The following is a conversation between Sixto Cancel, Founder and CEO of Think of Us, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Think of Us operates as a Research and Development lab for child welfare, transforming the system so that people with lived experience are at the center of designing, imagining, and building it. It was founded and is led by a former foster youth who is with us now. He is Sixto Cancel, the CEO of Think of Us. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sixto.
Sixto: Denver, it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Denver: The child welfare system is failing. And I guess you could say it’s even causing greater trauma to the youth and families it is meant to serve, and you know this firsthand. Share with listeners, Sixto, your story and how the system failed you.
Sixto: Yeah, I guess my story even begins before I was even born with my biological mother. At the age of nine, she actually was homeless because her stepfather was sexually abusing her. And the courts decided by the time I was born that the intervention should have been a rehab. But what she really needed was to get engaged in school, work and to be able to address some of the trauma she had.
But for me personally, I entered the foster care system as an 11-month baby, adopted by the age of nine. It was an abusive, racist adoption, and so by 13, I was couch-surfing. And what it took for me to get back into the system was to record the abuse I was going through, journaling it so that I can prove what was actually happening. And once I was in, I didn’t get reunited with family. I didn’t get connected to other family members or to be adopted. I ended up actually aging out of the foster care system.
Denver: Hmm, wow. And as it turned out, family members were fairly close by, weren’t they?
Sixto: Yeah, about three years ago I was in Spanish Harlem, and my sister calls me and she says, “There’s a family reunion today,” which is a very shocking thing to even imagine, that is something that could happen in my life.
And then we end up going to this park, and I walk into a place where there’s about 30 folks there. And while I was there, I was just so shocked and disturbed that I found out that four of my aunts and uncles were foster parents. And this whole time they were always 58 miles away from me.
Denver: Oh my gosh. That’s incredible.
Sixto: And that they’ve been fostering for longer than I’ve been alive and adopted a sibling set of four.
“It was designed particularly for toddlers, it was never designed to actually address neglect. So 4% of the young people in care are here because of sexual abuse; 12% are here for physical abuse. And about 35% are here for abuse and neglect. But the majority of the young people are in the system because of some neglect issue.”
Denver: Yeah, yeah. Let’s talk about the problem a little bit. Give us the sense of the scope and the dimensions of it. I mean, the number of youth who have spent time in foster care, the percentage perhaps of who enter a permanent arrangement. Give us an idea of the magnitude.
Sixto: Yeah, so it starts off with a child abuse investigation. There are eight million children involved in a child abuse investigation. 53% of all black families, according to the American Public Health Journal, will experience a child abuse investigation… so one out of two black families will experience that.
And of that, 400,000 young people will be in the actual system at any given time. So we see 400,000 young people in it, and then we see about half will go home. And the other half will either be adopted, age out of the foster care system, or go live with a- (3:12)
Denver: I guess I have to ask, why is the system failing?
Sixto: It was designed to keep young people safe. And it was designed particularly for toddlers; it was never designed to actually address neglect. So 4% of the young people in care are here because of sexual abuse, 12% are here for physical abuse. And about 35% are here for abuse and neglect. But the majority of the young people are in the system because of some neglect issue.
Denver: And it was really designed, I guess, back in the 1850s, would that be right?
Sixto: Absolutely. The first set of laws came from England, and those sets of laws really had three things that it did to the child welfare system. The laws said, one, who was worthy and unworthy of support. Number two, it created a size-fits-all. And number three, it took people and said you had to meet these types of eligibility in order to be worthy of support.
Denver: Yeah. And it really hasn’t evolved much since then. And I think what you just said… and tell me if I got this right, it’s really worried about safety and not about development. Making sure that you have a roof over your head and you get some food or something, but not in terms of your development. And it was imagined in 1850, and it’s alive in 2020, would that be right?
Sixto: That is completely right. In fact, one of the most monumental things in child welfare that I feel is catalytic, is that during President Obama’s administration, there was a memo released from the Commissioner at the time saying that we are now responsible for the well-being and development of the children in our foster care system. It was such an issue that we had to name it and say, “This is part of our mandate.”
Denver: This is a challenging start, by understating it in an incredible fashion. How do you go from that background to starting a nonprofit organization called Think of Us, what was that-
Sixto: It was a journey that was full of mentorships. It was a journey full of accelerators, and these types of fellowships that really helped us structure. When I started this journey, I thought that we were going to focus just on building an app that gave a person like me in a tough situation a voice. To be able to report what was going on, to be able to ask for services.
