Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Sonya Soni, Advocacy Program Director, Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, connects global insights from India to Los Angeles to explore how a sense of belonging—as well as something she calls “poetry in policymaking”—can impact structural obstacles to child and family welfare.
Chris Riback: Sonya, thank you for coming to the studio.
Sonya Soni: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so grateful.
Chris Riback: You are affiliated with Boston University, however you co-head the Los Angeles Youth Commission. First, why is that work so important to you, and second, do you spend half your life flying back and forth, Boston to LA?
Sonya Soni: That’s a great question, Chris. The reason why this work is so important to me is mostly because I’m obsessed with identity, ancestry, and a sense of belonging and where we come from, and so I always really was passionate about how we keep families together. My great-grandmother was a freedom fighter in India, and she helped found a nonprofit on girls’ rights, but over the decades, it turned into an orphanage, so I spent a lot of my youth at the orphanage. I really saw how youth had families, but they were being trafficked and warehoused into these orphanages under this myth of benevolence that they were being saved, rather than because of structural poverty and casteism, these youth were being separated by their families, where they found the most sense of belonging.
Then when I moved to Los Angeles County, which is the largest child welfare and juvenile justice system in the country, I was seeing a lot of the same patterns that I was seeing abroad, which was most youth of color were actually being impacted by the child welfare system. Black families were being surveilled, policed, and separated by child protective services. The same way that Black men were being separated by their families through the prison system, I was seeing Black mothers being separated by their families by the child welfare system. The public imagination is mostly around how the child welfare system was protecting children, but it was actually causing a lot more harm and structural violence on these families, so that’s really where my passion started for this work.
Chris Riback: It’s so extraordinary, in a challenging sense, how connected everything is. One thing, it can all just snowball, and I would assume, correct me if I’m wrong, but focusing in just one area may not even be enough. You kind of have to focus all around. Is that accurate?
Sonya Soni: Yes, that is so accurate, Chris. What I really got to see when I came to Los Angeles County was that there was a larger web of carcerality that was surveilled-
Chris Riback: A web, yes.
Sonya Soni: Yes, that was surveilling, policing, and institutionalizing youth of color, and how the child welfare system was so interconnected to youth incarceration. About 75% of youth who are in foster care were also being sent to youth prisons and camps, and so that’s when I really got to see it wasn’t enough just to tackle child protective services and the myth of benevolence around foster care, but also to think about how youth prisons and camps are involved in also institutionalizing youth. That’s really where my passion came for both tackling youth incarceration and child welfare at the same time.
Chris Riback: I understand that you believe that there is a place for something that I think you call poetry in policymaking. What is that? It’s a beautiful phrase.
Sonya Soni: Yes. A lot of the youth organizers I was working with in South Los Angeles, there’s a coalition called Youth Justice Reimagined, where a lot of them were artists, writers, activists, and they really wanted to use their backgrounds in hip hop, spoken word, and poetry to think about how to be changemakers. I really got to see how so much of the policy we were writing in Los Angeles County was so devoid of our humanity, and it was so sterile and cold and devoid from the actual political context in which families were being separated. I created a policymaking through poetry workshop, where youth organizers were able to really grapple with their identities, both politically and personally, to think about how they want to write policy that actually infuses our humanity and our complexity in the way we write our policy. It was also a way for policymakers and youth organizers, the very youth who are systems-impacted, to come together to also grapple with their different identities and how that shows up when they are writing policy when they’re writing their poetry together.
Chris Riback: I don’t mean this to be silly. Anti-racist, I understand, or I think I understand what it would mean to be non-racist, to not have racism as part of oneself. Is anti-racist something beyond that, where it’s almost actionable to try to address racism? What is anti-racist?
Sonya Soni: That’s a great question. I think this term has been in our public imagination, especially since 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, and there’s been a little bit of confusion around what that actually means for our everyday lives and how we show up to the movement. To me, anti-racism, really the heartbeat of it is what are the actions we can take? It’s not just believing that racism is unjust, but how are we practicing that in our everyday lives through the policies we support, through the ways that we show up in our advocacy for our fellow brothers and sisters that are a part of the communities of color? It’s really about how do we take an active stance in it, rather than just believing in it?
Chris Riback: It’s about being active.
Sonya Soni: Yes.
Chris Riback: We are all products of our past, ancestry matters, but I got the sense that your ancestry is particularly meaningful to you. Tell me about your grandmother.
Sonya Soni: Thank you so much. I could talk about ancestry all day. It’s like a personal passion of mine. So much of the work that we do in movement work and organizing work comes from our ancestors. My great-grandmother, she was a freedom fighter very close to Mohandas Gandhi during India’s fight against British colonial rule. She was one of the first women to be a part of the movement to bring other women to fight against the British Empire. She was jailed very much for speaking out and writing against the British Empire. She started a nonprofit organization focused on advancing the rights of girls and widows.
Then, 80 years later, I started working at that very nonprofit. It’s at the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India. That is where I got exposed to the orphanage system and how detrimental orphanages are for child development and child mental health, and how 80% of those orphans actually had families to be there, but because of structural poverty, they were being sent there or trafficked there. It was really because of her that started my passion for youth justice, and to really think about trans-border politics and also trans-border solidarity of how so many of these issues are so similar. Whether I was working in Kashmir, India or now in South Los Angeles, all of the ways that youth are being trafficked, surveilled, police, and separated from their families are so similar, due to whether it’s casteism or structural racism.
Chris Riback: It’s no surprise that you’re motivated in the ways that you are, it’s in your DNA?
Sonya Soni: Oh, yes. Well, I hope so. Yes.
Chris Riback: Sonya, thank you for coming by the studio.