Justice Matters: Reflection from Dr. Michelle Filling-Brown

Dr. Michelle Filling-Brown, Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Engagements with the Common Good Program, shares the following reflection on the Justice Matters core curriculum:

Sometimes I receive the question, “how did you start teaching a class on foster care?”  It’s a great question given that I focused on African American literature, women’s studies, and beauty culture in graduate school.  The answer to this question reflects why I feel so blessed to teach at Cabrini College. 

So the answer is…

In my first year at Cabrini College, Justin Lee (brother of Dr. Amy Persichetti) came to meet with faculty about a potential partnership working with the Pennsylvania Youth Advisory Board (YAB) – a group of current and former foster youth who have “aged out” of the foster care system.  At the time, a partnership I had with Norristown New Life After School Program was coming to a close and I was looking to start a new partnership for an ECG 100 course I wanted to develop.  Justin’s email piqued my interest because I have a cousin, Mikey, who was adopted via the foster care system.  I remembered the struggles he had as he integrated into our family, especially as the foster care system pulled him away from his biological siblings and extended family.  I knew in my heart that the foster care system saved his life in many ways, but I knew that his experience was far from perfect and really reflected some of the flaws of our current system.  Because of my personal connection to foster care, I attended the meeting and met with Justin as well as Barb Huggins, who was a member of the YAB and had just finished college.  I learned at this meeting that Barb was beating the odds since only 2% of foster youth graduate from college.  It was really through my personal connection to foster youth and this initial meeting that catalyzed my now 6-year long partnership with Justin and Barb.

As I look back over the past six years I realize how this partnership has evolved and changed.  In 2009 when we embarked on this journey, Justin was the Practice Improvement Specialist for the PA Child Welfare Program and Barb had just landed her first job as a social worker.  Fast forward to 2014 and Justin is now with Casey Family Programs and travels the nation to educate social workers on best practices and works to implement new policies to improve safety for children and ultimately reduce the need for foster care; and Barb now holds what is essentially Justin’s previous position and works to improve the experiences of foster youth in PA.  These two individuals have so profoundly impacted my life and the way that I view the world.  Not only have they helped me to deepen my passion for foster youth advocacy and awareness in my ECG 100 course, but I now find that in my personal life I have helped families with learning more about local adoption and seek ways to advocate for foster youth. 

Over the years I have gained many new guest speakers within my ECG 100 course ranging from the parent of a Cabrini student who works for Child Protection and Permanency in NJ (formerly DYFS) to legal advocates for foster youth.  While various guest speakers come and go, there are three elements that stay constant – Justin, Barb, and the YAB.  Each semester a group from the YAB speaks with my class.  Their ability to courageously tell their stories of abuse, abandonment, and heartbreak always amazes me.  While their testimony is often difficult to hear, their stories are also filled with hope, survival and resilience.  Undoubtedly, their visits to my ECG 100 class become the highlight of the semester and most likely an experience that my students will never forget.

As I approach my fall 2014 ECG 100 class, I’m eagerly anticipating discussing our summer book Almost Home because of the direct connections between teens experiencing homelessness and the foster care system.  This book will give me a fresh way to approach the curriculum and a new lens for my students as they prepare to meet with the YAB this fall.  While the shortcomings of the foster care system are ever present in these teenagers’ lives, I garner hope from small gains like Pennsylvania fully adopting the Fostering Connections Act in 2012 which is improving the quality of life for foster youth ages 18-21.  I also gain hope when I witness Cabrini students making connections between what they learned about Foster Care and future classes on education, domestic violence, or other issues that connect with the themes of social justice that they learned in my ECG 100 class.

So that’s the long answer to the question about how an English professor ended up teaching a course on foster care.  I would love to chat with you more about my class, my experiences, and foster care.  The experience of this ever-evolving course has been one of my greatest blessings at Cabrini and an example of why mission matters to me.

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