Archive for January, 2010


(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) T'Kara Plater, Sarah Oran and Derek Reid were among the more than 25 foster youths and advocates who testified on Jan. 22.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Washington Post Columnist Petula Dvorak covered the preparation of this hearing in her column, Normal Teens, Except for their Heartbreaking Circumstances. The article below is a follow-up to that hearing.

While most 18 year olds are preparing for prom or the college experience, Derek Reid is just trying to survive. He’s been in the D.C. foster care system for three years, lives in a group home on Capitol Hill and is on his third social worker.

If that’s not enough, Reid has three years to get his survival strategy together before he ages out and the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) cuts its supports. “I want to live in a nice setting with someone I can depend on and trust. But no one, including my social worker, has helped me find that,” Reid told Council Member Tommy Wells at a hearing Jan. 22 in the John A. Wilson Building. “If I age out of the system without family, I am not sure where I will be or how I will take care of myself.”

That day, Reid joined more than 25 foster youth, community-based organizations and service providers trying to change that.  “Yes Youth Can: Confronting the Challenges of Aging Out,” which boast was the first-ever youth-led hearing, examined the experiences and challenges of older youth in the D.C. foster care system, the effectiveness of programs and services for this group and how to improve their life prospects once they leave the system on their 21st birthday.

Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, turned over power of the nearly-five-hour hearing to 14 youth from the Young Women’s Project, a DC-based nonprofit that builds youth leaders. Last Friday’s hearing focused on three main points: aging out, education and employment, and congregate care.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Council Member Tommy Wells assisted by Brittany Silver and Trey Jones, youth staff from the Young Women's Project.

These issues effect more than 2,260 DC youth in out-of-home care, according to data released by CFSA in May 2009. In three years, Reid will be among the 150-200 youth turning 21 and aging out of the system annually without a permanent legal relationship.

That time will come even sooner for Loretta Singletary, who has only a year to get it together. She’s looking forward to leaving the system. “It gives me a chance to experience the real feeling of being on my own, paying bills, staying on a monthly budget, keeping and having good credit,” said the 20-year-old, who’s been in foster care for six years.

During that time, she bounced between two foster homes before landing in a group home. While at her second foster home, Singletary and her younger sister enjoyed their foster family. But she longed for her mother and set out to find her when she got her mother’s phone number from an old neighbor. “When I told my foster mom I found my mom, she said that she could not call me on her telephone,” said Singletary, who received good grades throughout middle school.

She had problems when she started high school. “I couldn’t focus there because I was still confused about being in the foster care system,” Singletary said. To make matters worse, she and her sister came home from school one day to find their foster mom had washed and packed their clothes. “She told us that she could not keep teenagers and the next day my sister and I were separated,” said the foster youth, who ended up in a group home shortly after.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Foster youth, Loretta Singletary, testifies.

Now, she lives in an Independent Living Program (ILP), where she’s been for the past two years. After dealing with gossiping counselors and not trusting the staff, Singletary’s ready to leave the system and get her own place when she turns 21 on Dec. 12, 2010. “Right now, I continue to save money in my bank account, work towards my high school diploma, research apartments in my budget and look for a part-time job,” said Singletary, who wants to be a Crime Scene Investigator. “When I turn 21 I want to be ready and follow my transition plan.”

But some service providers say that’s easier said than done. “Transitioning into adulthood is not something you…accomplish over six months,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to children and families and foster caregivers in the District of Columbia. She added that it’s an ongoing process that requires supportive relationships involving capable adults for a smoother transition.

To hear T’Kara Plater put it, her adult life came sooner than she expected. Before she entered the system two years ago, the 18-year-old was responsible for raising her brothers and sisters. Since then, Plater recalled her experiences in the foster care system as something “one cannot imagine.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Foster youth, T'Kara Plater, testifies.

What she didn’t have to imagine were arguments with staff members, having her freedom restricted, her stuff used without permission and her belongings stolen with no effort made to replace them. Her conclusion? “Some staff [members] are not trained properly to work with youth,” Plater said. “Things are hard enough as it is and I am still working around the fact that I am living in places with strangers.”

