Student Activism and Social Justice

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Maria Kelley - University of Connecticut - Law, Social Justice, and the Family

Teachings from a student advocate with lived expertise

Before proceeding, I must preface that my experience in the foster care system is not an individual one. Parts of my story are similar to a majority of foster people, yet also dissimilar in the fact that I have many privileges that my community has significantly lower chances of obtaining. It’s important to note that my storytelling intends to amplify the voices lost in such a disparaging system, not to speak over them.

My lived experience as a Latinx, Pacific Islander woman in the child welfare system acted as a catalyst for my passions surrounding child advocacy. I was exposed to the harmful effects of institutionalization and resided in a variety of congregate care facilities. I witnessed the hyper-penalization of foster youth of color and the villainization of their mental health issues. Moreover, I faced tribulations contingent on the education gap, health care inequalities, human trafficking, food and housing insecurity, cultural erasure, and various trauma-inducing disparities that are frequently included in foster individuals’ stories. I discovered how the foster care system intersects with other fragmented systems and perpetuates micro and macro-level challenges that disproportionately impact vulnerable populations. In other words, I have a deep first-hand understanding of the cyclical and generational harm that occurs at the hands of institutional and systemic isms.

That said, I knew before entering UConn that I was determined to seek justice in community with those that were representative of my lived and our collective experience. I co-founded and served a three-year presidential role for Creating Caring Communities, an organization that serves and advocates for those experiencing food and/or housing insecurity, independent status, family estrangement, or with lived experience in the foster care system. From our organization’s perspective and my own lived expertise, I almost instantaneously saw first-hand that food insecurity was often in direct relationship with housing instability, inadvertently financial insecurity as well. These students were people who have experienced abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, othering, and deeply rooted trauma. A majority of our independent students were obligated to work full-time jobs and be full-time students to combat food and housing insecurity. They couldn’t learn if they were hungry, and weren’t afforded the privilege of meaningful interpersonal relationships, and scholarly advancement. I educated UConn departments about these topics that were commonly hidden by the university or an individual because of fear, shame, and guilt that was often subconsciously promoted by the university’s culture of bureaucracy.

Quantitative data from before the COVID-19 pandemic showed that 35% of students at UConn, Storrs suffered from food insecurity, with higher numbers at regional campuses (Enright, 2021). It is important to note that while COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, it did not originate in spite of the pandemic. CCC was adamant that UConn strayed away from the narrative that food insecurity is the responsibility of our students to manage. Instead, urging the university to take accountability that their argument of available resources did not equate to accessible resources. Students with no familial support would have to withdraw loan money to pay rent, buy groceries, and fulfill fundamental means of survival. Obtaining independent status eligibility to receive said ‘available resources’ was a process that took months at a minimum. Meanwhile, the stigmatization and lack of trauma-informed approaches were re-triggering and re-traumatizing because students were forced to be dependent on invasive storytelling throughout the application procedures, all while sacrificing their own humanity.

Most of the information I’ve dispelled so far may be familiar to most. I disclose these accounts not to repeat commonplace knowledge, but rather, to call on people to envision what this really looks like. It looked like tears, grief, sickness, isolation, self-deprecation, and the shared feeling that tomorrow may not appear. It meant sitting for over two hours, sometimes several days a week, with students who felt safe enough to express their hardships to a tremendously giving, yet non-MSW degree-holding, young woman (i.e., myself). It felt like reliving my own trauma through every conversation rooted in survival mode and a scarcity mindset. Unfortunately, I abandoned my own mental, and psychical health at the expense of tending to institutional gaps. I experienced an intense period of compassion fatigue, where I lost all motivation and passion to continue helping others- let alone my beloved students. I mourned over the fact that student activism can be grueling, gut-wrenching, and exhausting, all while rewarding, empowering, and abundant. I learned that I must practice radical self-care to the brink of loving myself enough to prioritize those abandoned parts. I was taught that my kindness can reach far only if I give it to myself first.

Furthermore, the most meaningful lesson came when I resigned from CCC in May 2022. It was a boundary that echoed the dire need to unshackle myself from the inner narrative that I was to somehow dismantle food and housing insecurity in my four undergraduate years. With some final goodbyes, and a temporary ‘see you soon’, I proceeded into a recluse of self-reflection, ancestral undoing, and soul liberation. Fortunately, my fight did not end there, nor will it ever. I am committed to a lifetime of advocacy, just no longer with the caveat that I don’t pour into my own cup before I do others. For the sake of the word limit, I have provided the two highly plausible recommendations that I consistently advocate for in times of rest, and that of revolution:

1) Faculty and students are informed on a strength-based and empowerment approach when working with vulnerable populations through mandated annual training. Qualitative research has shown that empowerment and strength-based approaches can be used as effective measures to combat foster youths’ poor self-esteem and identity development obstacles (Montgomery, 2011). Effective empowerment strategies include presenting youth with chances to tell their story and to be heard where their experiences are received with validation and understanding. Moreover, strength-based approaches can look like identifying youths’ strengths and acts of resilience, instead of assessing them within a deficit model.

2) UConn develops and allocates sufficient funding towards a university-led task force operation that conducts bi-annual research regarding the state of hunger and homelessness at all UConn campuses. The analysis of the data will have implications for what prevention and intervention initiatives must be implemented to best serve our students. Student organizations (i.e., Undergraduate Student Government, Praxis, and CCC) will have a seat at the table by bringing young adult voices to the forefront of the conversation). The task force will contribute to the formulation of a follow-up process, ensuring representative initiatives enact sustainable, longitudinal, and equitable change.

In conclusion, I cannot produce a tidy representation of my experience with student activism, because it’s quite the opposite. It is messily beautiful when fostered from the heart, and a deep place of knowing. I am humbly honored for the opportunity to see my students grow into a better version of themselves, the ones tucked away under the disparities endured. I acknowledge the privilege that has come with getting out of solely ‘surviving’, and am thankful for how this gave me permission to continue showing up for those unable to begin thriving. I aspire to be a forever learner and teacher with pedagogy that stimulates the soul equivalently to the mind.


Enright, M. (2021, November 10). Students help students in fight against food insecurity. UConn Today. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from

Montgomery, D. E. (2011). Life Experiences that Contributed to the Independence and Success in the Lives of Foster Care Alumni.