David Ambroz invites us into his incredible life journey, from being a neglected, homeless child to a nationally acclaimed advocate for child welfare. His experiences have fueled a relentless drive to change society’s outlook on poverty and homelessness, inspiring masses and even earning recognition from President Obama.
In this conversation, you'll hear about how it's possible to find hope, grace, and forgiveness even in the most unimaginable of circumstances. You'll also be inspired to make your voice heard and channel your energy into action.
Ambroz offers loads of practical solutions to the issues he's passionate about, including child poverty and the foster care system. But he also challenges each of us to find the issues that we care about and to step up to make a difference. And he explains how!
We are not helpless bystanders but active participants who can shape the world around us. David provides us with practical steps to turn our sense of responsibility into concrete action. His words serve as a sterling reminder that every individual has the power to effect change and make a difference in their communities.
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Jessica Fein: Welcome. I'm Jessica Fein, and this is the “I Don’t Know How You Do It,” podcast, where we talk to people whose lives seem unimaginable from the outside and dive into how they're able to do things that look undoable. I'm so glad you're joining me on this journey, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Welcome back to the show. I'm so glad you're here for today's episode. My guest is David Ambroz, author of the memoir, A Place Called Home, which has been lauded by Hillary Clinton, Ted Koppel, Jeanette Walls. It was featured on NPR, the View, Good Morning America, to name just a few. David Ambroz was also recognized by President Obama as an American Champion of Change.
Today he's an executive at Amazon and a well-known child welfare advocate. [00:01:00] He's a graduate of Vassar College and UCLA Law School. But 30 years ago, David was a homeless, malnourished child being removed from his mentally ill mother's custody after years of neglect and abuse. A Place Called Home is a gut-wrenching memoir of David's early life of poverty and homelessness, but it's also a call to action for all of us.
David challenges each one of us to do away with the notion of learned helplessness, to find the issues we're passionate about and to get involved and make a difference. He offers loads of practical solutions that could change the trajectory for a huge part of society, and we spoke about all of it. We also talked about finding grace and hope and forgiveness even in the most unimaginable circumstances.
People often ask me how I find the guests for my show. By the way, one of the best ways is from listeners like you recommending people. But David and I met at an event in Arizona. We sat next to each other and chatted for about 20 minutes. I had no idea then of David's [00:02:00] personal story and that got me thinking when I was reading his book about the stories and struggles we all carry with us and how we really don't know what the people we meet along the way are managing or surviving through like the guests on this show like me and like you, I'm sure. I know you're going to wanna read A Place Called Home when you hear David's story, you can enter to win a free copy at my website, www.jessicafeinstories.com.
That's Jessica Fein. F like Frank, E I N stories.com. And now without further ado, here is David Ambroz. Welcome David. Thanks for being here today.
David Ambroz: I'm really grateful to be with you. Thank you.
Jessica Fein: I finished your book a few days ago. Boy, is it powerful. The way you write about growing up, homeless and hungry and then moving into the foster care system was totally immersive.
I found when I was reading it, you know, I read it over the course of a couple of days and when I would put it [00:03:00] down and go about my life, it was a bit of a disconnect because I was really like in your world, and that got me thinking and wondering because you and I met at a pretty fancy event in a schmancy hotel with gobs of food, and we were actually at a buffet when we met.
And I wondered if reading about your story for a couple of days made me feel a disconnect. What must that be like for you? Do you ever wonder how do these two worlds coexist?
David Ambroz: Yeah, I mean from my earliest memory, I was begging on the platform at Grand Central, one of my earliest memories and up ahead of me the crowd parted as if I was a stick in a river and they were the river. And then they came back together behind me. None of them looked at me and I was four. And the reason I was at Grand Central, I was begging and we begged in the morning because people are more generous before they have a bad day. So I was there begging and that crowd parted and I had this epiphany that they did not care.
They didn't even see me, that all of these rules that everyone lived by, my [00:04:00] family was exempt. No one would care if we died. And it was a real important lesson to get to your question in that, other than the laws of physics, everything else is a choice. And I have seen what it's like when we make the choice to have families like mine exist outside the system.
I often have to code switch and remind myself that I am not a homeless or boy living in a tunnel or a public bus station, that I am happy, healthy, and moderately wealthy, that I have family that love me and friends and savings, blah, blah, blah. But do I sometimes pause? Absolutely. Sometimes it's like a car accident where I'm just jolted.
