Mockingbird Times Comes Out Singing

Deborah Fisher
October 29, 2001

The news meeting starts like any other. The staff assembles around a table in the basement of Richard Hugo House, a writers' haven in Seattle's funky Capital Hill neighborhood. Reporters for the newly launched Mockingbird Times are eager to discuss the juiciest topics for their upcoming issue. But there's a decidedly different slant to the pre-meeting chitchat for this group. Times founder Jim Theofelis shares with the group that his niece was murdered on the street over the weekend. Staffer Julia Higuera says things are a bit hectic for her, having spent the weekend in jail because she missed a court date. Staffer Eli Wilson, news intern JW and advisor Valerie Douglas commiserate. It's clear that staffers at this publication have an uncommon bond.

The Mockingbird Times is about foster care and homelessness, written for and by kids who've lived through both. Starting at age 7, for example, 22-year old Higuera bounced in and out of her home through some 15 placements. Nineteen-year old Eli Wilson went through 25 placements before ending up on the street last year when he found himself "aged out" of the system. "All of sudden, you're out of foster care," says Wilson, who now lives in the Seattle YMCA's Young Adults in Transition Program. "You go from having no responsibilities to lots of new ones, but you don't know where they're coming from. You were always told you'd have to do these things, but you never know until you're out there."

 These young people hope to have an impact on the system they've been forced to know too well by writing about it. Recent articles include an interview with the state's ombudsman who handles foster care issues and kids' reactions to the Sept. 11 tragedy. The staff also writes about things of interest to kids, like music, book reviews and poetry written by youth in foster care. The goal is to publish as much work as possible written by kids in foster care and kids who are homeless.

At least one other publication in the country has provided an effective outlet for that same voice. Foster Care Youth United, a publication of the New York City-based organization Youth Communication, has been publishing since 1993. Written by a staff of 15 young people, FCYU has a paid circulation of 10,000 with subscribers in 46 states. The magazine recently launched a sister publication in California and regularly publishes books of topical works collected from the magazine.

Teaching the Birds How to Sing
Since Theofelis first worked with street kids in his 20s, it has been his dream to launch the Mockingbird Times. "I experienced a fair amount of trauma in my life, but I always had parents and a grandmother who went through it with me. The difference for a lot of these kids is that they're going through it all by themselves."

Why mockingbirds? "It comes from thinking about my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee," says Theofelis. "What would it be like to have a society where children were valued in a way that this book talks about valuing mockingbirds? They're really not doing anything but playin' and singin' so why would you hurt one?"

The impetus for the new publication came from successful legislation that Theofelis spearheaded in Washington state last year. Among other things, the Homeless Youth Prevention/Protection Education Act allocates $2.8 million to fund Hope Centers, 30-day emergency living situations for street kids, as well as Responsible Living Skills Programs to help 16-18-year olds get off and stay off the street. One provision that particularly proved Theofelis' mettle as a legislative advocate was getting extra penalties for adults who commit crimes that exploit vulnerable youth.

Fresh from building the coalition necessary to steward the HOPE act to fruition in only one year, Theofelis established the non-profit Mockingbird Society to help improve the lives of kids in foster care or homeless. The Times is the first official project of the Mockingbird Society.

Telling the Truth, Bird by Bird
To kick off publication, Theofelis raised $80,000, including one extraordinary $50,000 individual gift, to pay staff writers and cover expenses. He partnered with another successful local publication, Real Change, which reports on homeless adults, for joint distribution and technical help. The Times is distributed once a month as an insert of Real Change. The Times' first run of 1,000 papers quickly jumped to 3,000 for its second issue in the wake of positive community response.

 Real Change staffer Molly Rhodes and advisor Valerie Douglas work closely with the young writers currently on staff, developing assignments and managing deadlines. "We face all the challenges any startup faces, but life is also really turbulent for young people who've been in foster care," says Douglas. "They're struggling with jobs and housing at the same time we're all walking that fine line of defining what's possible with this publication and being open to what they come up with. We want to ensure that this is a job, not a program."

All of the Times staffers report they've been writing creatively since they were kids, but working for the newspaper taps into a deeper sense of purpose for each of them. "I've been waiting for my opportunity to be able to write for something like this," says Higuera. "I want people to realize that there are a lot of issues going on for kids in foster care. I want to get in there and write about who actually becomes a foster parent, about not being able to see friends. Being separated from my sister when I first went into foster care had a big effect on how I acted toward the people I was staying with. You can have a normal life if you're treated like a normal person."

"This sounded like a good opportunity to get involved with my community," observes Eli Wilson who says he survived his years in foster care by reaching out to help others. "You try to be true to yourself through all that and try to make a difference in other people's lives."

Theofelis is working on grants to expand the Mockingbird Times staff. The current staff, in turn, is working on outreach to kids in foster care to let them know they have an outlet for their views. The Times will be sharing those views with the adults and policy makers who can make substantive changes in the system.

"If you can get people to really listen," says JW, "they'll look at the paper and say ?I feel this.' Maybe it'll make them want to go out and talk to people, maybe even get rid of their prejudices. If they do that, then we've done something."


Writer Deborah Fisher covers youth and family issues from Seattle. She's currently writing a parenting book on asset building in adolescents and young teens.