Make your avengers roster! Who is your dream team of change makers? What does your team consist of? How many do you think you need? Picking these organizations and individuals is as special as forming a band. They need to meet at least two of the following criteria: invested, street/book smart (or both), reliable, articulate, stable, have high integrity and are responsible. These are the attributes I was looking for in people when I was 19. Define your own list of character traits that are important to you. Seek those people out.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Noel Anaya.
Noel Anaya, 24, is a college student from Oakland, California, and has spent most of his life navigating through the foster care system. He recently decided to share his — and other teens in foster care — perspectives by working with YR Media to produce a 33-minute documentary called Unadopted: A YR Media Film. The film is a window into his experiences as he confronts his history with foster families, the courts, and embarks on a journey to meet other teens currently within the system. It was so compelling that NPR aired what then became an Edward R. Murrow and Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition award-winning piece. Noel is currently a filmmaker for YR Media — a national network of diverse young journalists and artists from underrepresented communities who create content for this generation — which is headquartered in downtown Oakland.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Northern California, specifically the Bay area. From the ages one to four years old I shuffled from my biological mother, to shelters, and a handful of temporary foster homes until my social workers found me a suitable home. Spanish was my first language so finding a proper home was key to my growth and development. I grew up with my siblings until the early 2000s, then, I was on my own. Truth be told, I didn’t fully realize I was a foster kid until I was about 8 years old. I remember my foster family saying they were not my biological parents and that the “uncle” that cares about me was actually a social worker. I went through a few adoption attempts until I ultimately returned back to my foster home until I turned 18. They became part of my chosen family.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
A book that had an impact on me was authored by Paulo Coelho Titled, “The Alchemist.” My mother and I had an argument my senior year of high school. She communicated to me that she didn’t know how to teach me values that would “stick” and that I needed to grow up a bit, listen to others and not just learn from my own personal experiences. I left to embark on my own life after that argument. Without spoiling too much, The Alchemist is about a shepherd who leaves his town to embark on a personal journey. I’m considering rereading it now as many of the messages of the book still resonate with me today.
There are also organizations that impacted me like housing organizations and youth mentorship organizations where I found the other half of my chosen family. The organization that had the biggest impact on me was the foster care agencies I grew up in. I was considered government property and realized at a very young age how out of date the system is and it inspired me to do something about it.
You are currently working for an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
I have been part of YR Media — a national youth-led organization for several years — and want to continue with their 25-year mission of making sure that the youth voice is heard. I even have helped YR Media find a new CEO that plans on doing great work and is a great person. I consider myself building allies right now, and perhaps starting my own organization in the future.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
My original plan was to continue in my adopted family’s trade and study to be an audio engineer or a therapist, as well as continue running track since I had a very successful high school sports career. My brother was struggling during this time and I encouraged him to be a writer and share his story about foster care with the world, but he declined. I decided to make the sacrifice and share my story instead, which is why I had the idea to create and produce the film Unadoptedto shed more light on what foster kids go through.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
My journey with YR Media started with a misunderstanding. I applied at least two times before they accepted my application. I almost went to work for a different organization. I listened to my gut and was very persistent and landed a position in the YR Media newsroom. After my first week on the job, I went to the CEO without permission or an appointment and shared my story of being the first person ever in child welfare history to record an emancipation hearing. I was basically going through a divorce with the foster care system. I needed a way to heal and move on from the process, while remaining true to myself and keeping the process therapeutic and meaningful for me. That’s when and how the idea of the documentary came up.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many stories I wouldn’t even know where to start. But I really appreciate everyone that helped me.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My legacy is very important to me. I want to know I inspired others and helped them on their own journey. That is why I decided to create and produce Unadopted. As painful as it was to relive some of these memories, I knew sharing my — and others’ — stories in the foster care system would help so many other young people who may be struggling in the system. I want to elevate peoples’ thinking about foster care. If you can change a mind, that is the ultimate power — more powerful than money or status because knowledge cannot be taken away no matter what home you are living in.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Step 1: Grow up. I was a kid who wanted to make change, but I was suffering from survivor’s guilt and I was angry. I grew up by admitting I needed help. So, I got help to approach my work with a clear and objective mind.
Step 2: Do research. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here. You will know when you’re ready when one of two things happen — you can find clever rebuttals to any given topic that will allow others to add to it or you begin to enlighten people. Secondly, you can talk about the topic or subject confidently and face any detractors with ease.
Step 3: Get yourself out there! Seek-out like-minded people, attend events, conferences, seminars and go to trainings. Put in your 10,000 hours of work, follow accounts and hashtags that share your values and views. Become a pseudo household name or at least a name that people acquaint with your field of work.
Step 4: Make your avengers roster! Who is your dream team of change makers? What does your team consist of? How many do you think you need? Picking these organizations and individuals is as special as forming a band. They need to meet at least two of the following criteria: invested, street/book smart (or both), reliable, articulate, stable, have high integrity and are responsible. These are the attributes I was looking for in people when I was 19. Define your own list of character traits that are important to you. Seek those people out.
Step 5: Create your agenda, Then push it. Go to protests, learn movements, study them, support them because positive social movements matter. My first protest was a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland. Four years later, I ended up meeting the co-creator of Black Lives Matter during an interview for Dolores Huerta.
What are the values that drive your work?
The child welfare system is in a bad place. There is a real lack of trust between children in the foster care system and adults in general. Based on my experience in the system, it is incredibly important for me to be reliable, articulate, stable, have a level of integrity and be responsible. I have a strong desire to do my job the right way and to tell the truth.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
Therapy was a constant for me up until I turned 23. I took this service for granted in my earlier years. To this day, I continue to push for a better system that prioritizes mental health. It is ok to work on yourself with an outside resource. Therapy saved me because it made me empathetic and hyper self-aware. It taught me to wake up every day and just stay grateful no matter where life takes me, while staying grounded in my values and genuine to my true self.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
I want to see a world where we transition from a system rooted in terrorism by Americas colonizers, to a system that gives back to the people and is governed by the diverse representation this country claims to be so proud of. This new system would hold the government accountable and would sign the UNCRC, even if it seems redundant. I’d like to see a child welfare system that focuses on self-perseverance and self-love, rather than operating in such a way that is damaging to the child. Sadly, this is the way it is managed currently.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
I would run for President of the United States of America. I was government property for 20 years. Being in foster care groomed me for the position. What is more American than being owned by America? I am planting all of the seeds now in case I ever do decide to run. I know I could win the election if I put my mind to it. If you believe it, you can achieve it.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system?
I’d like to see a school system where public schools have more funding, zero police officers, better staffing, and where standardized tests aren’t the norm given each child’s unique ability to learn. We need more personalized approaches to education in order for our system to be successful.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask the question no one wants to ask. Be that person.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Ten-year-old me would have said my father. Fifteen-year-old me would have said Kendrick Lamar. Today, I would have to say the 500,000+ kids living in foster care. I was inspired by a minister I met in Scotland when I went there to interview their first minister. She told me she planned to interview thousands of kids in the foster care system. I am inspired to do something similar because they matter.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much for taking the time to have a conversation with me and, if you haven’t already, please go check out my debut documentary Unadopted!