Having had it hard most of her life, Plater’s convinced she’ll survive once she ages out. But the will, alone, is not enough. Most youth leave the foster care system without the necessary knowledge, skills and supports to be self-sufficient, according to CFSA’s 2008 “Quality Improvement Administration Report.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Some advocates boasted that the event was the 'first-ever' youth-led hearing.

While 40 percent have their high school diploma and 10 percent are enrolled in college, the report showed that only 14 percent have all the necessary resources to support themselves once they’re discharged from the system. But Reid was determined not to be among those grim statistics.

After graduating from H.D. Woodson Senior High School last year, he earned a $50,000 scholarship with the help of his educational advocate at the District of Columbia College Access Program. Despite these efforts, Reid’s fall semester at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., was a rough one.

He said he spent that semester playing catch up since his social worker wasn’t there to help him when he got his books late. “Social workers are our guardians, and it is important that they stay in contact with us because they can’t support us if they don’t know us,” Reid said, adding that his educational advocate at CFSA has not been in touch with him. After community college, he plans to study art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in D.C.

Council Member Wells and CFSA’s Executive Director Roque Gerald, Ph.D., tried to wrap their heads around the testimonies.  Addressing Gerald, the councilmember said, “I know that hearing some of these testimonies had to be disappointing to you.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Dr. Roque Gerald, executive director of the Child and Family Services Agency, speaks with his staff.

Gerald agreed, especially when he heard another part of Reid’s testimony. After unsuccessfully trying to contact his social worker, Reid forged her signature so he could take part in a college program.

Among the executive director’s list of proposed changes for his agency was an “outcome-practice model” that requires no decision be solely made by social workers.

When youth enter foster care, they have many separations, Wells noted. “They lose their connections to their family, to the community, to their siblings, to the last school they attended,” he continued. “They’ve had so many separations, and then to hear the agency continue with separations that are unplanned and not supported is very disappointing.”

To prevent that from happening in the future, Gerald proposed beefing up CFSA’s youth advisory board to give the agency advice on policies, on structure and ways that CFSA can improve and produce better outcomes.

Wells said they could start with their social workers’ supervisors. “I believe from some weaknesses [within CFSA] we’ve seen before that it’s a continuing indictment on your supervisors,” the councilmember said. “It’s a well-resourced agency, historically.” Wells added, “We have continuing concern about the lack of quality supervision at the agency.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Young Women's Project) Council Member Tommy Wells is assisted by Ravon Stewart and Trey Jones, youth staff of the Young Women's Project.

Sandalow, with the Children’s Law Center, and Holland, with the Sankofa Youth and Family Services, also had suggestions. For starters, CFSA could develop an array of services and supports that can be accessed for teenagers. The agency could also work to strengthen relationships between foster teens and the important adults in their lives.

There’s also the Adoption Reform Amendment Act of 2009, introduced by Councilmembers Wells, Michael Brown and Phil Mendelson, that would increase the financial assistance foster parents receive from the District to help with additional costs of raising a child.

Currently, DC’s adoption assistance ends when the child turns 18, while foster care assistance continues until the child turns 21. Under the new bill, adoption assistance would be extended until the child turns 21.  The bill would also extend assistance for another form of permanent placement known as guardianship, which is a form of legal custody for foster children.

These issues will be further examined at an oversight hearing scheduled for Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, Holland had a way of preventing frustration among foster youth who emancipate. “Youths who are 16 years and older,” she said, “should be taught measurable life skills and social skills to prepare them for moving forward.”

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Kobie Nichols: The Wind Rider

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson) Kobie Nichols and his wife, Tyechia Thompson-Nichols

He’s organized film festivals, facilitated panels, got a novel-in-progress and recently staged a live reading of his screenplay while procuring a traveling art show. The 36-year-old’s also a sailor, and has done all those things outside of his day job.

But whether grinding at his nine-to-five or promoting his production company, Kobie Nichols will tell you he’s never off the clock.

