small steps lead to big results in youth-driven policy and practice changes
When people talk about youth voice, they often miss an essential part of the story. We must take small, daily steps in the right direction and not let challenges tear us down. Youth voice is about being part of the decision-making process and exercising your right to be heard. It is about using your experiences in collaboration with system professionals to construct better outcomes for yourself and others. I am a former foster youth with lived experience in Florida’s child welfare system. I know the multifaceted challenges young people face.
I first realized the value of youth voice when I joined a leadership board in my area in 2018, the Brevard Youth Leadership Council (BYLC). This group pushes for youth voice and choice within the care system. As a result, I began watching real-life changes occur. One of our most significant accomplishments was working with our community-based care agency to establish normalcy guidelines for group homes so that all youth could have the same opportunities to thrive as youth who are not in care. For example, youth in our local group homes are now guaranteed the right to work or volunteer, go to after school events, and have a phone with flexible use times.
This accomplishment outlined how effective youth voice can be if the proper steps are taken. That achievement did not happen overnight. It took many small steps to see real results over time. It took facing challenges head-on and pivoting towards more effective strategies to make progress. This particular triumph built the framework for my confidence in advocacy and motivated me to raise my voice further.
I have been a part of One Voice Impact’s leadership network for many years and use my voice in various capacities. This includes speaking to Florida’s legislative members on policies and sharing a youth’s perspective in panels on essential topics such as placement transitions, life skills, and building youth councils. I feel the efforts I have put in so far, both locally and at the state level, are making a difference. I am excited and committed to seeing the youth voice movement advance. As I stand up for others within the system, I am also fighting for the little girl within myself who struggled to share her voice during one of the most challenging times of her life.
I call on all system professionals to take a step back to evaluate their role in the system and identify where they can make the most significant impact. Then act! Whether it’s within your local community or a state-wide organization. Identify what you are passionate about and connect yourself with the right people. You know who they are. Everyone thinks someone should do it, but often no one gets engaged. I challenge you to stand up and be the person to start difficult conversations, join a youth council, and move with confidence as you climb the staircase of your goals in expanding the system one step at a time.
Rayla James is a former foster youth who aged out of the system and is now a 21-year-old college student at the University of Central Florida, majoring in Elementary Education. She is a thriving youth advocate, state-wide and in her local community, serving on the Brevard Youth Leadership Council, pushing for youth voice and choice within the care system. Rayla works collectively with child welfare professionals across Florida to promote and sustain youth-adult partnerships and bring her firsthand experience to the table to influence policy and implement change. Rayla plans to transfer her advocacy efforts into her career to serve her students better while she continues to support the youth voice movement consistently for years to come.