How does a group of Black, trans, queer, and disabled foster youth improve their corner of the world? By just doing it. Lucina Kayee, 25, created Atlas of Blackness as a grassroots, multimedia organization that mentors Black foster youth.
Kayee, who is a two-time cancer survivor with Lupus, envisioned an organization that blends her love of research, the arts, and history to document Black foster youth stories in a healing way. “As somebody who is disabled and chronically ill, I wanted to create something that would be sustainable without me being there,” she says.
Through narratives and research about the foster care system, Atlas of Blackness provides education. It also creates space for Black people to tell their stories without being re-traumatized by speaking to traditional media or politicians. Educational workshops include the history of the child welfare system, the impact of foster care on LGBTQ+ and two-spirit youth, the pipeline from foster care to prison and deportation, and disability 101.
Kayee is employed by FosterClub, a national nonprofit organization, to advocate for the Every Child Deserves a Family Act. The Act would prohibit federally funded child welfare service providers from discriminating against children, families, and individuals because of their religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. In many states, for example, it is still legal to turn away prospective parents if they are LGBTQ+. If potential families are not discriminated against, more kids can find placements.
Kayee indicates that many foster youth around the country have been put into substance use treatment facilities because of a shortage of foster homes.
Kayee’s family escaped war in Liberia in 2002. Her family’s post-traumatic stress led to being separated. She was placed in individual and group homes more than a dozen times. She hid her queer and Muslim identities, telling social workers that she was Christian as a means of self-protection.
“I spent most of my time in foster care institutionalized [in a treatment facility]. They could not find me placement because [I was] undocumented. My foster parents found out that I was queer. So I was placed in what most people call treatment facilities, but they were just facilities where I spent most of my time in solitary confinement,” Kayee explains. “A lot of foster children experience that. Because they are Muslim, or trans, or two- spirit, it is harder for [them] to find placements.”
As she explained in an essay on fosterclub.com, “No child should ever feel like they have to hide who they are. There needs to be a way for foster children in Minnesota to speak their truth without any repercussions.”
When Kayee noticed that many youth she knew were going missing and dying by suicide, she and two friends founded MY Generation “to show foster children of color that if the system is unwilling to protect them, we will make sure to hold the system accountable.”
MY Generation worked to teach foster youth about their legal rights and educated social workers about the dangers of the system. Those efforts morphed into collaborating with community organizers and successfully shutting down plans to construct new youth treatment facilities in Ramsey and Hennepin County in December 2016.
“Any foster youth knows that these treatment facilities are just youth prisons,” Kayee says.
What Is Child Welfare?
In the 1850s, “orphan trains” started moving impoverished youth in New York City to middle America where families could adopt them. “Although most of these children were orphans or homeless, they were also the children of poor immigrants whose family members were working,” Kayee says. “Today, preventable neglect is still a significant cause for children to be placed in foster care. Parents who cannot afford to miss work or hire child care lose their children instead of being offered adequate resources.”
Experience with the child welfare system often sets in motion other life challenges that lead to incarceration or being unhoused. According to the Juvenile Law Center, 90 percent of youth with five or more foster placements will enter the criminal legal system. Foster youth are over-represented in data on youth sex trafficking.
In 2020, MY Generation was part of an effort to help find housing for more than 600 foster youth across the country, and distributed nearly $100,000 to Black mothers and Black caregivers across Minnesota. In “flash funding,” common after the 2020 summer racial uprisings, Kayee awoke one morning to find that her cash link options were being widely shared on social media and money was pouring in from around the world.
However, finding sustainable funding is a challenge for Atlas of Blackness. Its six staff work 25 hours a week unpaid. Kayee says, “It is easy to be overlooked by legacy foundations. We are young, right? We are all under the age of 28. All but two of us are trans. Everyone on our team is disabled. Everyone is Black.”
In July, Atlas of Blackness launched a community journalism program, Documenting MN, which involved hiring seven Black interns from different backgrounds who were taught how to document stories and edit film. PBS signed on as mentors. The documentary project is on hold due to lack of funding, while Kayee researches grants to pay the interns, as well as to find funding for another Atlas of Blackness program, Literary Experience, for intergenerational Black people to read and discuss texts by Black authors.
“Having an intergenerational conversation can really teach Black youth [that] these are things that have been done before you,” Kayee says. “It is just that the system finds a way to destroy it. […] How can we make sure that the system cannot destroy what we are doing right now?”
— Lydia Moran contributed to the reporting of this story.