This month’s Spotlight is on Janay Eustace, newly-appointed Executive Director of California Youth Connection and current Executive Fellows class member.
OneJustice Program Associate Miguel Martinez connected with Janay via Zoom to hear her amazing story which began as a teenage client of the nonprofit she now leads. Below is an abbreviation of their discussion.
Miguel: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Janay: I am a mom and I have 3 sons, 14, 11 and 6. I’m also a wife and a daughter, an auntie, a cousin, a sister, and I have a huge chosen family as well. Interestingly, the organization I work for, a lot of the youth that are in the organization as our members, they consider a lot of our community-building as really family building, so a lot of the youth that are a part the organization also feel like it’s more of a family. We really focus on making sure to build community, and really establish that, and center it so that our members can get that extra piece to being a member of CYC, which is that family and that belonging part.
I grew up in this organization, and I was a member when I was 14 years old. I did grow up in California’s foster care system for a part of my childhood and adolescence. I emancipated out of the foster care system and went on to become a social worker for a while for Sacramento County. Then I got my Master’s from Sac State, and went on to work in policy. My career choice is based not only on professional experience, but it’s based a lot on personal experience as well.
Miguel: Tell me about the work that you do and the mission of California Youth Connection.
Janay: I am very happy to say that I am the newly appointed Executive Director of the California Youth Connection. I came back to the organization as the Deputy Director and it was just amazing to come back to CYC. I’ve worked alongside CYC for many years now in doing a lot of different work. I realized that in many different roles that I carried and different jobs that I had, I always connected that work somehow back to CYC.
CYC is a youth-led organization to develop leaders who empower each other and their communities to transform the foster care system through legislative policy and practice change. The vision is that all foster youth will be equal partners in contributing to all policies and decisions made in their lives. And all youth in foster care will have their needs met and support to grow into healthy and vibrant adults.
Ultimately, I noticed that in a lot of different areas of my career path before coming back to CYC, I always helped contribute to that mission in some way. Being a member at 14 years old, I never imagined that someday I would be able to co-lead this organization. I say co-lead because it’s my role to facilitate our youth board and our executive board and our community and ensure that we are holding all our members at the center, and really elevating their vision and their mission of this organization to hold that integrity. That to me is the most important part of this role.
Miguel: What are the key challenges facing your clients and what are you doing to address them?
Janay: The key challenge faced by current and former foster youth is lack of stability in many parts of their lives. They would move in the middle of the night or at any different time. They’d come home from school and their social worker could be there and tell them they’re changing placements and going to a new home, a new city, or even out of state. A big issue facing young people in the foster care system is instability in many aspects of their life.
This year, we’re empowering the young people to work on a policy issue where they’re redefining mental health. During this pandemic, through a survey they found that a lot of young people were lonely and having a lack of mental health support. The found that access to mental health services here in California is a real challenge, especially for current and former foster youth in the 18-26 age range. A lot of them weren’t able to access the emergency supports during this time because of insurance billing or service location issues.
CYC is challenging the system to redefine what mental health looks like to allow for access to services and supports as they’re needed, and to look outside the traditional medication management or therapeutic management to include acupuncture, horse back riding, extracurricular activities, gym memberships — alternatives that are not traditional in the foster care system. Many youth feel like they’re being over-medicated, not having a voice in the process, and ultimately overmedication makes them take on dependencies on other substance abuse that’s not healthy.
We are compiling a 10-point redefining mental health plan and spreading that in the community, and looking to partner with some of the systems to see how to reform and change that.
A huge part of our work is partnering with law firms like the Youth Law Center and other lawyers and advocates who help CYC bring the youth vision to fruition.
Miguel: How has the pandemic impacted your organization?
Janay: Tremendously. Youth have missed being together. We have two conferences a year. Day at the Capitol is where our members take on their legislative issue, meet with all of the legislators, share their personal stories and why the particular piece of legislation is important to them, and they ask for their support. It’s a great opportunity for all of these young people to advocate for the issues that affect their lives. This year it will be virtual for the first time in 30+ years. We also have a summer policy and leadership that was held virtually in July, which offers a lot of leadership and development opportunities for the youth that attend.
The camaraderie and community-building are missing and that’s huge because authentically engaging young folks in community-building virtually is much harder. One silver lining is that removing the barrier of travel has helped engage more youth from rural areas or even across the state.
Janay: honored to be the lone social worker among the group of lawyers
Miguel: In what ways have you been able to apply what you’ve learned through the Executive Fellows program?
Janay: My cohort within the cohort within the fellowship is an amazing group of women and I have learned so much from the three of them. I appreciate that fellowship and connection. What I have learned came right on time, during a leadership transition at CYC, when they were rebuilding. One of the first sessions was about value and belonging based cultures, so it came at the perfect time for me to ingest all of that great knowledge. I learned to put language to the culture I wanted to help thrive and build at CYC. We really want CYC to be an organization of belonging and value where all staff and our members feel valued, and that we all have something to contribute. It fit so perfectly with my role as facilitator to our executive board, youth board and our community .
Miguel: Thank you so much. We hope that the Fellowship continues to empower you with new tools and techniques and the connection that you’re building.