Another silly story, but when I went to college, I remember so clearly the first time someone said, let's go get sushi. I had no idea what they were talking about, and so we go off to get quote unquote sushi. And we sit down and they bring out raw fish. And I thought I was being, you know, made fun of
Jessica Fein: like this was punked, the show punked or something.
David Ambroz: Totally. And there were so many moments of cultural alienation. Yeah. Where there's a shared language, there's a shared [00:05:00] knowledge of film and tv. There's a shared experience of learning to read at school. That I kind of quite often find myself out of sorts, but I've learned to adapt. And when we were there together, what I see in it is the beauty of the opportunity.
What I see in it is the chance to evangelize a little bit about my people.
Jessica Fein: In your book actually, you write about being, I think it was a train station or a bus station. And seeing a little boy. and how you stopped, and I imagine that you see things that so many people to use your words kind of look through or look around and just don't even register.
David Ambroz: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think we need a little bit of a revolution and a revelation. I think we need to look at ourselves and reconsider the following. We often walk by a problem, a homeless person or an issue in our community, and we say, I can't. Because whatever your because is, I'm tired, I have my own stuff to deal with, I'm poor.
Whatever it is, you have a good reason. The problem is that all of us are saying that and we're not realizing that instead of a period at the end of that sentence, [00:06:00] it needs to be a comma. I can't do X, but I will do y. And what is your why is proportionate to your resources and desires? It has to be more than nothing because it's all fallen apart without us involved.
Democracy and having a republic as a government is not a spectator sport. We need to be engaged. 10 years before I was born, we sent a person to the moon. We didn't outsource it. We didn't have computers. We decided to do something as a nation and we did it. What if we decided to end child poverty? 8.4 million kids in abject poverty in the United States of America, every race, every political party, every ethnicity. What if we decided to end that? We could do it. It's a choice. I want us to make that choice.
Jessica Fein: I want us to make that choice too. And it feels like if this isn't something we can all get behind what is, right?
I mean it's not like, well, some people have one view about whether there should be child poverty and some people think otherwise, right? I mean, it's not like a hotly debated, should there be or should there not be? We can all [00:07:00] agree about this particular issue, and I wanna talk in the course of this conversation about how we might change the way we end that sentence.
So we'll get there, but let's hear a little bit more about your story. And as I said, I was so struck. One of the things that really stuck with me was how you responded to and viewed the things that were happening to you. So for example, over and over again. You're in these unimaginably horrible situations and it's almost like you rise above and observe.
And of course you know this is a book that you're writing after the fact. But you, you get this sense that even in the moment, you had some kind of grace for the people who were mistreating you. So you write, I'm gonna quote you to you right now, but you write, "I do not want mom to kill me. I do not want to be here with her. I cannot save her. She has suffered from years of untreated mental illness and the perpetual stress of poverty and [00:08:00] deprivation. She lives in the prison of her mental illness and will never wake up from the nightmare. I remind myself of this in order to understand why this is happening. In my heart I know she isn't culpable.”
So here's my question. Where in the world did you find that grace and that perspective as a kid?
David Ambroz: I think a couple thoughts. It's not a decision you make once you know forgiveness, much like yoga or saving for your retirement is best done in small increments over a long period of time. Forgiveness for my mom and for the people that maltreated me is a decision I make every single day, sometimes multiple times a day.
You know, when I talk about the book, I kind of come off and I, I'm by myself and I just really try to like breathe and meditate for at least a half hour and remind myself of things, but just be be at peace with this. Forgiveness is a decision we make, and it is the reason I'm alive today. It's the reason I'm successful today.
But we often deserve it as people, but we often need to give it for things that we've done. And so when I looked at my [00:09:00] mom, my earliest life lesson slowly built up over time was that if this woman had cancer, we'd have a ribbon and a walk. Because she's mentally ill, we should be ashamed. And we've hacked away at the social welfare safety net to help people like my mom.
And we think it's disgusting. We can all say whatever we want, but it's treated in our society as a negative thing. So I would look at this woman who was all things to me, my savior, my, my killer, my everything. And I would just see her for what she was. And when I pray, or when I meditate now, I would always picture the hand of God or the universe or whatever you believe in putting the palm through her skull and touching her brain and silencing all of it, the delusions, the fear, the prison she's lived in.
