A New Day One
Trauma, grace, and a Young Man's Journey from Foster Care to Yale
Trauma-Informed Youth Mentorship:
From 12 Foster Homes to Harvard University:
3 Strategies for Engendering Ownership and Building Character
by Rodney Walker, M.Ed
Though I now have two Master’s degrees - one from Harvard and one from Yale - in the first 17 years of my life, many adults have tried to help me understand why education matters. They said things like “you can become a lawyer or doctor,” or “education is the pathway to freedom” or “knowledge is the key to success.” But at the end of every school day, I went back to my foster homes wondering when my parents would come for me - and they never did. I wondered when my foster parents would stop abusing me; but they always found a reason. I wondered when social workers would tell me the truth about my past, present, and future, in a way that would give me ultimate resolve. It never came.
I had to wait over 13 years and 12 foster homes later to find out this critical knowledge; knowledge that I felt would help me connect the dots and arrive at a true understanding. But upon aging out of care, I only had more questions. Questions like “why are my parent struggling with drug addiction? Why does the north side of Chicago look cleaner, safer, and more prosperous than my neighborhood on the south side? How will 7-8 hours in this school building, 5 days per week, provide the immediate relief my mother needs to pay off the past-due heat and hot water bill for the 3rd month in a row? How come the doctors, lawyers, and teachers don’t live in my neighborhood, where I can see them everyday? Why should I believe I can achieve when the world around me seems to tell me otherwise?”
As important as these questions were to me, there seemed to have been no time, space, or person in my school to address this overwhelming gap between hope and reality. What’s worse is that I saw no teacher, whose very image or likeness, mirrored my own story of trauma and the resilience I needed to overcome it. This lack of guidance and understanding created a social and emotional dysfunction that would permeate every element of my life. I failed my classes, missed school days, and continued to disappoint my teachers. And while my conscience always fought against the idea of failure, subconsciously, I always expected to fail.
My saving grace came when my school DID invest in this program; a rights-of-passage mentorship program that would permanently alter the chemistry of my brain; led by a facilitator whose sole mission was to socially, emotionally, and psychologically reframe the role that trauma played in my personal life. In other words, he aimed to convince me to be thankful for my struggles, because they were, in fact, preparing me for greatness.
Much of the intricacies and nuances of this program can be read in my educational memoir entitled A New Day One: Trauma, Grace, & a Young Man’s Journey from Foster Care to Harvard, but for the sake of this story, I’d like to dissect 3 critical aspects of the mentorship program that made the biggest difference in my journey to becoming a more motivated, resilient, and purpose-driven student.
1. A Space to Self-Discover
As a high school student, my life was fairly unpredictable. From the troubles in my neighborhood, the dysfunction in my home, or the ongoing social emotional issues I struggled with, every day presented new situations and circumstances. As a result, I never had the chance to figure things out. Not having the chance to process the chaos of life kept me in a vulnerable position to perpetuate the same poor choices over and over again.
Recognizing this, my mentor wanted to give me a chance to practice mindfulness and critical thinking. At the beginning of every session, he would have me reflect on our last session, asking more in-depth questions about the issues we talked about in the days prior. For example, I discussed how my parents’ drug addiction was normal to me because I grew up seeing everyone else use drugs. I accepted this as a fact of reality, and overtime, I became numb to it. Because drug abuse was never a critical point of discussion in my school curriculum, counseling sessions, or after-school activities, I lived my life with the expectation that using drugs was something everyone did.
It wasn’t until I had a mentor who challenged me to go deeper into the recess of my parents’ issues with drugs that I came to discover a different perspective. He encouraged me to have a hard conversation with my parents, and to do my own research into things that have happened in my community that may have caused this disparity. No educator ever gave me the space or opportunity to do that. It is from those inquisitions that I learned about the potency of narcotics like cocaine and heroine, and how those drugs helped my father cope with his constant nightmares and flashbacks from his time in the Vietnam war. The more I learned, the more epiphanies I had. These new insights, overtime, challenged my thinking in a way that it had never been. What’s more, is that I stayed engaged the entire time, because the learning was about myself.