But then with the help of New Profit, we’ve restructured and became a systems change organization. And now we’re about 35 folks who… part of us are focused on doing legislative and regulatory work; part of us are conducting participatory research in the field. And then there’s another part of folks who are actually working on projects, helping state governments re-architect part of their agency.
Denver: And you got a big boost, I think, early on from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative?
Sixto: Absolutely. My first fellowship was as a young fellow at Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative, which is part of the Annie Casey Foundation. Where I got to learn how the system was financed, how to be able to implement different strategic state initiatives. And then that’s where I got a lot of my federal experience also.
“It wasn’t that I was in an abusive situation that made me feel hopeless, it was the fact that I had actually gotten the bravery to say what was happening to me for once. And I thought that the moment that I actually spoke up would be the moment that I would get support, help, and be removed from that situation.”
Denver: Did you ever wonder what you were doing? I mean, it’s almost déjà vu to say, “I’m coming from the system, and I’m going to take it on and try to make it better for everybody in it.” I mean, were there self-doubts along the way? Or what was the thing that inspired you, especially in those early days when you were trying to build the organization?
Sixto: I was 15 years old when I made the commitment that I was going to do this as my life work. I was at the bus stop, and I just remember just saying a very hard prayer because I felt so hopeless in the situation. And it wasn’t that I was in an abusive situation that made me feel hopeless, it was the fact that I had actually gotten the bravery to say what was happening to me for once. And I thought that the moment that I actually spoke up would be the moment that I would get support, help, and be removed from that situation.
But it wasn’t. And so that’s when I knew for sure that the system is broken and that someone has to do something about it.
Denver: Wow. Let’s talk about the system a little bit and institutional placements. Do you think there’s a place for group homes, or do you think that they should just be done away with?
Sixto: I think that there’s so much nuance here. Here’s what I believe. When a young person’s under the age of 18, they should be placed with family. Now, there are medical conditions, there are different interventions that require a congregate care setting.
But when there are certain states that are in the South, that 70% of their young people on day one are placed in a group home. That’s not an intervention, that is a placement. And what we should not be doing is putting young people in a facility where they cannot be loved past the contractual agreement.
Denver: You had said a few moments ago how you aged out of the foster care system, and I think that’s a big issue that everybody is going to wonder or is wondering about. So tell us, when you age out of a system, foster care, what are the consequences of that for so many of the youth who’ve been in foster care…in terms of the trajectory of the rest of their life?
Sixto: Yeah. Unfortunately, when young people age out of the foster care system, they turn 18 or 21, and they don’t have the proper support. We see 20% of those young people experiencing homelessness within two years. We see 50% of the young people experiencing unemployment.
What we see is just a lack of being able to really fulfill your dream to become a stable, healthy, connected adult, because you’re in such survival mode. And so those things have been very clear for a very long time.
Denver: Yeah. And when you stop and think about it, I think a lot of young people between 18 or 21, even if they have not gone through the trauma of the foster care system, would not be all that well prepared to make their way in this world with nothing, with no support. Just go to it and get at it, and I don’t think many people would be successful at that.
Let’s talk a little bit about the aging out of the system. What do you propose? How would you look at it as you begin to reimagine what this system and what this model should look like?
Sixto: Absolutely. We actually asked that question to 209 participants in our study called Aged Out. And we went to five jurisdictions, and we were saying, “What’s missing from this transition to process out?” And we found three things, three pillars. Healing and dealing with trauma, helping young people build a supportive adulthood, and actually preparing youth by their definition for it so … Sorry… helping build supportive networks is the second one.
And so what we found is that there’s trauma that you experience before the system, but there are a lot of traumatic experiences that happen while you’re in foster care. And we need support in figuring out how you heal from those. Suddenly there are adults in our lives, but those adults sometimes are not playing a role because of the bureaucracy. Where someone may have helped you … If not in foster care, who’s the person who helps you do a resume, be able to go buy interview clothing, learn how to drive? These are folks who are in our lives, but in foster care, these become programs. And so we don’t get the same opportunity to develop strong bonds with them.
And the last one here is that there is an idea from the system of what we should know to be prepared for adulthood. But the reality is that young people also have a couple other domains of their life that they believe that they should be working on to be prepared for that moment that they’re on their own.
Denver: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So essentially what you’re saying, “Let’s, co-create this. Do I have a say in my future, or are you just telling me some of the basics that I need to do?” And I don’t need to speak up and tell you what’s inside of me. You’re never going to be successful if the person whose life is going to be impacted doesn’t get to pipe in.