And I've always dreamt about the conversation I would have with my mom just for that little time that I would be given that grace. I think the first thing out of her mouth would be, I'm sorry, and I would say I forgive you, but my mom taught me that. That's why I opened the book with a dedication to her.
I didn't find the grace that you mentioned or the forgiveness under a rock. It was a studied lesson that was taught to me [00:10:00] by circumstance. I could implode, I could be violent. I could have joined a gang, I could have killed myself. I could have, could have, could have, could, could have. Instead, I chose a certain pathway forward because if you stay mad at all, the people who wrong you, you are not gonna get anywhere. And I did not wanna be where I was. I did not wanna be erased where I was. And I knew that keeping a list and checking it twice for all the grievances that I've legitimately might have had would get me nowhere. So I choose to leave that behind me. It doesn't mean I don't feel it, but it was a lesson my mom taught me as a young child that then bled into all the other forgiveness that I've learned to develop.
But lemme just finish with this thought. It's not the people that hurt me that should be most embarrassed or ashamed. It's the apathy of the general public, which we should be more concerned about. It is not the foster parents who abused me. It's not the social worker who should not have interviewed me in front of my mom.
It is all of us. We are the system, and that's the part that I struggle with forgiveness is how can we look away at a tragedy of this magnitude and this scale in this [00:11:00] country? And you see it every time there's a disaster. You see the latent goodness of the American people spring into action. I believe it's always there and I want to connect that power into this cause.
Jessica Fein: You've now dedicated your life. I mean, you are doing so much to try to raise up the indignation, if you will. Also, you're coming up with really practical solutions and I think that so often it's the people who have been in a situation, who are the ones who say, wake up people, and why should the burden be on them and not on the people who are la-dee-daing around their lives?
David Ambroz: Well first thank you for that compliment. It's just not my nature. You know, I had so many foster siblings. I had so many hundreds in detention facilities, in congregate care, in foster homes, in the shelters, and they are not here talking to you. They are a sad statistic, and I think that's not okay. And so the reason my book is called what it is, is the place I call home is my [00:12:00] mission.
A home is not always four walls and a roof. It, for me, is my life purpose. I am motivated by many things, but one of them is a fundamental belief that we're better than this, that we need to be called to our best selves and to live up to our values as a moral and just society. And to treat our children better, starting with, in my mind, the most vulnerable, which are these foster kids, I think we're better than this.
And I do it for all the foster siblings I've ever had that didn't make it. That are statistics. I do it because I believe in us and we can do better than this, and we want to do better than this. We just need to know how. And that's what I've tried to share as well.
Jessica Fein: I'd love to talk about the idea of hope a little bit, because this was a big theme in your book, and it's something we've talked about quite a bit on the show.
You wrote that hope made you brave, it kept you clawing to the surface when you were drowning. Hope preserved your soul. I'm wondering how it is you can continue to hope and be hopeful when the things you're hoping for. Keep [00:13:00] moving further and further away
David Ambroz: from you. Oh goodness. I'm gonna challenge the hypothetical.
I think we have the best foster care system in American history right now. Best outcomes, most transparent, least racist, least homophobic. Someone point out an era that they want to go back to. Hope is a vital ingredient to nourish our souls for the struggle ahead of us. And if we don't acknowledge the successes that we are having, we will never endure the long fight that is ahead of us. We have to be hopeful and we have great reason to be hopeful. For example, the Family First Act under President Trump written by many people, including Congresswoman at the time, Karen Bass is a vital step to decriminalize poverty. Two-thirds of the kids entering foster care there for poverty neglect.
What if we didn't criminalize poverty? What if we kept the kids outta the system? The system becomes less cluttered. More kids can get more focus. We don't destroy families, disproportionately families of color and poverty. That law was signed by President Trump, written by Congresswoman Karen Bass and others.
[00:14:00] How could you not be hopeful? Could you ever think of a dynamic duo putting a show out in Vegas like that? Right? That law is gonna come into full effect now that we're through Covid and it's gonna stop incentivizing states. Cause what used to happen is the states only got reimbursed if they took the kid away federally for their local foster care.