In fact, the Richmond, Va.-native has been on the clock since he left his hometown for D.C. more than 10 years ago, after receiving a phone call from Eric Hudson, a childhood friend who had already relocated to the nation’s capital.

Nichols recalled Hudson’s question, “Yo, what you doing?” At the time, Nichols was a year out of school, having graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University in 1998. He was back in Richmond, working as a graphic designer for a pharmaceutical company. His contract would be up soon. Then afterwards? “Nothing,” Nichols told Hudson, who replied: “Yo, why don’t you move to D.C.”

It sounded like a good idea. Nichols would be closer to his then-3-year-old daughter, who lived with her mother in Maryland. And wasn’t D.C. where he ultimately wanted to live? he wondered. Hadn’t the city stolen his heart those undergrad years, when he watched Chocolate City’s finest strolling A&T’s campus? “We had a lot of Maryland and D.C. girls,” Nichols said, “and all of them were my favorite girls on campus.” So much so that Nichols and his friends had a Fab 5 list of “Maryland Chicks,” similar to Michigan’s Fab 5 list of top college basketball players. With his mind made up, Nichols told Hudson, “Cool!”

(PHOTO: Jefry Wright)

He was 26, when he came to D.C. in 1999. Three years later, he would be on a metro bus going to and from work, when he would pen the first draft of a screenplay about sex in D.C., a story loosely based on his experiences since his arrival. “I went to Bar Nun”—the lounge later called PUR—“a lot,” Nichols recalled. “There were just so many beautiful women around.”

That script, which he wrote the entire first draft of on legal pads, won’t have a title until its second draft. That title will come from Nichols browsing his bookcase and spotting Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,” which would influence future versions of the script “Merser Piece Meets O.”

Screenwriting is a passion that goes back to Nichols’s childhood. With his mom working to make ends meet and his father living out-of-state, “TV and movies were my primary baby sitters,” Nichols said. “We always had cable, so HBO and Cinemax were my uncles.” But it wasn’t enough to just be passionate; he also had to learn the industry. In the process of creating an outline for his script in 2002, Nichols enrolled in a workshop at DCTV, a public access television station dedicated to building communities through telecommunications.

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

Since 1988, the member-based non-profit has allowed D.C. residents the opportunity to create and telecast their own shows for the local communities on cable television. That’s where Nichols learned TV production, which encompassed scriptwriting and technical skills such as stage lighting and operating a TV control room.

That’s where Nichols found a support group. “A place where I can talk to folks who were interested in the same things I’m doing,” Nichols said. That’s where he got an opportunity to produce a monthly TV show called Hot Topic with Marcus Jones and Krushea Starnes. DCTV also contracted Nichols to do sound for shows like More Room on the Outside, Most TV and YAP TV, where he’s script supervisor.

That collaborative approach is what Kimberly C. Gaines, Nichols’s friend of more than nine years, appreciated when they collaborated a year ago with Hari Jones on the traveling exhibition for the African-American Civil War Museum.

Jones, the curator, compiled the exhibit’s text from his lectures, the  first-hand accounts from military letters, Harper’s weekly, and information from the National Archives, according to a January 2009 post  on Gaines’s blog “Sondai: Tale of a Visual Goddess.” Nichols researched the images and assisted with the layout. “He’s quite the thinker,” she said. “He challenges those around him to do the same.”

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

When he enrolled at DCTV in 2002, Nichols founded Fresh Produce Entertainment Group (FPEG), a production company focused on providing “intimate views of urban life” through film, stage, and print media. Not long after, Nichols teamed up with Ayo Okunseinde, co-owner of Dissident Display Gallery in D.C.’s H Street corridor, and began a series of film festivals around D.C. called Fresh Produce Film Festival.

The first one took place in 2003. He and Okunseinde served wine, showed their films and opened the floor for comments and suggestions. Three more events followed at venues around the city including the former Blue Room (now Bourbon) in Adams Morgan. Submissions came from filmmakers in the city, around the country and overseas.  “It grew,” Nichols said. “We showed 12 films.” The last film festival was held at the Visions Bar Noir, an independent movie theater at the crossroads of the city’s Dupont Circle, Kalorama and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.

