A Conversation with Amnoni (pronounced Ah-mon-knee) Myers
In this special three-part series, Where the Light Beams, Kempe's Virtual Village is excited to bring you two Radio Kempe podcast episodes followed by an interactive virtual Café on September, 23rd at 10 AM (Mountain Time). Join us throughout the month as we introduce you to Amnoni Myers, an advocate for elevating the voice of those with lived experience in child welfare.
In the last podcast episode of Where the Light Beams, Kempe's Virtual Village introduced you to Amnoni and her journey as she transitioned from the foster care system to a career inspired by her experiences advocating for children. Join us for this second episode and be inspired by her call to action to act from a place of dignity and respect by actively listening to young people's voices and utilizing their individual experiences to fuel change in the child welfare system. We know that there is no one path to success for children. Amnoni calls us to meet young people where they are to determine the actions that are right for them. What if we acknowledged that we do not have all of the answers? What if we decided that the people we are trying to save have the ability to save themselves? What would it look like to co-create with these communities, and how would this perspective help us serve with dignity and respect?
Tune in to be inspired by these provocative questions, and then join us on September 23rd, when we will convene to put these questions to the child welfare community to co-create and reimagine a better child welfare together.
Get curious, tune in, and join us on the journey to prevent child abuse and neglect every month of the year!
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Welcome, and welcome back. I'm Kendall Marlowe and this is Radio Kempe. Thank you for being with us again today. Helping children and their families is a human endeavor and we learn from those persons, our friends, with lived experience and lived expertise. And so this is the second episode of a conversation with Amnoni Myers. Greetings and welcome back, Amnoni.
Hey everyone. Good to be here.
Amnoni, in our first conversation, you shared a journey that might seem to some of us to be incredible, unbelievable, but every word was true. You lived every moment from being born premature and addicted to being shipped suddenly from placement to placement, separated and reunited and separated again from your mother, your brother and your sister, Ebony. You were a homeless college student who somehow worked in the White House. You gained so much, but you still lost that sister who took her own life. You told us it was then that you felt a call to action to do something about all this. And then last April 20, you and we lost another sister in our American family, Ma'Khia Bryant - a 16 year old girl in foster care whose life was ended by four bullets from a police officer's gun. You wrote in the Imprint that Ma'Khia was "just like me" and that "she didn't have a chance." Amnoni, thanks for being here today. How Amnoni, how can we give every young person a real chance at life, at peace and happiness? What do we need to do?
Yeah. Thank you, Kendall. I really appreciate that? Um, you know, I think about my own life again, of growing up in the foster care system and thinking back to the many people in my life who helped pave a way from me. And one of the things that was different about me that they saw was that I had a future - that they saw something in me that I wasn't able to see myself. And most importantly, they met me where I was. I think I told you that I was caught drawing graffiti on the wall during my high school year, my senior year of high school.
And, um, for the principal to see that I was someone that had been lost in the trenches, and instead of suspending me, took the time to actually get to know me, to put opportunities in place so that I could thrive.
I wasn't on track to graduate from high school. I hadn't passed the standardized test. I had failed that over five times and for her to put in specific opportunities so that I could thrive in that way was something that I needed. And so for every young person, no matter where they've come from, no matter what they've been through, every young person deserves a chance. Every young person deserves to be seen. A young person deserves to be seen in the midst of their trauma, in spite of their trauma, and beyond their trauma. And so it's about opening doors. It's about making sure that young people have access to the resources that they need. You know, many young people who come into the foster care system have experienced trauma. And so what do we do when, you know, a child comes into care and needs support? It's about providing those supports right then and there and not waiting.
And so for me, excuse me, I'm sorry. What were you going to say?
No, go right ahead. Go right ahead.
I was going to say that it's really about meeting that child where they're at and allowing them to see beyond what they're able to see. And I truly believe in social capital and making sure that young people are connected to opportunities, not just opportunities from the outside looking in, but opportunities to heal from within, because aging out of the foster care system, I mean, at that point, I hadn't even been diagnosed with PTSD, major depression and panic anxiety. I didn't know what was going on. And so if I was met right then and there, when I first came into care, really focusing on that preventative, I think that I definitely would have had more of an opportunity to be in a place to heal and to be able to thrive. And so it's really about making sure that the services that you're connecting these young people with, it's not about the quantity of resources, but it's about the quality of resources. It's about individualizing that. It's about making sure that the, the, uh, resources are unique enough for that person. When you look at my sister and I, we both grew up in the same environment, but we also had different outcomes. And so we needed to be treated differently, but at the same time, at the core of who we are, the same.