It now says you can use resources to preserve families, and it dedicates resources to find families. How could you not be hopeful? How could we not be hopeful? So I think we have to be focused on the realities, but the reality is, is we do have the best system ever. Let's keep making it better.
Jessica Fein: What other things have changed since you were in the system that continued to give you hope?
David Ambroz: The treatment of queer kids. A third of foster children, according to the human rights campaign, a third of the 450,000, a third of them identify as queer. LGBTQIA plus 450,000 is an undercount, and that 700,000 children pass through foster care each year. So you're talking about a population of 210,000.
How big is the town where you come from? I'm from New York, so [00:15:00] it's, you know, it's two blocks. Yeah. But if you think about that for a second, you have 210,000 young people in a system that for the longest time, treated them as an illness. Something to be cured. Something to be suppressed, and that is not the law or policy anywhere today because of the concerted efforts of organizations like Lambda Legal, the Child Welfare League, and a bunch of young queer kids like myself, is it perfect?
Absolutely not. Is it better? 100% better than it was when we started. We need to keep working on that. A lot of these kids experience what I call tolerance. We don't need to be tolerated. Right. We need loving and affirming homes that don't give a rat's patooey about my favorite color or who I love. We don't need tolerance.
We need acceptance, and we don't need queer parents to foster queer children. We need loving adults to foster queer children and queer parents too, by the way. So I can't help but sit here and recognize the small role that I played in that and that others to make the system better and better for young people that identify as queer, which is a third roughly of the children of foster care.
It's better. I [00:16:00] celebrate that and then I want to keep working.
Jessica Fein: It's so interesting to me that that is the first example because it seems just from somebody who's engaged with the news as somebody, by the way, whose child is in the LGBTQ plus community, that things are going in the wrong direction. So to hear you say, at least as it pertains to this topic in terms of foster care, That things are actually better for that population because I would've thought it must be getting worse.
Given that it seems like the disposition of people generally is getting scarier and scarier.
David Ambroz: Anecdotal thoughts on my part, I don't have research in my mind. There is a vocal minority that is quite agitated and disproportionately politically powerful because of the gamesmanship that is creating all sorts of ruckus that is arming children.
That said, data said after dataset tells if the American public supports queer marriage or marriage equality. There are no laws outlawing us from foster and adopting today as queer people. Reparative therapy is [00:17:00] largely outlawed. Everything you said is also true. Two things can be true at the same time, right?
It is not a wonderland. I read with great despair, the politicization of young trans children and their families and what they're being put through is disgusting and dehumanizing. And Lord knows I've been through a cousin of that myself. But I think it's better than it was and we need to keep working to make it what it needs to be, which is an inclusive, loving environment.
So I don't dis disagree with what you're saying. Two things though can be true, but in large parts of the country, we're embracing young people like this, but there's still more work to be done, there's no doubt about that. And, and the work is being done. Like there's a human rights campaign, which is a large national advocacy group for queer people.
There is an initiative they've had for, I don't even know, 10, 15 years, called All Children, all Families. There is efforts at GLAD. There's organizations across the country that are not just for queer families, but also parents and friends of lesbians and gays. There's all sorts of organizations out there that are building community.
[00:18:00] Do you remember Dr. King's quote, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice? I would never correct Dr. King, but here's the visual I always had in my head. It only does that because there's people like me at the end of that arc pulling down. It does not naturally bend. You need advocates and activists reaching up and yanking that thing towards justice cuz passively, that's small minority that I mentioned that is so aggrieved.
That's all over my Instagram. There's all over my Twitter, you know, saying horrible things. They would take the attention. But there's folks like us on the frontline that refuse to be erased. Former homeless people, former children, queer people, and we're pulling that arc down.
Jessica Fein: So how do we get people to join in the pulling of the arc?
How do we get people to be appropriately agitated, outraged not to see through? And to make this their cause.
David Ambroz: First we have to stop with this learned helplessness. Oh my goodness. I have in my hand the most complicated computer ever invented in human history called the [00:19:00] iPhone. We have figured it out, y'all.
But then we're like, how do I go to a city council meeting? Who's my assembly person? I don't know. This ballot initiative true is so confusing. Judges on the ballot. I don't know. I only get my ballot three months in advance. How would I ever know? We have this learned helplessness in one area of our life.
