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Storytelling as Change Agent

By Patty Park '91

Published Jul 1, 2019 8:00 AM

Thanks to a seed grant from the UCLA Pritzker Center, the Center for Scholars & Storytellers is exploring how entertainment media can highlight issues in foster care.


Illustration by Hanna Barczyk.

An average of 443,000 children were in foster care in the U.S. on any given day in 2017. Approximately 69,000 children were waiting to be adopted. And more than 17,000 teens had aged out of foster care without permanent families, with statistics showing that teens who leave without a link to a forever family have a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, unemployment and incarceration.

Now, thanks to a seed grant from the UCLA Pritzker Center, the Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS) is collaborating with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to explore how entertainment media might illuminate the issues surrounding foster care. The project, “Using the Power of Media to Positively Influence Foster Care Perception,” aims to alter the stereotypes of the foster child in the media, change how foster children see themselves portrayed, and build the public’s awareness of issues facing foster children.

“As researchers, we study young people to understand the best ways to help them, and as storytellers, we understand how to engage youth,” says Yalda Uhls, founder of the CSS. “Research informs us that the teen brain is the most responsive to risk and reward; it’s a time when entertainment media has a lot of power.”

Uhls, a former executive at MGM and Sony who left the entertainment world to earn a UCLA Ph.D. in psychology, recently convened scholars, content creators, attorneys and community members to develop actionable ideas around foster care. Filmed by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls for digital media, the event was the first of several that will bring the team together to execute and test their ideas.

“Youth who watch media are the ones who are going to change the system,” says Marianne Guilfoyle, chief innovations officer for Allies for Every Child, who has worked with foster care children and parents for 25 years. “Something they watch can outrage and inspire them to say, ‘I want to do something about this!’”

“I hope the stories we share that speak to foster care can make the kids in the foster care system feel well-represented and taken care of,” says Uhls, whose center will look to the power and scale of entertainment media to help adolescents on the topics of mental health, gender roles for boys, unconscious bias/inclusion and development of positive character strengths.“I hope that beyond foster care, we can help young people see themselves reflected in wonderful ways that can inspire them to be their best selves and be happy and healthy citizens.”