The theater, a redesign of the old Embassy Theater on Florida Avenue, opened its doors in May 2000. At the time, “We entered a marketplace when there wasn’t anything going on,” Visions president Andrew Frank told the Washington Post in a 2004 article. “We filled that specialty niche and revived it for a while at a time when the city was under-screened.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of the42bus.blogspot.com)

(PHOTO: Courtesy of the42bus.blogspot.com)

But in 2002, the two-screen theater faced competition from newer, better-funded theaters that caught on and entered the niche marketplace of independent and art house movies, the Post reported. Among them were Landmark Theatres’ multi-screen Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, Regal Theaters in Rockville, Loews Cineplex Georgetown, the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and the Avalon. The number of screens within a six-mile radius of Visions jumped from 89, in 2002, to more than 130.

Add to that the mounting debt, and the theater’s owners knew their days were numbered. After Vision’s final event, Nichols moved on to collaborate on other endeavors. His most ambitious among them was the staged reading of his script “Merser Piece Meets O,” inspired by “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” by Shel Silverstein.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Harper Collins)

In Silverstein’s story, a circular creature realizes one day it’s missing its wedge-shaped piece. So it sets out on an adventure to find it. Nichols, whose script — loosely based on his life — started out as a story about a guy addicted to sex in D.C., saw the potential for improvements in his script. Nichols saw his main character, Merser, through his sexual escapades, also searching for something to complete him.

But if you ask Nichols who’s the big O or the missing piece he’ll smile, consider your question, and then tell you: “It’s all about perception.” To the women in Mercer’s life, he was the big O only because they were in pieces. But Merser was in pieces too. Oya, the woman Merser chases, is named after the Yoruba goddess for change. She’s Mercer’s big O.

The script, itself, works as a commentary on dating. “The conversation about relationships is interesting,” Nichols said. “A lot of people are looking for something specific in relationships when they need to look for themselves” first.

The script went through several edits, a process that took Nichols seven years to get it to the version staged Nov. 20, 2009, at the Goethe-Intitut/German Cultural Center near downtown Chinatown. Melani N. Douglass saw the entire process. “I feel like I saw sketches of this play go from a thought to a draft to the stage,” said Douglass, Nichols’s friend of more than seven years.

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor)

That process was possible because of sponsors such Carafe Wines in Alexandria, Va., and Universal Flowers. Others included Dr. Eleanor Traylor at Howard University, Lorraine Brown, Diane Brander and Nichols’s mom.

Douglass jumped at the opportunity to play Xi when another woman selected for the role couldn’t do it. The character Xi is one of Mercer’s love interests. Xi also represents energy and is the element for fire. (“Every time she comes into the scene something hot is going on,” Nichols said.) Douglass said, “I love what he did with that character. So I was excited.”

A major edit was when Nichols removed five sections from the first draft. “He keeps working at it,” Douglass said. “As a fellow artist, it was an honor to be a part of one of the stages of completion of this play.”

The night of the reading was a cold one. But that didn’t deter Hadiya Williams from being among the 80 people who packed out the auditorium in the Goethe-Institut. “The reading was excellent!” she posted on his Facebook page the next day. “The readers were great.”

With a review like that, why push the script to go on the big screen instead of a stage? “The energy of D.C. dictates that this be a movie that takes place on the streets of Washington, D.C.,” Nichols said. “That’s why I was specific about locations.” To put it on the stage, he added, would take away from what he wants his audience left with. “When people see it in a different city,” he said, they should “feel Washington, D.C.”

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor) Kobie Nichols with the ladies of his casts.

Williams had to appreciate that. “Thank you for the experience,” she said, “and much success on the next phase”—which includes Nichols introducing the screenplay in other cities through live readings. “One reading per city. I don’t want to over-saturate,” Nichols said. It’s enough if people are talking about it, which he hopes will keep it fresh. “I would rather them talk about it than keep seeing it.”