Sixto: Absolutely. I will say, part of the life skill class that you’re supposed to take before you age out, for me it was a PowerPoint. And they would show you a PowerPoint about cooking, show you a PowerPoint about doing laundry. And I will say there was one slide that was helpful, which is if you ever have a grease fire put flour in it, and I do remember that. But I think our young people need more than a PowerPoint for learning how to cook, clean, and the other life skills that they have to do.
Denver: Yeah. I will take a note to tell you the truth about putting flour on a grease fire. I did not know that, and that is actually going to be my tip of the day. You also talked about personal advisory boards, right?
Denver: Speak about those.
Sixto: Yeah. One of the things that I truly believe is so critical, is not just about your family, but also these supportive adults that are there and how you navigate from one place in your life to a next place. And all of us have, whether we call them a best friend or friends or a personal advisor, people that we go to in the moment of great joy and in the moment of great sadness.
And I think that sometimes that gets so disrupted when you’re going from place to place to place, and you can’t build those moments. And I truly believe in personal advisory boards. When we were working on our app, we were structuring the app so that a young person would actually identify a personal advisory board, identify the staff that they’re working with, and together co-create goals.
Denver: Yeah. Let’s talk about that app, because really at the center of everything you do is technology. And you’ve created a number of different ways that technology will be manifested, but one of them is the Think of Us platform. What is it? How does it work? And what’s the change that you’ve seen it’s made?
Sixto: Absolutely. So for three years we had this idea of how might you center lived experience voice? How do you center the young person in being able to say, “Hey, actually I want to engage in therapy.” Or “I want to have a goal of going to a four-year college.” Or whatever it is that is happening to you that you would have some voice and choice into it.
We designed a web platform… we didn’t get it to mobile yet. And the web platform, we tested it and prototyped it and tweaked it. And we were able to build it out to seven different modules. And what we realized is what we needed is a practice model with some regulatory changes. And that’s where we were able to pivot the organization from being a tech nonprofit, to being a systems change nonprofit. And what we’ve done with that technology is we’re partnering with a big tech company who is integrating our technology into their case management system to act as the youth portal. So version two of this product, or should I say version 1,700…
Denver: Yeah, it’s a little bit closer.
Sixto: … is one that, and what do you call it? Is one that will be integrated because what we realized, which is so important, is that we need to do the practice model work. We need to do the systems change work, to enable centering young people.
Denver: Yeah. And a lot of those versions, of those 1,700s, were done at hackathons.
Sixto: Yes. My favorite way to really figure out a problem is to literally leverage the 360-degree view. The people who live it, the people who work on the issue, the people who research it, the people who don’t know anything about it, and the people who are in tech. And we would build teams of folks to come together to solve very hard problems.
And in fact, one of those problems was the LA Hackathon, where we had four million hours of visitation that needed to be coordinated by staff, between young people and their families. And so this was all being done by voicemail and by, what you call it, email. And-
Denver: What you call it.
Sixto: We were able to bring all these different folks together– bio parents, young people, technologists, and the people working the system. And now they’re rolling out a two o’clock time to connect to test how you use software to streamline the coordination. And so what used to take two million hours of staff time, is taking a little bit less now.
Denver: Oh wow. That’s unbelievable, a little bit less. Yeah. Let’s talk about a little bit of the interface and the interaction. Because here you are–a relatively young guy, creating a tech nonprofit, which is morphing into a systems nonprofit. But then on the other hand, there’s a system out, there’s an existing system that still exists and it’s made up of a whole suite of players, particularly the federal government, the state government.
How do you, with what you’re doing, intersect with them to have them embrace and understand and embed many of the things that you’re doing to actually change that system?
Sixto: Yeah. We’re focused on creating proximity. And so the difference between advocacy and proximity is that when you advocate, you’re asking the federal government or you’re asking a state to do X. But proximity is bringing them on a journey with you to say, “Here’s what’s happening on the ground. Here’s what lived experience folks are saying.” So our participatory research department is out there understanding those, and are gathering young people to talk to an associate commissioner or to talk to a senior advisor—it gives them the frontline understanding of it.
And then we’re collecting what people are doing and saying, “Hey, people are trying to solve this problem. Here are five ways they’re doing it. And it’s interesting that all the five ways have these three things in common.” When we don’t feel like we have to be the source of the answer, but to lift up the facts of what’s actually happening and the voices of who this is happening to.
