By Tiffany Johnson,
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When Tiffany Johnson was 10, the state took her from her abusive home. She was placed in foster care—group homes at first, and then with a relative. At 16, she joined California Youth Connection (CYC), a special group that helps foster kids. Now she works for the organization, helping other foster kids the same way she was helped. Here’s her story, reprinted from Foster Care Youth United (FCYU), a national magazine for teens in foster care. For more info, see Tiffany was interviewed for this story by Patrick Agkinnagbe, Chris Brooks, Gisselle Gordon and Stevisha Taylor.

When I was in the system, I always had a big mouth. In my file, it looked like I was a troubled child, but I was just upset with the way everybody got treated. When I spoke up, they’d say, "You’re just a kid, be quiet." But I didn’t keep quiet. That later served me well, since now my job is to speak up for other youth in care.

I was 10 years old when I came into the system. The system had its pros and cons. Compared to the environment I came from—drugs, prostitution—it was better.

But there were lots of problems being in the system. People weren’t very sincere about my concerns, my welfare. And we all know that group home rules suck.

At 15, I moved in with my auntie for the last three years I was in care. Coming to the realization that I was actually not going home helped me better deal with the system. Up ’til 15, I thought, "I don’t have to bond, I don’t have to bother with anybody. I’m going home."

The system tells you you’re going home to appease you. Age 15 was the first time somebody told me the truth about it. That’s when I decided I was going to ally with people who could help me instead of being a b-tch all the time. I was going to use them to be successful.

At an early age, I recognized that there were people who were willing to break the rules for me in order for me to excel. For example, some staff would sneak me out so I could visit my friends, because they knew it was important to me. Those were the people who I allied with. I used them as my resources, and they’re still in my life today.

I got ready for the future

When I realized I was going to have to live on my own, I also started getting serious about preparing for my future. I spent the next three years thinking apartment, apartment, apartment, school, school, school. That became my whole life.

During those years, I worked three jobs. I worked for the Speedy program, I baby sat at night and I worked at the flea market on the weekends. Saving was a big thing for me. When I graduated I had about $4,000 saved up. I was very proud of myself.

I also got involved. In school, I became a peer counselor and I played volleyball. The Independent Living Skills Program was the first foster care program I became a part of. It helped me get focused on being on my own. More important than the information were the people I met there. They were people I knew I could come to if I needed something.

Next I became a member of California Youth Connection. CYC is an advocacy organization and anyone in California, 14-24, can join as long as you attend meetings. When I joined CYC is when I really began to learn about my rights. I learned that I had a lawyer. I was like, "Wow, I have a lawyer," I never knew I had one. Being a part of CYC empowered me. It made me recognize the power I had. I had never recognized that before.

It also helped me see that having a big mouth—and using it to speak up for what I believed in—could be a good thing.

I moved out on my own

I left the system when I was 171/2 after I graduated high school. It was exciting for me when I left the system because I had prepared for it for so long. I moved with another youth into an apartment. Moving was a little lonely, though, because my family wasn’t there for me. No one even bought me a house-warming gift. But for the most part, life was good. The first time I ever stepped on my college campus, I signed up for every program I could think of. I kept myself connected, so when there were jobs available, I was the first person they called because everyone knew me.

My biggest challenges had to do with my past—like dealing with my relationship with my mom and realizing that I’m separate from her and have my own identity. Accepting foster care was another big challenge, thinking that people wouldn’t accept or understand me because I’d been in foster care.

When I started to accept that I am who I am. I started making friends. But one of the barriers I still have today has to do with building relationships. I can schmooze, network, mingle. But in terms of personal stuff, if you weren’t in foster care, I just feel that you’re not on the same level and put up a brick wall. Sometimes that’s healthy, but usually it’s not.

I pretty much worked full time the whole time I went to school, so it has taken me seven years to graduate from college. I just graduated this June. I worked as a vocational coordinator for an independent living program in San Francisco. I also taught Independent Living classes.

I became an organizer

Eight months ago, I saw that there was a full-time position available at CYC supervising youth organizers. I knew I wanted to help youth mobilize, and organize, so I applied and was hired.

I work 37 hours a week and get paid $3000 a month before taxes. Like me, most people in this office were members first, and we’re all friends. Only the executive director and our policy analyst were not in care.

One thing we do is try to motivate other youth to advocate for themselves. We also work on a political level to improve conditions for young people in foster care. I supervise youth advocates who go to meetings of mental health providers to make sure that our point of view gets heard. It’s no problem getting invited to their meetings, because they want to be able to say that there were youth there, but so many providers are just so far away from understanding that they need youth involvement. They want us to be there, but they’re not always really interested in what we have to say.

I still love my job. I love that now having a big mouth is an asset. I love that I get paid to use it. I love my staff.