Fostering youth voice: Irreducible Grace provides young people with space to share their stories

"In our program we try to help kids get through the system, give them a voice because they usually don't have a voice." – Darlene Fry, executive director of the Irreducible Grace Foundation.

A group of young people line up against a St. Paul light rail station. While one of them beats on a drum, they chant, “I got something to say, can you hear me?”

This is the opening scene of a video highlighting participants of Irreducible Grace Foundation, a St. Paul organization that works with vulnerable youth, especially those aging out of foster care or state guardianship, to help them gain a voice and to guide them into adulthood. The foundation also works to repair youth’s trust in adults and help them achieve their college, career and life goals.

“In our program we try to help kids get through the system, give them a voice because they usually don’t have a voice,” said Darlene Fry, executive director of the Irreducible Grace Foundation.

Young people in the Irreducible Grace Foundation perform at a community event. (Photo courtesy of Darlene Fry)

The U.S. Department of Education website says that foster kids are more likely to drop out of school and not attend college, much less graduate with a degree.

According to the Irreducible Grace Foundation’s website, 50 percent of youth who have aged out of the foster care system don’t graduate from high school, 50 percent will be unemployed by age 23 and 25 percent will be homeless.

In Minnesota, more than 12,000 kids were placed in foster care in 2015, according to the Department of Human Services. In Hennepin County alone, 1,569 kids were in the foster care system as of June, with one-third of them ages 13 to 20.

A group of St. Paul Public School educators, led by Fry, started Irreducible Grace Foundation in 2012. While working as an assistant director of college and career readiness for the school district, Fry found the vast majority of the students who weren’t on track to graduate also had out-of-home placements – which includes foster care, homelessness, rehab and juvenile detention – during school, according to the Irreducible Grace website. Many started their out-of-home placements in foster care, according to the website.

Fry said that if she wanted to make any significant changes, she would have to take a risk, or what she calls a “faith walk.” She wanted to make a difference in the kids’ lives, both in and out of school, so in 2013 she left SPPS to devote her full attention to the foundation.

Darlene Fry, the executive director of the Irreducible Grace Foundation and her adopted daughter, Grace, 12. (Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave)

The foundation is named after Fry’s daughter, Grace, 12, whom Fry adopted when Grace was 2-and-a-half. Grace represents the core value of the program, according to Fry.

“That is why we call it ‘Irreducible’ … she gives people a chance,” Fry said, “and so it is about, how do you give kids another chance?”

One of the programs Irreducible Grace offers is the Fostering Voice Workshop, which is highlighted in the video. The workshop helps young people by introducing them to the world of dramatic arts on their journey to adulthood.

Fostering Voice is led by youth artists, ages 18-23, who have experienced foster care, homelessness and incarceration, but also experienced the support of others.

“We made plays and workshops out of their lived experiences,” Fry said.

Artists include the audience during the workshop and create a safe space for young people. The workshop is not only offered to other youth, but also to adults who want to make a difference in the system.

Irreducible Grace also provides youth leadership development, mentoring opportunities and life skills. The foundation hosts 3rd Sunday Events, which can include workshops on special topics, community-building activities, art and meals, once a month at Camphor Church in St. Paul.

In its programs, Irreducible Grace aims to provide a safe space for young people to speak their minds and to share and reflect on their lives.

“I got something to say, can you hear me?” the young people chanted at the light rail stop. “You are irreducible,” they chanted later, “and no one can put you down.”

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