Will you talk about connections and it isn't too long anytime we're talking that you come around to your sister, you come around to family? Um, how is family a part of building those connections and supports for a kid? And perhaps along with that, could we have done things differently to support your grandma? To support your mom? How does family pull into all this?
Definitely, you know, family is your first unit. Family is the first people that you're surrounded by, the first people that you meet. You know, I am, as you know, I'm writing a book and, um, in one of my chapters, I wrote that in the bathtub is where I first found love. That's where I met my siblings. That's where we got to connect. That's where we got to be.
You have memories of that bathtub? You have memories of playing in that bathtub?
Yeah, we would swim. I mean, you think back now when, you know, the tub is so small now you're like, how did we get to do that? But we made it work. We used our imaginations. That's the memories that I hold on to. You know, I think about the things that I was going through and I had my siblings and those were key people that were there. And then I had an older great aunt, who had raised her kids, who had raised grandkids, who had been a daycare provider. She was older when she had, when she took us in. And so having more resources and supports for kin families that are taking in young people when, in all actuality their lives, you know, when you grow up, you're taught that you go to work, you retire and then you enjoy your retirement. You know, but it was the other way around for her where instead of being able to enjoy and fully enjoy her retirement, she was taking care of three young kids who have been traumatized.
And so, you know, back then, we, weren't very knowledgeable about the impact of trauma. We weren't very much aware around, um, the impact of how drugs impact families and, you know, part of that stems from, you know, our, our society that was built on racism and oppression and white supremacy. And so many of those things were not acknowledged then. And so we're at a time in our lives now where we've seen generations of young people who have gone through the foster care system and then their children have gone through the foster care system. We have more than enough research to now know that the impact of trauma can really, really impact a child, a family, and generations. And so it's really about putting those resources in place before, instead of waiting until after. And so I think that my great aunt could have definitely used more resources, um, around really being able to care for us.
She loved you, didn't she?
She did. You know, I think back to just who I am as an individual today. I think back to the lessons that she taught me. I think back to the things that she ingrained in us, you know, the manners and being polite. And, you know, as a young child, I used to walk with my head down and she would come up to me and she would put her chin, her, her, uh, her hand on my chin and lift up my chin and say, always walk with your head held high. And as a child who was so steeped in shame, that was something that I didn't recognize - that was something I realized.
What a gift.
What a gift. And, um, you know, now when my head slightly goes down, I remind myself to look towards the sun because that's where the light beams and that's one of the most important and incredible things that she could have taught us. And while she may not have been the best at nurturing, um, may, you know, partly because of just even her own upbringing. Um, but she was very much in tune with teaching us about history, black history, being proud of who we are as individuals. And those are the things that I was able to take with me as I navigated through life.
There's somebody else that loved you, that you loved very deeply, but you shared that that relationship was, was even more difficult. And that's your mother, I'm talking about your mother.
You've shared, as well, what it was like for her early on. She left that hospital, but she'd left that hospital in part you have said, because she knew you would be removed from her. Um, that decision had been made. She was not involved in that decision. And she, and your dad as well, you've been very open about sharing, were struggling with substance abuse. Did we do right by your mom? Did we do the right thing for your mom and could that, should that have been different?
Yeah, I think that it goes beyond my mom. I think my mom is an example of a community of people who have been harmed by the crack epidemic. You know, I think about sort of how we have navigated around the opioid crisis and the resources and things that we put in place, um, for families that are struggling. But when I think back to those who were impacted by the crack epidemic, which were predominantly black and brown people, they were sort of left by the wayside and to figure it out. And so while my mom, you know, did her best, one of the things I will say and give her credit for is that after I was born, she ended up cleaning up her life and was very determined in doing that. And so I think that the stigma around drug use, the stigma around how we perceive families who are on drugs.