And I'll tell you where it comes from. This kind of thought we had in the eighties, that government is the problem. We've been spoon-fed a bucket of lies. Government is us. Government is the sandbox that we create. So we can live peaceably amongst each other. When we give up on government, we give up on ourselves.
And people that don't vote or have political power need us to care, but we gotta stop this. So number one, stop thinking. You can't figure it out. Figure it out. It's called Google now. It's called Chat. G P T. How many of you know who represents you in your state legislature? How many listeners have ever been to a meeting, public meeting of any type, school board, whatever, where they weren't complaining or trying to stop something?
What if we did one hour a month [00:20:00] as individuals to learn? What if we put down TikTok and picked up something local? All these meetings are now online after Covid. They're still online. They're hybrid. Get involved if you can't figure it out. Google Duck, duck Go use a search engine and figure out what you can do.
So number one, learned helplessness. Bye-bye Felicia. Number two, realize your political and personal power to change things. There's not some sort of mysterious committee out there that runs everything. It is you, it's the people that show up. So what can you show up at? What are your resources? And the concrete example I'll give you is I'm running a campaign right now with my partners, uh, at a nonprofit I've co-founded called Foster More.
The campaign we're running is multifaceted, but the basic campaign right now is called Donate Your Small Talk. When you get in an elevator or you start at Zoom and someone says, how was your weekend? How are your kids? What'd you have for lunch? It's verbal diarrhea. No one cares. What if you think at the base level, what your power was, said, [00:21:00] I'm gonna use those 12 to 20 seconds to talk about children.
Whatever your issue is with children, whatever you're passionate about. Did you know that Coco Chanel was a foster kid? Did you know, I mean, to have that conversation, Willie Nelson, foster Kid, JRR Tolkien, Edgar Allen Poe, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X. You could have a really interesting conversation. That doesn't have to be your fun fact, but instead of taking photos of our salads and wasting our individual interactions, what if you said once a month, I'm going to take it upon myself to put children in the center of my conversations today?
I think learned helplessness and this idea that individuals don't matter. We do. And you have the power to affect a hundred people in your inner circles, go affect them. And then finally, I would say what we said earlier, I can't do X, but I will do Y. You must always be focused on that Y because that's who we are as humans.
That's who we are as Americans, which is it's not all about everything yourself. It's how do you help your community. A thriving community is only gonna help you. So I [00:22:00] think those three things are how, how I would re-arm people. And if you're still dunno what to do, go to my website. It's called Activism tab.
I'm not here to be your Tinder to find your cause, but there is a number of resources there. Truthfully, you and your community can find out what you need to do. But should you be completely lost, let me know.
Jessica Fein: When we think about these things that you had as a child, and we talked about, you know, this idea of perseverance, the idea of forgiveness, the absolute critical nature of hope, is this something that people have or don't have?
I mean, if you're somebody who just feels hopeless or is not really resilient, how do you acquire those things that not only helped you survive along the way, but are now helping you really make such a huge impact? Where do you find those things if you don't feel them?
David Ambroz: Well, I think we're all winning at the life that we have.
You got up today. You did certain things, you're, you're winning at the day. Is it what you wanna be winning at? I don't know. You know how to lose those 10 pounds. You know what you have to do to save more. You know what you have to do to read more. You know [00:23:00] what you have to do to take better care of your children and your family and your community.
We know. It's not under a rock somewhere where you need to go into your garden and look for that special rock that's a fake rock that may have a key underneath it to a better future. It is right now, today, right now. So spend the time. I don't have any magic recipe. I just constantly question and wonder why and when I understand why, if I don't like it, I don't accept it, and then I work to the extent I have the resources, time, or attention to change it.
And in that I have found my best friends and my most interesting experiences and adventures. It’s not because I'm a lawyer, it's because this part of my life is so rich that I've had a better life for it and, and a life of purpose. So if you don't feel like you have it, if, if you're waiting for a feeling, you're waiting for that muse to come along and inspire you, good luck.
It's not coming. I don't get up every day and feel inspired. Rarely. I get up every day and I decide to go to the gym to work, to be physically fit. I work every day to [00:24:00] move my child advocacy projects along. I work every day to save so I can retire. I do things every day, not because they feel good or because I wanna do them that day, but because I decide to do them.
