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Students in Service-​​Learning course give voice to overlooked youth

Associate professor Greg Goodale’s Advocacy Workshop trains students to become lobbyists and push for legislative change to Massachusetts’ foster care system.
Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Try finding this final project in any other col­lege class.

Rather than writing a paper or making a pre­sen­ta­tion, stu­dents enrolled in ass­so­ciate pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies Greg Goodale’s Service-​​Learning Advo­cacy Work­shop orga­nized a day of events at the Mass­a­chu­setts State House last week. There, they lob­bied leg­is­la­tors and ral­lied mem­bers of the public to sup­port leg­is­la­tion that would improve the lives of foster chil­dren in Mass­a­chu­setts who age out of the system.

Stu­dents and leg­is­la­tors spoke in Nurses Hall and a cap­pella singers per­formed pop songs such as Ed Sheeran’s “A Team” and David Guetta’s “Titanium.”

“We want it to be really hard for people to miss what we’re doing,” said Ryanne Olsen, a second-​​year stu­dent pur­suing a com­bined major in polit­ical sci­ence and com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies.

The day of events marked a cul­mi­na­tion of months of work in which stu­dents researched the foster care system, lob­bied law­makers, and helped foster chil­dren develop the skills to advo­cate on their own behalf. One of the goals of the course is to draw sup­port for sev­eral bills that would improve the state’s foster care system, which Goodale said leaves too many to fend for themselves.

“I love teaching this class,” said Goodale, whose research focuses on public advo­cacy and polit­ical rhetoric. “The oppor­tu­ni­ties it pro­vides are out of this world.”

Ask his stu­dents, who report that the course not only teaches them to spark reform and address public policy issues from dif­ferent per­spec­tives, but also reshapes their career ambitions.

“I took the first ever advo­cacy course and it changed my life and the course of my career,” said Brit­tany San­toro, a 2011 grad­uate of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies pro­gram. Advo­cating for foster care reforms in Goodale’s class, she explained, prompted her to get a job with Demand Abo­li­tion, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion that com­bats sex traf­ficking, a system to which foster chil­dren are dis­pro­por­tion­ately tied.

San­toro has even extended a full-​​time job offer to another one of Goodale’s pupils; Devon Rebello, a fifth-​​year com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies major who served as an intern and co-​​op for Demand Abo­li­tion, will join the staff full-​​time after grad­u­ating in May.

This semester’s Advo­cacy Work­shop has the sup­port of State Sen­ator Katherine Clark and State Rep. Gloria Fox, whose dis­trict includes part of North­eastern and who grew up in the foster care system.

“There is so often just nothing for these young people,” Fox said. “So we have to make sure there are some safe­guards put in place.”

Goodale’s course pushes stu­dents out­side their com­fort zones, they said, forcing them to develop the same knowl­edge and skills that a pro­fes­sional lob­byist would bring to an issue.

“We’re trying to make it so foster kids are no longer a voice­less pop­u­la­tion,” said Rebello, who took Godale’s course and now serves as his teaching assis­tant. “Often foster kids don’t have the oppor­tu­nity to speak out on what’s working and not working, and if they do it’s often not taken as cred­ible. It’s a respon­si­bility the stu­dents in this class do not take lightly, and they’ve seen results, too, helping three pieces of leg­is­la­tion get passed in recent years.”

Though the semester is drawing to a close, Fox urged the young advo­cates to con­tinue sup­porting social causes, foster care or oth­er­wise. ‘Each of you can find your niche, each of you can find your bliss, and each of you can find ways to improve lives in very real, very impor­tant ways,” she told them.