Sixto Cancel: Redesigning Foster Care

Sixto Cancel is redesigning foster care by putting young people's voices and choices at the center.
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Today, nearly 875,000 Americans between ages 14 and 26 have spent time in foster care, often the result of neglect or abuse. Sixto Cancel, who entered foster care at eleven months old, has been reforming the system since he was a teen. Now an adult and a newly elected Ashoka Fellow, he’s transforming foster care so that young people and their voices and choices are at the center.

Sixto’s growing up years were traumatic, marked by racism at ‘home’ and the deaths of two birth siblings. Even in the best of circumstances, though, he says that foster care isn’t set up to support healing and self-sufficiency. It also lacks a feedback loop to its primary users: the children, teens, and young adults in its care. Decisions are made for them, not with them, and everything is set up to minimize short-term risk — at the expense of building healthy decision-making, agency, and changemaking.

“Case workers decide many things – when you learn to drive, whether you can spend the night at a friend’s house, go to therapy, or travel with a school club. My entire childhood and adolescence was filled with no, you can’t, it’s not possible, wait your turn, the system won’t allow, you really shouldn’t, stay in your place, you think you know better but you don’t.”

As a high school sophomore in Connecticut, Sixto saw a way to independence and freedom via college. But SAT scores stood in the way – not only for him, he realized, but for peers who also struggled with standardized tests. So he started Stellar Works, an SAT prep tutoring group for people like him: high school students in foster care. He recruited tutors, social workers, and mentors, as well as local organizations to host the program. The tutoring group grew from local to regional, eventually drawing state and private funding and reaching hundreds of aspiring college students. (3% of young people in foster care graduate from college.)

All of the things we’re working on are about redefining the power dynamics between young people and the treatment and services they're getting. We’re putting them and their choices at the center and trying to understand and make visible and transparent to everyone their experiences, challenges, pain points, and also bring together the latest literature and research."

In these years, Sixto also grew – into a new sense of purpose and what he was capable of contributing. He began to seek out new experiences and new leadership roles. He joined the NAACP and was elected treasurer for his state’s youth and college division. He started organizing locally and started or joined campaigns to fix foster care. Some were about changing rules and practices to respect the dignity of young people in foster care – for example, a bill that allowed young people to visit siblings and have a duffle bag not a trash bag as was stipulated by guidelines.

Later in college, Sixto started Think of Us, the national organization he leads today. The starting point: ask young people in foster care for feedback and use what they say to upgrade programs and optimize processes and workflow. A tech-enabled platform invites children and teens to share their experiences and needs with program staff and other adults. “Imagine as a young person, instead of goals being determined by an adult who may be supportive but is also a paid professional, you yourself get to choose the goals that you want,” he says.

Think of Us is paying close attention to a pivotal moment in a young person’s development – when they age out of foster care, typically at age 18 or 21. The platform allows young people to set up “personal advisory boards” of adults they choose, adults who are invested in their dreams and life goals. These can be especially supportive social workers, older peers who have successfully navigated the transition, or others. So when services are no longer available – this is an abrupt and very difficult transition for many in foster care - there's a trusted group there for support and guidance.

Now 27 and a social entrepreneur who is helping others become changemakers, Sixto says: “All of the things we’re working on are about redefining the power dynamics between young people and the treatment and services they're getting. We’re putting them and their choices at the center and trying to understand and make visible and transparent to everyone their experiences, challenges, pain points, and also bring together the latest literature and research.” The end goal: use the data to co-design solutions for individuals and system reform.