Tuesday, June 3, 2014

From Foster Care to College: Clay Wesley, Inspirational Youth Leader

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Anyone who meets Clay Wesley can’t help but be impressed by her intellectual fierceness, wry wit and deep sense of compassion. I first met Clay when I was teaching a Life Skills workshop on racism and identity at Gardena High School in 2007. She was outspoken about social justice issues and shone as an inquisitive mind and forceful debater. When she began participating in the Women’s Leadership Project she dove right into our school-community outreach on sexual assault and sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS prevention, intimate partner violence and college preparation. During the 2008 election cycle she was a strong voice at our student debates on Proposition 4 (which would have required parental notification for abortion) and Proposition 8. Clay’s support of choice and reproductive rights was inspirational to other young African American women who have been bombarded with shaming religious messages that abortion is sinful and immoral. Responding to the loss of friends and family as a result of gang, drug, intimate partner and anti-LGBT-related violence in their communities, Clay also helped organize a Day of Remembrance with her peers. For Clay, WLP was formative because, “Many of us have no one in our lives discussing sexism, domestic abuse or going to college.”

Clay lost both of her parents in middle school and had to become self-sufficient at an early age. She supported herself through high school and community college with part-time jobs while being in the foster care system. Like many foster youth she’s been in multiple placements and homes, struggling to find transitional housing after she aged out of the system at eighteen. In addition to her involvement with WLP, Clay was a youth advocate for California Youth Connection (CYC), a foster care advocacy and support network. Through her work with CYC, she travelled to Sacramento to lobby legislators to support Assembly Bill 12, which was designed to provide resources for youth who age out of foster care. Currently she juggles positions at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the Southern California Foster family agency and the Foster club.

This month, she will get her AA degree from Southwest Community College and plans to transfer to a four year university in the spring. With a 70% African American population, only 29% of Southwest’s students transfer in six years. Clay believes that the environment at Southwest, specifically the scarcity of supportive academic and social resource providers, is disenabling for many students. Black students disproportionately come from schools where they have minimal to no college preparation. As a result, most have to wade through remedial classes before taking their core college requirements. Clay credits strong mentors with giving her the leg up to make it through the process—yet it’s a hurdle that is often more difficult for foster youth to overcome than going to a four year institution. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than 3 percent of foster care youth will graduate from college. The stats are even graver for African American youth, who are over-represented in the foster care population. Nationwide, black foster youth are more likely to become homeless and/or incarcerated due partly to racist profiling, sentencing and incarceration policies which exacerbate the lack of community resources for foster and homeless youth.

Over the past several years, Clay has worked as an intern with WLP, mentoring homeless youth at Covenant House California, conducting HIV/AIDS outreach at Washington Prep High and sharing her experiences as a foster care youth navigating college with students throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her love for debating, public speaking and helping others has her leaning toward sociology, political science or communications majors. As an inspiring leader and role model in her own right, she has her eye on positions with emphases on public policy, law and education. Though making this journey without her parents has been painful she feels doubly motivated by their vision for her: “Before my father died I promised him that I would graduate with my college degree. He was very big on education and I always wanted to make him proud.”

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