I think once you start moving, you get momentum and random people at conferences invite you on podcasts or you have fabulous experiences out in the world. So don't wait for inspiration. Don't wait for that feeling. It may not come and that's okay. Just decide to do something. Whatever it is, I don't even know.
Whatever your it is, do it.
Jessica Fein: You write that when you tell your story, it's like people are slowing down to stare at a car accident. You know? They're curious. They're weirdly enthralled. Because they're seeing something that's so glaring and then they drive away and they don't do anything. No. So how are we gonna get people to stop that car?
David Ambroz: I talk about that because I live in Los Angeles and there's a lot of car accidents and two things in your head and your heart happen right away. A if you're a good person, the [00:25:00] first thing is, I hope they're okay. As a thought, and then B, you're like, God dammit, how dare you slow down my commute? And those two things happen simultaneously.
Yep. And that's how we feel about kids in poverty, these families. It's like, why do you have so many kids? Why are you poor? You deserve it. You're just taking public benefits. Blah, blah, blah. We don't look at the systemic issues that have led to a whole subclass of our society having intergenerational poverty.
We don't look at the fact that we've hacked away at public schools and access to healthcare till there are factories of failure, not because the people in them, but because of us. That's how I feel sometimes, like a car accident. I don't want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to change the way you vote.
I want you to do something. The problem is the tragedy of the commons problem, which is we all slow down and we're sure that someone else is gonna come and save them. This car accident, these people, right. That are in a car is about to blow up. No one is coming.
Jessica Fein: That's right. Somebody else is better equipped to save them.
Somebody else has more time, somebody else has more resources.
David Ambroz: It's you. Yeah. Pull over, get the heck outta your [00:26:00] car, walk over and do whatever you can do. That's what we need the revolution for. That's what I meant by that comment, which is we are the change we've been waiting for. There's all sorts of cute phrases that are true.
Jessica Fein: There's a reason that it's embroidered on a pillow.
David Ambroz: That's a good idea. I should have a pillow.
Jessica Fein: But you say in your book, change doesn't happen because you're right. It's a slog. Mm-hmm. And I think that's part of it. We're impatient, we feel like, but I went to the meeting, but I did the 22nd elevator pitch and nothing's changing.
And I think that that's really important for people to hear. It is a slog.
David Ambroz: Do you know, not since 1999 has the phrase child poverty been uttered in a presidential debate. There are 8.4 million American children, and it's been more living in abject poverty. One in seven kids in America is starving. We're not talking about this.
Why? Because they don't have political power. So whatever your personal rationalization is for your inaction or your action, realize that it's not just you. You have an [00:27:00] opportunity to be responsible for your fellow humans. And you may not always like them as individuals, but I think we can all agree that 8.4 million American children should not live in abject poverty.
So it's, it's all those things for yourself, but it's also the fullness of life that comes from being of service to others and realizing that you have that power. Just show up. Go to your school for your kid or your school where you went to school and if you know you don't have kids and say, do you have a closet where kids that are homeless coming through school can go and pick up clothes?
Cause I know that it's really awkward. Usually they don't have any, Hey, do you have a pantry that I can start organizing? Whatever it is, you have an opportunity and it's the ride of a lifetime when you choose to get on the ride is service to others.
Jessica Fein: And so many people who are listening to this show are parents and doing these things with your kids, I mean, that's how you get them engaged from a young age.
I'm wondering, are there other countries that have this figured out better than we do?
David Ambroz: Perhaps, but I will say that they're not helpful. America is America and United States, and it's a big, messy, heterogeneous society. Multiethnic, [00:28:00] multiracial, multinational. So looking at Nordic countries with kind of a monolithic population for the most part, or or national healthcare.
We had bake sales to raise money, to give to food banks, to buy food for people. Other countries just basically have the government do it because it's more efficient. We have millions of nonprofits trying to backfill the holes. We've carved in the social welfare safety net to their credit. So perhaps, but I, I, I don't look abroad for solutions.
I look abroad for inspiration, for customizing solutions for this messy, messy, fractious, beautiful democracy we sit in.
Jessica Fein: Speaking of solutions, you have so many ideas. I mean, I was really struck by that. Of course, they're throughout the book, but then when you get to the end, it's like a bonanza of ideas.
