A San Francisco Bay Area museum is taking an unusual tack with an exhibition about foster youth in California. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History invited a team of former foster youth and advocates to help put the show together.

Five months before the show Lost Childhoods went up, around a hundred former foster youth and advocates began meeting at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to talk about what the exhibition would look like.

Community engagement director Stacey Garcia explains, “We are not experts in what foster youth have gone through, what they want to share. We know how to make an exhibition, but we don’t know how to tell their story. They do.”

Jess Prudent works as an outreach assistant with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Cruz County, which supports children in foster care.

Prudent was skeptical at first that the museum wanted anything more than superficial advice from the Creative Community Committee (C3), but was soon won over by the hands-on curatorial process.

"Sophia," (2014) by Ray Bussolari. It's no secret older foster children are less likely to be adopted. What may be less known is the fact siblings are split when a family decides to adopt one but not the other(s).
“Sophia,” (2014) by Ray Bussolari. It’s no secret older foster children are less likely to be adopted. What may be less known is the fact siblings are split when a family decides to adopt one but not the other(s). (Photo: Courtesy of Ray Bussolari)

“We were making every decision: like, the layout of this place, the art pieces that we included, the artists, even what the collaborating artists were going to focus on,” Prudent says.

At the core of the exhibition is a collection of photographic portraits by Ray Bussolari, as well as artifacts from Oakland’s Foster Youth Museum.

Garcia says the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History added works by former foster youth who are on the museum’s advisory committee, as well as by local artists they got to choose. “We really chose artists based on how willing they were to collaborate, and how much they wanted the youths’ voices to shine versus their own,” Garcia says.

Take “Interwoven Voices,” by Santa Cruz artist Melody Overstreet. It’s is a tapestry of messages from committee members, written on paper strips. This is one written by Prudent: “We’re not troubled kids. We’re kids with troubles.”

“Interwoven Voices,” by Santa Cruz artist Melody Overstreet is a tapestry of messages from Creative Community Committee members, written on paper strips.
“Interwoven Voices,” by Santa Cruz artist Melody Overstreet is a tapestry of messages from Creative Community Committee members, written on paper strips. (Photo: Courtesy of Meghan Puich/Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Jamie Lee Evans is the founder of the Foster Youth Museum. “There is no other exhibit like this,” Evans says. “This is the largest and probably only exhibition of artifacts, art and culture demonstrating the experience of foster care from a youth’s perspective.”

That’s something Lost Childhoods makes plain with personal mementos that highlight statistical truths. A college diploma and a photograph of a foster youth living in a dorm room at University of San Francisco is accompanied by a caption explaining that close to half of those who survive foster care will never graduate from high school, let alone university.  A disproportionate number will instead become unemployed or even homeless when they “age out.”

“I’ve been told from plenty of people that I know that coming here, they relate to things that they couldn’t before, whether or not they were in the foster care system,” says Chad Platt, a transition age youth advocate at Encompass Community Services and a former foster youth himself.

The local half of “Lost Childhoods” includes video interviews of former foster youth, paintings by them, and personal journals anyone can sit down and read.
The local half of “Lost Childhoods” includes video interviews of former foster youth, paintings by them, and personal journals anyone can sit down and read. (Photo: Courtesy of Meghan Puich/Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Museum visitor Diane Lamott from Aptos was moved by the show. “Heart wrenching. Emotional,” she said choking back tears. “Makes you wish you could have done something more to help.”

But the show’s organizers want to do more than elicit sympathy from visitors. 

Right at the entrance of the gallery, there’s a massive display of multi-colored “action cards.”

Each one suggests one way to help foster youth. Bake a cake. Donate a pair of pajamas. Teach a teen to write a resume. Or, if you’re really inspired, volunteer as a court appointed special advocate.

Pick a card, any card.
Pick a card, any card. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Lost Childhoods is on view at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History through December 31, 2017. More info here.

Q.Logo.Break

What’s Foster Care Like? Learn From the Youth Who Lived Through It. 17 November,2017Rachael Myrow

  • solodoctor

    Thanks for highlighting an important event. Thanks, too, for noting that many of these ‘kids’ end up homeless after they ‘age out’ of the foster care system. Then they often end up in jail for a crime committed because of their being hungry, cold, etc. It is a tragedy because social, educational, and other services can be provided for less money than it costs to incarcerate someone.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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