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Brittany Cannon is 24 years old and lives in Los Angeles. Before she headed west from Florida, she spent most of her upbringing in tumultuous situations with her mother who suffers from untreated mental illness. She and her siblings moved around a lot, bouncing from foster home to foster home to kinship care. Today, Brittany is attending college and interning with the California Youth Connection. And thanks to some good advice and innovative programs, she’s helping others and planning a future filled with new possibilities.

“I was born in Florida and I lived with my biological mother until I was 16. We moved to Birmingham, Alabama when I was nine or 10 and when I was 15 we moved back to Florida. When I was 16, I entered the foster system. I moved to Tennessee with my Dad’s side.

“It was really confusing growing up, because I think my biological mother was dealing with her own issues too. Some of the struggles were from what she dealt with in her childhood, and the trauma kind of came out onto me. There is just a long line of family history with violence of women on women in my family and an absence of father figures. She tried to be like, structured and sometimes really overbearing, and controlling but then she was also really neglectful. I started babysitting myself, I remember, like at six or seven because she couldn’t afford babysitting. She would either be out working or doing something trying to get money. She tried to hold onto jobs but that just didn’t usually work out very well.

“Growing up, I didn’t get to have a relationship with people in my family on my father’s side. They would try, but different things would happen and we would either move or there was just always an excuse. For many years, I thought my biological father was just this awful person who didn’t care about me and was in jail because that’s how it had kind of been portrayed to me. I only saw my dad a handful of times until I was 16 and got to have that relationship. In some ways–in a lot of ways–I have the foster care system to thank for that. When I was 16, I think my voice was taken into more consideration. At that age, I’d been through enough I guess and I knew how to express that I wanted to go live with my dad’s side of the family. Even though I did not know them very well, I knew that they wanted me.

“I lived my last year in Tennessee going to school. I went to East Tennessee State University. I went to school and I stayed in a dorm. That was my reason for going to school. Actually, I was like ‘Oh, I can live in a dorm. I’ll have a roof over my head if I go to school.’ I went there for one year. My English class and my sociology class were probably the most impactful. I remember setting up my class schedule with an advisor and I was really up front. I always wanted to go to California. I was like, ‘I’m telling you I’m going to go to California and I’m going to pursue music. So I should just take any class.’ I didn’t care too much about my education at that point. But she was like, ‘You should just take a few (core classes).’

“I still enjoyed writing and I still had that interest first for like social justice but I wanted to move to California. So then when I moved out here I was going to have to wait a year to gain residency for the FAFSA. So I worked at Universal Studios in retail and I made lead but I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. The more I looked into being a musician up close and the environment I was just like, ‘Yeah, this is not what I want.’

“I moved to Korea Town [section of Los Angeles] got my own place and I transferred to LA City College. I went to the financial aid office and they needed me to verify my independent status. When I verified that I’d been in foster care, they were like, ‘Oh, we have this program called The Guardian Scholars and it’s in the same office building.’

I was really not open to even expressing that I had been in foster care. It’s sort of taboo—well maybe not taboo but even my biological mom never talked really about her experience. It was just this mysterious world. I went over there and found out what the Guardian Scholars program was all about. It was really appealing. I had never heard of anything like that before so it kind of took me aback at first. It’s an amazing program!

Veronica Garcia is my mentor. She’s the director of the program. I don’t know how she does all of it. It’s on our campus at LA City College. It’s also on other college campuses and it’s designed to help foster or probation youth create their own education plan. They have access to free tutoring services and a book loan program. I even was a tutor for them.

At first, I was only applying to transfer to Cal State [Universities], and then UC’s [University of California System]. But now I’m focused on applying to private colleges. I see a lot more for myself now. I feel like–I hope I’m not being overconfident–but I feel like there’s more power to be reached. There’s more to have.

“I really like the advocacy work I’m doing now with the California Youth Connection. We’re a youth-led organization of former and current foster youth where we make policy recommendations and present them to the legislators and policy makers. We help re-frame rules to help the foster care system. One of my goals here–one of my dreams–would be to work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to reform the mandatory minimum sentencing laws and to repeal the death penalty.

“My background growing up was complication after complication in one sense, but also it made me a lot more independent and resilient. My education has just liberated me so much.”

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