Denver: Yeah, that’s a great point. I also find it, when you’re dealing with people in the system, when they’ve heard it a number of times, it doesn’t seem as shocking to them. If at the final presentation, you come in with a PowerPoint and you come up with the five things or the three things, and they’re like, “Whoa, that’s a lot!” They’ve been along, and so they kind of get acclimated to, “This is where we’re going,” so it doesn’t seem quite as dramatic a change because they’ve been on the journey, as you said.
Hey, looking back in hindsight, and you’ve had some hindsight here because you started this really early and you’ve been moving fast: Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Sixto: As I sit here and think, there’s really not anything that I would do differently. Because it is in the greatest challenges where we have had the greatest learnings to understand how to maneuver.
And I think during the pandemic, when the pandemic started, it was the ability to let go of all traditional programming, to focus on helping states and the federal government respond, which was catalytic for us. And so those skillsets of the team, of myself, we learned in the challenges of pivoting, iterating our product and doing those things.
Denver: What has been your greatest source of inspiration?
Sixto: It’s always the stories of young people all over this country. We are connected to 38,000 young people. There’s stories that they tell us by verbally speaking to us. But there’s also the story of what the data shows when we’re able to look at: What did these 38,000 young people request from us? What did they ask for? It tells a narrative.
And in that narrative, in all of those requests, there’s a resilient story in there, which is in the five top request things that people request, one of them is getting connected to a professional, getting a resume, getting a bank account, getting interview clothing. And what that tells us there is that young people see their answer as getting a job and wanting to do for themselves. And in the midst of their struggle, they are still looking for how is it that they can navigate.
Denver: Interesting. You’re not only a founder, but you’re a CEO and this has not been an easy time to be in charge, no matter what the organization or where it’s been. What have you found to be the challenges of leading an organization through this crisis? And have you adapted any of your leadership style to this changed world we’re living in?
Sixto: Yeah. Number one, I would say the adaptation has been getting a managing partner who’s able to really lead the how-function, and for me to live in the why-function. And a time when innovation is needed, because you literally cannot do things as usual, it takes brainpower and space to be able to dig into that and work with your colleagues on that.
And then one of the biggest challenges I would say is taking care of your people who are working at the organization. It’s a time where mental health has been really on our minds. We’ve lost some colleagues to suicide. So it has been a very hard journey for the folks who are in service. And sometimes we’re in service so deep that we forget to do a bit of self-care, maintenance care, and we end up trying to do aftercare, but that burnout is still real at that stage.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. No it’s been tough, especially I think in the field that you’re in, because it’s a really difficult and challenging experience for so many. All right, this year you’re launching this Center for Lived Experience. Tell us about it.
Sixto: Yes. I am so excited to be launching the Center for Lived Experience. And we have started to hire our initial staff. It will have three functions, three pillars. One of them is community building and organizing, participatory research and data, and proximate policy. And what would be different about the center is that it is going to be focused on being the function that we do now, which is being responsive to the federal government, to Congress, to folks who are doing systems change initiatives. And saying, “Hey, before you make that decision, let’s go ahead and consult what lived experience folks are actually saying in the masses.”
Being connected to 38,000 folks allows us to be able to actually sample participants in a very efficient, quick way to participate in multiple studies that are being done. To participate in different systems change initiatives that are hyper-focused on things like young parents who are in Enroll America who are of color. We can easily call, pick up the phone and say, “Hey folks, are you interested in participating?”
Denver: Finally, Sixto, as an individual who has lived the experience in the system you’re trying to change, talk about systems change. In addition to people with lived experience, what else has to happen to have systems change be successful?
Sixto: What has to happen for systems change to be successful, especially for those of us who have lived experience doing the work, from an individual level, it’s the healing work that we need to do. So number one, I recommend for all of us, whether lived experience or not, the consciousness around your healing so that you’re able to show up in some very tough situations.
And then from the system level, it’s to be able to live in the structure that we know was not designed for actually how people heal, develop… and really position them to thrive. It was designed to keep young toddlers safe, secure, and mitigate risk. And so the dynamic of what we’re asking for is a direct contradiction. And so how we actually negotiate and move to be able to go ahead and re-architect pieces of the system bit by bit, it is critical for the movement.
Denver: Got it. Hey, for listeners who want to learn more about Think of Us or financially support this work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Sixto: So visit us at www.thinkof-us.org, that’s thinkof-us.org. And on our website, not only will you learn about the organization, but check out the tab: Our Work. And on that tab, you’ll see the different projects that we have going on. And in some of those projects, you’ll even see the different methodologies to approach it so that you can possibly adapt some of those learning lessons that we’ve had in your work.
Denver: Fantastic. Thanks, Sixto, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Sixto: Oh, the pleasure was mine. Thank you so much.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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