My Story: Systems Change Requires All of Us

By Daniel Lugo, Manager of Policy and Government Relations at Treehouse

Daniel testifying in the House Appropriations Committee in support of HB 1188.

When I entered foster care at 17 years old, I was heartbroken. But at the same time, I was relieved.

Growing up in a broken home felt like a death sentence. No matter how hard I tried to advance in life, the toxic, dysfunctional and destructive home I grew up in dragged me back every time I took just one step forward.

I told my teachers how I wanted to do well in school and enroll in their honors and AP classes so I could someday go to college, but the school system wasn’t designed to be understanding and accommodating for students with complex needs. Until I entered foster care, college was out of the question. I was trapped in the vicious cycle I was born into. But when I entered foster care, I fought like hell to take advantage of every benefit I could.

It was heartbreaking to see those around me in the system not benefit from foster care the same way I did, but it was always clear to me why. It is so dehumanizing and traumatic to tell every adult you meet, with a smile on your face, how horrible your life is and how badly you want help. And it’s even more traumatic when the response is confused, racist and intolerant. Why isn’t the system designed to be sensitive and supportive by default? Why must we put on a performative face to make people want to help? Even I was questioning my efforts and thought accepting my perceived fate as a statistic was best… for some reason, that just felt “right.” But I was lucky to enter foster care when I did.

Because I entered care at 17, I went straight to college and avoided the chronic cycle of foster youth bouncing around from home to home or school to school. In college, I was able to focus 100% of my time on my studies, which came at a cost. I lost my connection to my siblings and even at 27 today, we’re nowhere near as close as we once were. I can count on one hand how many friends I had in college. But that’s okay. I was able to escape the cycle I saw as a death sentence. But why isn’t that the case for so many others?

I began my career in college by pursuing math and science – I wanted to major in astronomy and be a scientist like I always dreamed of. However, my professors outright told me I wasn’t smart enough. So, like any other good foster youth, I shuffled my way into advocacy. At first, I was bitter about the path ahead of me. I began to realize how I never really had control over my life. But an advisor who specifically served students experiencing foster care introduced me to an internship at the state legislature. The experience couldn’t have been more eye-opening.

Daniel and Lynda Hall (Treehouse Senior Director of Policy & Government Relations) pose for a photo with former Senator Carlyle after discussing Treehouse’s legislative agenda.

Shortly after graduating, I pursued a job at the state legislature so that I could learn the ins and outs of how our different systems work. After a handful of interviews and rejections, I finally got in. I felt that spark of hope from when I entered foster care all over again. Fortunately, that spark hasn’t gone away.

I worked at the state legislature as a legislative assistant for a little over five years. My role was primarily administrative, but I soaked up every bit of information I could. By my third year as an assistant, I had earned enough trust and expertise to shepherd legislation development independently. The work I’ve initiated is still ongoing, but I’m glad to have planted the seeds and to have also connected with life-changing advocates who I still work with today.

I see these seeds I’ve planted as incrementalism. On one hand, it’s hard to tolerate incrementalist change when young people are actively falling through the cracks. But it’s also important to take strategic steps to ensure your efforts aren’t made in vain. I’m not saying my approach was right, but I’m glad I had the resources and connections necessary to leverage my lived experience in a powerful way.

What I went through goes beyond statistics – my lived experience matters, just like everyone else’s, and is clear evidence as to why systems change needs to happen.

Real systems change will require institutional leaders and advocates to continue following the lead of lived experts, as well as collaborating with them when their institutional knowledge and authority are necessary to implement meaningful change. I am excited about the future because Treehouse is committed to this ideal.

This past session, my understanding of the legislative process played a pivotal role in achieving Treehouse’s legislative agenda. Because my team trusted and welcomed my knowledge, lived expertise and collaboration, we secured over $3 million to support youth experiencing foster care statewide. I can’t emphasize how important this process was for my growth as an advocate. Not only did Treehouse benefit from what I brought to the table, but I also benefited. I have learned so many valuable lessons these past 9 months under the direction of some incredible advocates. I know these lessons will enable me to carry the torch further as my career progresses… That’s systems change!

Treehouse advocates pose for a photo before heading to the legislature to meet with senators and representatives.

During this interim (the time in-between Washington state’s legislative sessions), Treehouse’s Policy Team is developing an entirely new and innovative framework for how we as an organization approach systems change. Prior to the Policy Team’s establishment last September, Treehouse’s legislative agenda was in the hands of only a few people. From here on forward, we are committed to changing Treehouse’s mental models so that the legislative agenda development process meaningfully includes partnership from lived experts, Treehouse staff at-large, advocacy partners and the community.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s crucial to remember systems change takes a village! We all play an important role in systems change, whether we know it or not.

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About the Author

Daniel brings a unique perspective to the table, having been a part of the Washington state foster care system, as well as the Washington State Legislature. At the legislature, Daniel served the 43rd Legislative District of Seattle on Speaker Emeritus Frank Chopp’s team and helped lead the creation of policy to improve Washington state’s publicly funded systems of care, which includes foster care. Daniel is eager to continue his career in advocacy at Treehouse as the organization’s Manager of Policy & Government Relations.

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