What do you think? Like what's the low hanging fruit? What do you think are the ideas or the idea that could most easily or most readily be implemented?
David Ambroz: Thank you for acknowledging that The afterward is a love letter to individuals and policymakers, both. If you can't figure out what to do, here are David Ambrose's [00:29:00] ideas.
Jessica Fein: And they're amazing.
David Ambroz: Thank you. And I focus on foster care, but my real message is about poverty. Poverty is this infertile field where we've been planting all these little saplings that don't seem to thrive, and we're like, why don't they thrive? Because the soil is toxic. That's poverty. So I focus in on foster care, A, because I'm passionate about it, but because I truly believe it's this unique moment where we can intervene in these communities as we have assumed responsibility for the children and some responsibility for the parents to the tune of four to 700,000 a year.
And so if we're going to take that responsibility, why not intervene in a way that's whole, that lifts whole peoples out of poverty by breaking the cycle? How do we break the cycle? Very simple. Look at the actors in the system. So, for example, foster parents, there's not enough foster homes. If you have a factory that can't produce the widgets that you need to produce, then you need to look at the inputs of the factory.
What are the problems? We don't have enough staff. Okay. Why aren't people fostering? Who are the people we want to foster with gratitude and and respect for people that [00:30:00] currently do it? How do we get more people to do it? Well, what's the largest segment of America? It's the middle class. What are they worried about?
Retirement, healthcare for their family, college for their kids. What if we made them federal workers, like postal workers for purposes of retirement or their kids get to go to school for free state college and universities after 10 years of good service? All of a sudden you don't need millions, you need thousands.
You have a whole crop, the largest segment of America that are good people that might step up and do this work. What about social workers? My sister's a social worker, and I once asked her what she did for work, and you know, she told me, she said paperwork. My sister could barely afford to buy a home anywhere near where she works, the trauma that she experiences on a day-to-day basis on the front lines of war and poverty.
We treat these mostly women, disproportionate women of color like crap. We honor our veterans as we should, that fight overseas, but we do not honor our veterans that are fighting on the domestic frontline of war on poverty, which are women and women of color. People like my sister, we could [00:31:00] do better by them.
They grind through the system. What if instead we gave them interest free home loans. What if their kids went to school for free college and uh, university? All of a sudden you treat the people with the respect and dignity that they deserve. And finally, I talk about foster kids. Stop emancipating them.
Emancipating. We should talk about that word. At 18 or 21 we put them on the street and then we are shocked. Shocked when they perpetuate the cycles of poverty and violence again and again and again. We, we've seen this movie. What if instead we built 10 dorms across the country at community colleges, foster dorms, you could emancipate foster children into higher ed, two year vocational skill certificate, whatever it is.
These are our children. These are our educational institutions. We own the land. You don't have to build parking. You can have a couple kids per room. All of a sudden you've revolutionized foster care from a 19th century model to a true 21st century model where you're not putting a car on the [00:32:00] road with no engine, the car being the young person, the engine being an education or skill.
We have solutions. They're right there in front of us. We just have to choose as a people to make them.
Jessica Fein: So what is the obstacle, do you think that the obstacle is having this legislation pass? Is it apathy? Is it money? Because listening to you, I'm like, yes, yes. Every one of those solutions sounds smart.
Doable. Innovative. What's standing in the way?
David Ambroz: It’s what you said earlier, change is a slog. When I started working to stop hurting queer children in foster care and delinquency, which is kind of our juvenile justice system in America, it took 13 years to stop essentially reparative therapy. When I started working on Guardian scholars, it took a long time to get that across 50 campuses.
Now, when I was at LA City College, I started realizing that I was losing foster youth. They were just dropping out, and when I asked them why, they said we couldn't get the classes we needed to qualify for financial aid. In other words, they couldn't get the core requirements because they're oversubscribed by the general population.
Well, [00:33:00] with this amazing leader in, in Sacramento, Karen Bass, at the time, we passed a bill that let them enroll with veterans two weeks early and our retention rate went through the roof. There used to be a problem. There's thousands of school districts in California. What is your algebra credit equal across the street in a different school district.
Do you think there's a formula? There's no formula. So foster children who are so mobile, We're losing credit and not graduating high school even though they did the work. Well, we passed a model credit formula so that school districts can do whatever they want, but if they don't have anything, this is a base level formula.