2. Authentic Confrontation
By the time I entered my junior year of high school, I had normalized punishment. I had been reprimanded so much, that I expected to get in trouble for one thing or another. Whether it was demerits for showing up late to class, skipping school entirely, failing to do homework, or lashing out at teachers because of something I was struggling with at home, disciplinary action always found its way to me.
I always received the conventional rhetoric: “That’s unacceptable. I’m disappointed. We don’t have time for your antics here. We have kids that really want to learn, and we don’t need you ruining it for others. You’ll be in detention today and tomorrow. Next time this happens, you’ll be suspended.” I would typically get this talk from an administrator who I barely knew, and who barely knew my story. I didn’t trust these administrators with my story, and often doubted if they cared at all. Beyond all of that, I suspected that most of them knew little to nothing about what it personally meant to live in perpetual violence and poverty, and the social emotional fortitude it takes to endure it.
Upon meeting my mentor, he created an adverse approach. First, he started with his story. When he shared it, I was thoroughly surprised. It sounded very similar to my own. His personal relationship to poverty and social failure, family dysfunction, depression, and post traumatic stress, all gave me a deep sense of respect for him. Furthermore, the time and commitment that he put into the mentorship program created a pathway of psychological safety and trust between the both of us. This approach set the perfect tone for him to do what inevitably has to happen when students make poor choices: a healthy and constructive confrontation.
Because of the relationship and commitment we had made to one another, he was able to give me tough feedback and constructive criticism, without ever having to worry about me shutting down and leaving. His language was different. Instead of saying “that’s unacceptable,” he said “I know Rodney Walker, and this isn’t him.” Instead of saying “I’m disappointed in you,” he said “I’m not letting you off the hook because I know you’re better than this.” Perhaps the most important difference in his approach was that I knew he’d never leave my side. The relationship he cultivated with me was one of genuine conviction and loyalty. It felt like a family pact.
3. Character Development through Service
Lastly, I attribute much of my social and emotional growth to the empathy-building and perspective-taking experiences in the mentorship program. When I had an opportunity to serve my community and other poor neighborhoods around me, I came to understand my struggle in a more sensitive way. As a result of this, my life became bigger than me, and for my mentor, that is a critical perspective to have in order to build character.
I was tasked with helping to organize food drives, where I would feed the homeless on the weekends. I visited other Chicago south side communities to build common ground with neighborhood gangs. I sat down with current and former drug addicts to hear their personal stories of trauma and grace. I was educated, in the most primitive way, about the pain that continues to persist in my own backyard, and in the world around me.
This exposure was invaluable for so many critical reasons. Learning the stories of 60-year-olds and 70-year olds, who fell victim to terrible life circumstances, engendered a deep sense of humility within me. Talking to homeless veterans and gang members gave me a deep sense of empathy for others, while at the same time, a sense of appreciation for the chance to turn my life around. That feeling of hope in the midst of despair created the fire of motivation and determination that runs through my veins today.
Conclusion: Breeding Social, Emotional, and Psychological Ownership
Mentorship, through the lens of these strategies, has done something deeper than fix my behavior; I believe it psychologically reoriented the way I see my adversity. To me, this is what mentorship should aim to do. The process of self-discovery, confrontation, and intimate community service, all did what most programs discourage. It threw me into the front lines of the fire, and exposed, educated, and trained me on how to put it out. Learning about my adversity in such a pragmatic way introduced incredible risk. However, my transformation over the years came as a result of this bold exposure.
Being overwhelmed with the reality that I wasn’t the only one with a story was the best things that could’ve happened to me. It allowed me to decipher the difference between those who overcome adversity and those who do not. At the core of that difference is taking ownership, in every way. I learned that I have to embrace my trauma as part of my journey. I learned that I have to confront my demons and fight, every day, to take a different path. I learned that I have to forgive myself for being my own worst enemy over the years, and forgive others for aiding in that campaign. The theory of change is that, in the end, accepting what has happened gives you power to create what could be. Because ownership is power. I became convinced that as long as I refused to take that ownership, my life would continue to be at the mercy of the people, situations and circumstances that have negatively impacted my life. True change cannot happen unless it first happens from within. I believe that my mentorship experience led me to that conclusion in the most organic way.
*As of January 2020. Data is updated quarterly. Next update in April 2020.
**Based on Reviews from the top 3 online sales platforms and reviews submitted on ANewDayOne.org.