We don't look at who they are as individuals. We don't look at the potential that they could have. We don't look at the traumas that they sustained as to why they've chosen what they've chosen or what has led them down the path that is what has led them down to. And so I think that as a community and as a society, we really have to look at substance use differently. We have to look at the root causes. We have to look at sort of what draws people into doing substances and what leads them in and has, and creates the life that they have. And to recognize that people who are using substances are not bad people, that they have chosen something that they have felt that has been beneficial for them in that moment to cure them of a pain that feels very, very difficult.
And I think that as a society, we have not learned how to sit in pain. We haven't necessarily learned how to navigate pain and how to really deal with pain. And so we've learned to use other means and other mechanisms such as working so much, you know, that can be a drug within itself, you know? And so I think that we really have to take a step back and to say, how is it that we can support families that are struggling, that I've chosen to, um, use a substance that they feel that has been best for them? How do we decriminalize that behavior and how do we really get to the source as to why people do what they do. And I think from there, that's when we can really get to the root of how we really help and support people. And it's about again, meeting people where they're at and what they need and not separating it.
You know, everything is interconnected. We are all interconnected beings. And so when we look at the different entities that we're all a part of, they're all connected. Mental health is connected to child welfare, the criminal justice system, all of it is interconnected. And so we have to find an interconnected way of supporting families versus doing it as this way that it's so separated. They have to be ingrained because we are interdependent. We are interconnected, we're not independent. And so the connectedness that we all feel, the, all interconnectedness that we breathe, we really have to, we really have to flow with that. And I think that's where we're going to really get our answers.
Wasn't the crack cocaine epidemic as we called it in the eighties and nineties, also an example of how we may focus differently on black and brown communities than we do in the kind of communities that I grew up in? My kids grew up in? There's been a lot lately, hasn't there been around how we handle policing and how we police different populations differently. Do we do that in child welfare too?
Most definitely. You know, when you think about, uh, sort of the crack epidemic, you think about how many of those kids, such as myself are products of that experience and many of those children were warehoused through the foster care system. And if we can be real for a moment, you know, the foster care system was something that was temporary, but has become a permanent fixture. And we have to really, again, go back to the root. We have to go back to why we police in the way that we police. You know, in social work, my social work professor, one of the very first things that she said to us is that every person has worth dignity and value. And if you lead in that way, then a lot of these problems would disappear. But the problem is, is that we don't see that everyone, especially black and brown people have worth, dignity and value.
And it goes beyond the child welfare system. It stems from slavery. It stems from Jim Crow. It stems from segregation. It stems from all of those different pieces. And so when you look at the child welfare system, the child welfare system just has been a breeding ground for that. And so the child welfare system themselves have to take a step back, and even though they're trying to get to a place around healing, they're trying to get to a place around undoing, in order to undo, you have to acknowledge, first acknowledge, the harm that you created. You have to first acknowledge the harm that you helped co-create. And we have to also acknowledge that our policies, our procedures, our structures are still rooted in racism, are still rooted in oppression, are still rooted in white supremacy. And most importantly, are still rooted in saviorism. And if you feel as though that you have the only way, that your way is the right way, that your way is the correct way, we have to remember that black and brown families thrived off of families. You know, um, black and brown families were taking care of families way before they were ever even introduced to the child welfare system.
And history has also shown us that they have also been sort of taken out of that process, that they weren't allowed to receive resources and money and all of those things. And so we have to go back to sort of the community and the family structure. It's about understanding culture. It's about understanding some of those nuances and recognizing that the very people that you're trying to save have the ability to save themselves. They just need the resources, they need the space, they need the time. And there hasn't been enough time for people like us to be able to heal, to be able to take space and breathe. And so it's going to continue to crumble and crumble and crumble. If we continue to try to put these things in place without actually going back to the root of the problem. We have to go back to the root.
Are we willing to do these things? Are we willing to do these things as a country? Uh, you were a place that a lot of you were in a place that a lot of us don't get to go. You were in the halls of the White House. You got to see how decisions got made, uh, how power is distributed. Are you optimistic about this? Should we be? Can we do this as a country?