Why does that matter? Because foster youth are being moved in a way that they don't control. And so they can go to school for nine outta 10 weeks and they still won't get credit for it. So these are solutions. Those didn't happen overnight. Change is hard and that's how it should be. Why doesn't someone stand up and do this?
I don't know. If anyone's listening to this and they're a friendly billionaire and they wanna employ me full-time, you give me a call. Okay?
Jessica Fein: That's what we're going for. So any billionaire listening,
David Ambroz: Or very handsome Single men that are between 35 and 50. Either [00:34:00] way,
Jessica Fein: maybe both. That would be great.
David Ambroz: True enough. True enough, yeah.
Jessica Fein: Okay. Last question. Somebody's listening to this. First of all, if you're listening to this and you're wondering what you can do, start by reading the book, A Place called Home. And of course we'll have the link. But second, I'm done listening to this episode. I'm inspired.
I wanna go do something. What's the one thing I've just finished listening? What should I go do?
David Ambroz: I want people to connect to their personal passion. I hope everyone cares about foster kids, and I hope that it becomes their personal passion, but you know, saccharine sweet will not work. You need to authentically connect to the issue that moves you beyond the edge of your nose.
I hope it's children. I hope it's vulnerable. I hope it's poverty, but whatever it is, go with it. Then decide what your resources are. Maybe you just learn more. How about you write down everybody that represents you in every level of office, school, board, sewer board, state assembly. Just write 'em down on a list and then go to their websites.
And then write an email. Show up at a meeting. Don't try and move the mountain all at once. See if you can just start [00:35:00] exercising a different muscle. We need to become active citizens, and I find the best way to do that is to plug in with your passion. I hope it's my issues, Lord knows, but whatever it is, you know, some people are super passionate about, uh, animals or super passionate about the climate, or super passionate about women's rights to choose or super passionate about spaghetti.
I love spaghetti. It's not my issue. So whatever it is, authentically connect to it and then start figuring it out. But overall, we need to exercise our democratic Republican muscle and realize that we have power. At the very moment, the most diverse segments of our country have a seat at the table. We're being taught that the table doesn't matter, and it's fascinating to me that we're being spoon-fed.
Purchasing things does not make this a republic. You can buy anything you want. Can you elect the people that truly represent us? We're a little confused right now, and I want individuals to connect to their passion. Take action. If you're not sure, just start figuring out who represents you and then realize that we have a responsibility to pass on something better than what we found as young people and as adults.
Every year in this country, we have something called a revolution. It's called an [00:36:00] election. It's called an election. I am boggled. You know people I have, I feel like I don't even know the number anymore. I have many people that get my local voter registration or voting recommendation list and people sign up for it.
People forward it around. There's thousands of people now look at this thing, and I'm like, it's just me. It's my opinions on who's a good judge and who's not a good judge. We fetishize Washington DC but we don't know a single judge in our area. Who do you think sentences young boys of color to prison?
It's not the Supreme Court. So get local, figure out what's going on in your community. That's what I think a lot of people are passionate about and if, as you mentioned, a lot of moms listening to this, I hope you care about the children that I care about because they're your children. We have taken these kids away from moms like you, and they were doing a piss poor job of seeing through that responsibility.
Imagine if that was your child, what would you want you to do?
Jessica Fein: David, thank you. Thank you, thank you. Thank you for being on the show. Thank you for writing the book. Thank you for your work and thank you for this time.
David Ambroz: My pleasure. Thank you all.
Jessica Fein: I think this episode is one giant takeaway, but [00:37:00] here are a few specifics.
Number one, when you say you can't do something, add a comma. I can't do X, but I will do y. Number two, forgiveness is not a one and done. It's a decision you make every single day. Number three, hope is a vital ingredient to nourish our souls. Number four, we need to acknowledge our successes while we're working to change something, because number five, change is a slog.
Meaningful change does not happen overnight. Number six, stop thinking. You can't figure it out. Realize your personal and political power to change things. Once you start moving, you get momentum. And number seven, ask why. And if you don't like the answer, work to change it.
To win a copy of the book, a Place called Home Visit my website, www.jessicafeinstories.com.
That's Jessica Fein. F like Frank, EIN stories.com. And if you liked this [00:38:00] episode, share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you next time.