Because youth voice is critical to TNOYS’ work, we have always included youth presenters at our Annual Conference, and we began inviting youth to participate alongside professional attendees two years ago. At our 35th Annual Conference, which took place in Houston last week, we wanted to take that participation even further and make it a central focus of the event — we did that by more fully integrating youth as co-presenters at workshops, selecting keynote speakers who could share relevant experiences from their own youth, and focusing on learning opportunities for both youth and adult participants to learn about how to elevate youth voice in their own lives and work. Looking back on the event, we’re pleased to report that youth participants were integrated as never before and that it only served to enhance the learning experience for everyone in attendance.
The event kicked off on Tuesday, June 5 with pre-conference institutes, which provided the opportunity to dig in to a series of topics in more depth than allowed during the average conference workshop. As always, the sessions were open to anyone interested in attending, even if they were not registered for the full conference. Each session lasted for a full day and featured a series of experts focused on three different topics – the opioid epidemic and its impact on the child welfare system, the #MeToo movement and how youth services providers can respond to it, and a national training curriculum on Youth Mental Health First Aid. We’re especially grateful to Pegasus Schools for sponsoring the #MeToo institute and sharing their own expertise on how to work with sexually aggressive youth, and to Connections Individual and Family Services for hosting the Youth Mental Health First Aid institute.
The next day, we officially kicked off the full conference, starting with an opening keynote presentation by Anna Gennari of Foster Youth in Action and Steven Shaw of Voices for Change, who shared their experiences as former foster youth turned advocates and helping the crowd understand the power and importance of youth voice. That day, workshops were broken into two separate tracks for youth and professional attendees, to give each group a chance to learn in settings specific to their needs. All attendees came together at the end of the day to hear from keynote speaker Daren Jones, of the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University. Daren shared information about how trauma affects the brain and can impact youth behavior, and how that influences his work with Trust Based Relational Intervention.
The next day included a full day of conference workshops attended by a mixed audience of youth and professionals. Workshops were divided into tracks focused on Foundations of Youth Engagement, Youth Rights and Advocacy, Best Practices and Brilliant Ideas, Bringing Research and Data to Life, Diverse Cultures and Needs, and Storytelling. Click here to see the full conference program and all the different workshops that were available. Across workshops, youth were incorporated as co-presenters alongside professionals, allowing attendees to learn from experts about research and evidence and to get a direct understanding from youth about their perspective on these approaches. Incorporating youth voice in this way was not only empowering for youth but also gave professional attendees a more full picture of the topics being discussed.
Also featured on the second day was keynote speaker SaulPaul, who energized and inspired the crowd with humor, music, and his own personal story, including his experience with the juvenile justice system. Attendees also enjoyed TNOYS’ Member Awards Luncheon, where they got inspired by the stories and words of TNOYS’ annual award winners, including DFPS Commissioner Hank Whitman and Associate Commissioner Kristene Blackstone – click here to learn more about all of those who were honored.
On the third and final day of the conference, youth and professionals had the chance to attend one final workshop and hear from closing keynote speaker Patrice Pike. In a presentation that combined spoken word and song, Pike shared how she overcame homelessness as a youth to become a successful musician. She also told the stories of those helped through her Step Onward Foundation.
Aside from the main workshop and keynote programming, TNOYS provided various other opportunities for learning and networking while attendees were together in Houston. On Tuesday evening, we hosted our annual Member Reception, where TNOYS members from across the state had the opportunity to connect over drinks and appetizers. On Wednesday evening, we held a meeting of our Emergency Shelter Task Force, and on Thursday, offered an offsite horse therapy workshop for a small group of conference attendees hosted by TNOYS member Spirit Reins.
We are incredibly grateful to everyone who made this year’s Annual Conference a success. We had an amazing group of presenters that shared their expert insights, research, and personal stories, a supportive group of sponsors who helped make the event possible, and two great conference partners – the Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards and the Texas Foster Family Association. Thank you to everyone who was a part of the event – TNOYS believes strongly in the power and importance of youth voice and we were gratified to see just how successful an enhanced focus on youth voice helped to make this year’s conference.
We are also excited to carry on this effort in our work throughout the year with our Young Adult Leadership Council, which was formed to help with conference planning thanks to a grant from the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission, and which will continue to inform our work going forward. To get involved with the Young Adult Leadership Council, stay tuned for the application process, which is opening soon, or contact us in the meantime at firstname.lastname@example.org.