Nichols is also busy wrapping up a novel-in-progress he started back in Richmond. The story’s a speculative fiction about a guy who has three dimensions of living. The story chronicles the day of the guy’s death, from when he wakes to the time he’s killed. In each dimension, the guy – a prototype of Merser’s character – dies the same way, which alters the course of the character’s life. At the end, the main character remembers a conversation he had with God while in the womb. “We all have a path with God before we’re born,” Nichols said. That path determines “how our life plays out before we die.”

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor)

At the moment, Nichols is more alive than ever, especially after getting his sailor’s license in September 2009. “I have a strange love for water,” Nichols said. “I’ve always liked boats.”

After film, he said his next move is to offer the bed and breakfast experience on water, with boats at various ports around the world. Meanwhile, Nichols will settle for sailing his 19-foot boat, the “Flying Scott,” out at the Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria, Va., when the weather permits. He’s licensed to sail nationwide.

Considering Nichols’s journey to the person he’s become, perhaps his love of the water isn’t so strange after all. “I’m a where-the-wind-blows kind of guy,” he said. “That might be why I like sailing,” which has a rule, he added: “Know where your destination is first, then let the wind take you there.”

Nichols is riding an even bigger wind since that November night at the Goethe-Institut, when he watched his friends bring his characters to life. And to know that seven years worth of sweat equity wasn’t wasted, to see a dream on the verge of coming to fruition, could overwhelm anyone. “I don’t usually show my emotions,” the director said. “But that night, I was moved to tears.”

For updates, visit Kobie’s facebook page, myspace page and http://fpeg.com. Tune into “Hot Topics” on the web at http://youtube.com/hottopicsdc.

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My $1,000 Dream

(PHOTO: insultyourbossday.com/howto/index.html)

Editor’s note: YouSayToo is ringing in 2010 by hosting holiday awards for the 10 coolest blog authors. Nine lucky bloggers will receive fun gifts of their choice and the first place winner will be rewarded with a $1,000 holiday dream gift! To enter your blogs in the awards all you need to do is add them to YouSayToo and write a Dream Gift post on them.

Five months ago, my $1,000 Holiday Dream Gift possibilities might have been limited to a laptop, a gift card for the movies, a bookstore or for Best Buy. But something happened one August day that changed everything, even those possibilities.

Prior to that day, I was a reporter at a newspaper in Baltimore for a little more than a year. The job was a stressful one, where I was overworked and underpaid, where I was going through the daily motions waiting for something better to come along. Too bad I didn’t know about YouSayToo’s Awards then. I really could have used a thousand dollars worth of groceries, or a gas card loaded with dough.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of yousaytoo.com)

Even YouSayToo’s fun gifts, like the USB Tulip Hubs, would have come in handy. The blooming garden of plastic tulips might have been enough to lift the mood of an employee that was borderline disgruntled. (One could never have enough high-speed ports.)

That August day, I felt I had won the $1,000 Holiday Dream Gift when I was laid off, collecting unemployment, trying to figure my future out. The process involved me starting a blog. Why should it win? Ask the people I’ve covered: a local woman struggling to become a soul singer, D.C.’s literary advocates imagining their world without books, and a Nigerian artist who shows both the local and national art scenes he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Or better yet just ask the people who visit my blog. “The quality is high and it’s enjoyable to read,” Martin Cameron Smith said in a comment posted on Oct. 24. “I like the young, creative, intellectual slant I’m sensing from the blog.” Kelli Garner, another reader, had this to say: “I enjoy this site; it is worth me coming back.”

Since that August day, I completed a poetry manuscript and participated in a big writing project for a literary journal. I also started considering switching career fields after jumping at an opportunity to teach creative writing in an afterschool program. Now the possibilities are endless, especially with me on my way to grad school. And I think it’s pretty clear how that $1,000 Holiday Dream Gift can be put to good use.

I did my part, writing those essays for grants and scholarships. But a cash award could help me get there, or at least cover the cost of books.

For more information, or to enter you blog in YouSayToo’s Awards, go to http://www.yousaytoo.com/awards?11009.

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