I think that we have the ability to do this as a country, but we have to also check in with our own egos. We have to check in with, um, power. You know, much of this has to do with power and money. And, um, it costs more to take a child out of the home than it is to keep them inside the home and provide resources and supports around them. And I think that a lot of it also has to do with us doing things in silo, you know, wanting to be the best and not recognizing that we can be the best when we come together and we co-create. And then we also uncreate, and I think that as child welfare leaders, we have to remember that at the end of the day, we get to go home. We get to go home and live our lives and not everybody gets to do that.
And so it's really about channeling empathy. It's really about channeling compassion. It's about channeling also your own ego and what you're trying to get out of it. We have to be honest with ourselves and to say that much of us still want to be in control and much of us want to still hold power. And when we wield our power in ways where we are, um, thinking that we're doing the best, we're going to continue to harm people that are, um, that are considered, um, not deemed as important. And I think it's about coming together in, in putting together our resources and putting together our talents and also giving other people a chance to, to speak.
And you've been doing that. Let's talk about that. You're working on your own book, You Are the Prize, but you've also published in the last few years a number of essays and commentaries and online publications and publications that focus on child welfare and child welfare reform. You had a great set of collaborators in a series of essays in the Imprint, just as one example. Who are your friends in that work and what are you trying to do together?
Most definitely. Much of my friends in this work are people that have also experienced, uh, the child welfare system, that have experienced similar things to me. It has been people who have the goal to want to change and to, and to come together. And so bringing together not only people who have gone through the foster care system, but also having mothers who have been impacted by the child welfare system because of their own experience, but also because of the children that have been impacted by that. And so to come together and to bring people together in that way was something that was really powerful, that I was really excited about doing because not often do you get to have people at the table who have experienced the child welfare system and then having parents whose children have been impacted by the child welfare system. And so to co-create healing in that way by bringing mothers and daughters at the table who both have been harmed, to me as someone that again has had a really difficult relationship with my own mother, to bring other mothers to the table who have experienced similar things to my mother and to hear about their journeys.
It's also allowed me to have a deeper compassion for my mother. It's allowed me to have a deeper compassion for my father. It's allowed me to have a deeper compassion for people that are, that have been impacted by this. And so it's just been really great. I mean, it was something that I just thought about. It wasn't something that I had been doing deep planning around. It was around recognizing that we all have a voice. We all have a story. And each of us deserved to share our stories. Each of us deserved to share our experiences in a way where it's going to highlight change.
And you're trying to make that change happen, aren't you?
I am, actively
If I'm a professional in this field or I'm a caregiver that's been listening to this, perhaps I listened to your first episode as well. I love kids and families and I want to help. What's the one thing I should always remember?
Here's what I'm bringing, here's what I'm bringing myself back to. I'm bringing myself back to my 12 year old self. When I walked into my foster mother's room with tears in my eyes, and I simply asked, why did God create me? And I remember her telling me that God had a plan for my life, that the things that I had experienced, the things that I had gone through, and the things that I was going to go through, were going to be used in a way to be able to help fuel and highlight change. And it wasn't something that I saw as a young person. And it wasn't until I had that experience on Capitol Hill when I began speaking on things around my experiences to help fuel change. So to answer your question is to say that for professionals and for caregivers to meet that young child, to meet that teenager, to meet that young adult where they're at and to remind them that they have a purpose here on this earth. And it's not just to remind them that they have a purpose here on this earth; it's to help them see that by helping them, navigating with them, walking through with them, and ultimately helping them to see that they themselves are the prize.
Thank you, Amnoni. Thank you for that challenge that you've given us. To our listeners, were you inspired by Amnoni's call to action? Do you want to engage in a dialogue about how we can serve people with dignity and respect? What's your dream for a new child welfare? You can register now for the Kempe Cafe we're going to be doing with Amnoni and her friends on Thursday, September 23, to continue this conversation. Registration links can be found on our website at www.thekempecenter.org. That's K E M P E again, www.thekempecenter.org for those registration links. Thank you again, Amnoni, and thank you everyone for being with us today. We'll see you at that Kempe Cafe on September 23. And this has been Radio Kempe.
Thank you for listening to Radio Kempe. Tell us what matters most to you. Go to the elevate my voice form on the Radio Kempe page at thekempecenter.org. Until next time, humble helpers, stay curious, start following, and connect with us on Facebook or LinkedIn today.