, I encourage you and myself to be our own advocates, be each other's advocates, and most importantly keep advocating for the people in the back.
Washington Heights Community '22-'23