African-American Grandfamily Advocacy: Your Story Is Powerful

Both inside and outside the child welfare system, the probability that African American children will live in grandfamilies is more than double that of the overall population, with one in five African American children living in grandfamilies at some point during their childhood.

Over the last few decades, drug epidemics, hurricanes and other tragedies have both created African American grandfamilies and challenged existing ones. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis. As of mid-May 2020, African Americans in almost every state collecting racial data have higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19 than whites or Latinos. Despite these most fundamental threats to health and mortality, African Americans retain their commitment and cultural pride in caring for extended family.

The point of advocacy work is that there is concern about an issue that you want to change. Advocacy means supporting a ’cause’– to help others. Anyone can be an advocate. You don’t have to be an expert. Your personal experience is valuable. Whether your work is professionally working with kinship families, or you have experience as a kinship family member, you can and want to get your issues heard.

fam games

For advocacy to be effective, it is important to identify issues of concern and issues that can prevent your advocacy efforts from being
successful. Change is more likely to occur if needs are expressed in a clear way to the people or organizations that make decisions. Later, after issues
of concern have been identified and communicated, you will need to engage in a process to identify potential solutions.

Efforts to improve the quality of life for African Americans are as old as the United States, from abolitionists seeking to end slavery to now. Advocacy and activism within, about, and for the African American community has a rich cultural history. Most notable is the American Civil Rights Movement (1946-1968) involving a diversity of approaches including lawsuits, public information/education campaigns, lobbying of the federal government, and mass direct action. These strategies resulted in substantial local and national changes and policies that have improved equal rights for African Americans. A current example of such advocacy is the Black Lives Matter movement to end racial profiling and violence upon the African
American community from criminal justice and other systems.

To support grandfamily wellness, it makes sense to apply the principles of these past and current advocacy movements along with
best practices of researched advocacy models. Indeed, the past and present change movements emphasize to African American grandfamilies that
positive government and community change can be promoted through their own hands.

TO GRANDFAMILY ADVOCATES

ADVOCACY IS AIMED AT BRINGING CHANGE. It challenges systems to respond to the needs of the people–you and your community. Knowing what type of change is wanted and that your voice matters,  when and how to advocate is your next concern.

Why does your voice matter?
• Your experiences are valuable and can be used to improve things! No one knows as much about your lived and/or professional experience.
• You know when something is or is not working. If you do not tell people who have the authority to make decisions about a situation that you
are unhappy with, they will assume everything is all right or possibly make changes that do not address your concerns or may make things worse.
• You have ideas on how to make things better! By speaking out, you may find that you are not alone.

Advocacy and promoting the needs of your community can:
• Open doors to participation
• Right the wrongs of the past and present
• Change the balance of power
• Address injustice
• Improve services
• Alter attitudes and values

Who do you want to educate or ask for support? You need to know how many people are aware of ‘grandfamilies’. It is most likely that very few people are aware of the challenges that you face or how to do something about it. Therefore, public awareness is key. As you gather support by educating your community, and they are made aware of your challenges AND want to address them, everyone can work together to make some reforms.

In order to work effectively in the African American community, an advocate must first understand how and if that particular neighborhood is organized to support grandfamilies. All African American communities are not organized the same way. Each neighborhood often has its own network of relationships and hierarchy of leaders. It is important for advocates to identify, connect, and run advocacy ideas through the recognized African
American community leaders and institutions.

man in white button up shirt with face paint

Sharing your life experience and your strengths and challenges is the single most effective way to make change. Policymakers want to hear directly from you, the grandfamily members. Your stories are the ones they repeat to the media and other policymakers when trying to achieve reform. So, how do you do this effectively and safely? When sharing your story to make public policy or program reform, you must do it strategically– making strategic choices about how to tell your life stories so that your voices can be heard, your message is effective, and your well-being is protected.

Although focused on those who have had involvement with the child welfare system, the principles of “strategic sharing” are equally applicable to those children and families outside the system. As a family member who is about to engage in advocacy work, you should first consider a few questions and then develop rough talking points about what you want to cover:
• What is the purpose of sharing?
• What do you want the audience to take away?
• Which parts of your story do you not want to share?

Protect yourself from what may harm you emotionally. This last point is very important. You do not have to share everything. Prepare yourself for
how to answer questions that you do not want to answer. The most difficult kind of public speaking is the kind you are about to embark on. Sharing your story takes courage, strength, and preparation. Remember your objective – “I am doing this because I want to help others like me.”

All advocates—whether a grandfamily-caregiver, an adult raised by a grandfamily-caregiver, a youth in a grandfamily-member’s care or a birth parent – should consider that your story is also the story of other members of your family. Be mindful of how much you share about other family members and, if possible, ask their permission and feedback on what you plan to share. For caregivers and parents speaking about children, remember that the information you may be sharing about the children you are raising could follow them. If developmentally appropriate, discuss it with them beforehand to make sure it is alright with them.

Use your voice because it matters. Tell your story because it is powerful. Share your story strategically because you or your family members may be unintentionally harmed. When well-thought out, your story can be a catalyst for the changes you seek. Don’t count out the power of your personal story.

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