Meet our Team
A Conversation with Ashley De Alba, Associate Manager, Research and Operations
Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy
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May 20, 2020
On how my childhood impacted my career path
I always knew that I wanted to help kids.
I faced a lot of adversity in my childhood. And growing up in foster care, as well as in low-income neighborhoods, I spent time around children who were also going through difficult things. I saw them hurt, scared and deserving of love that they never received. As a result, I found myself wondering why so many kids went through so much during their childhoods, and what could be done to eliminate their suffering, which was unnecessary and preventable.
Too many kids don’t have enough supports – this was very clear to me from a young age – and there are simple things that can be done to better their lives. I knew I wanted to be a part of that betterment, but I had to start with myself. I needed to get an education, and improve my own situation before I could do anything for anyone else. So when I turned 18, I hopped on a bus to California (after spending my childhood in Maryland and Pennsylvania) looking for a fresh start.
San Francisco was a completely different world than the one I had grown up in. In the city, people had the freedom to express themselves and be true to who they were, something that wasn’t a reality in the small towns I’d lived in, where diversity and acceptance were hard to come by, and racism and homophobia ran rampant. I got a job, and enrolled in community college, then transferred UC Davis, all with the goal of wanting to help kids, but not really being sure about how I would do that.
On researching stress, and the importance of including kids in policymaking
At Davis, I got involved in research and worked in a lab that focused on studying family stress, family relationships, and stress physiology, specifically how stress develops and the ways in which it manifests. It was through my work at the lab and studying human development that I discovered my passion for the impact that research, and access to information, can have on people’s lives.
While I was in college, I joined a club for former foster youth, and spending time around other people who were going through the same things as I was helped me relate. It also made me realize that there was not only a huge need of supports for young foster youth, but there was also a lot that needed to be done for transition-age youth in California. That led to me taking on a role, through The Youth Engagement Project, as the foster youth representative, providing a youth voice and input on policies that impact foster youth. While in a working group meeting once, I overheard someone mention that he didn’t understand ‘why kids were still stressed after being removed from their homes, which were the sources of their stress and problems.’
This was really eye-opening for me – this man was tasked with making decisions about kids and their futures, and yet he wasn’t aware of the struggles and stressors kids were facing when they had to leave their families and homes, and adjust to new environments, potentially in the care of strangers. How could he, or anyone in his situation, do right by kids without truly understanding how policies affected them? This was a defining experience for me; I knew I could use science and evidence to talk about the impact of stress (like removing kids from their home) on kids. Kids can also tell you what their experiences are, but we have to listen to them. And while California does a decent job of giving kids a voice, we can always do better.
On bridging the gap between policy and research
We need to bridge the gap between research and policy as folks on both sides have misconceptions about one another, and they struggle to communicate. This is not to say that they don’t mean well, but in many ways, they’re speaking different languages. There’s a lot of work to be done to break down barriers on how policymakers can use research and researchers can use their findings to influence policy.
In order to make effective policy decisions, that will result in better outcomes for kids, we need researchers, policymakers, and the kids themselves to all be engaged, and to be in the room. We can’t have adults making decisions about kids without including them in the conversation or make decisions that are not evidence-based.
On being excited about data
Data excites me.
I love using the numbers and statistics that we’ve gathered – we use secondary sources of data at Children Now – knowing that it can influence decisions made to help kids. By making accurate and relevant information available to more people in the community, we can impact kids’ lives and make a difference.
It’s so important to use data appropriately, and part of what I do is help teach our staff how to interpret the data and research that’s available so that we’re talking about it in the right way and using the best research practices. We need to ensure that we’re using information for the purposes it’s meant to be used for, without changing the data or the research to serve our own purposes. I bring strict research ethics and scientific rigor to the table that I’m not willing to compromise, and it helps me do my job better.
I’ve noticed a shift in the past couple of years where people are more inclusive when it comes to research and data, and more inclined to incorporate it into their work. This is really promising – once again, the intersection of research and policy – and in the long-term, will create better outcomes for kids.
On helping others, and life outside of work
I love helping people and it is a strong part of who I am. At UC Davis I won a scholarship award for my commitment to serving my community. I’ve held many volunteer positions mentoring and engaging one-on-one with kids, which is something I don’t get to do at Children Now, and what I really miss. So to stay connected I volunteer with CASA as a court-appointed special advocate for a transition-age foster youth. He is incredible.
I also spend a lot of time talking to my former mentors and friends about how we can work together to better kids’ lives and the different issues that they face in today’s political, socio-cultural, economic, and technological environment. I’m always thinking about what more we can do for kids – it never really ends.
This is such a difficult time for all of us. But it is hard for me not to think about the most vulnerable families and kids at this time. Given my past I can’t help but think of all the kids that need our support now more than ever. Many of my family and friends have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet. I’m doing everything that I can to continue to be there for my family, as well as for the foster youth I work with through CASA. I text or call him every day. He’s been struggling with college now that classes have transitioned to distance learning, so I’m reaching out to his professors and doing what I can to help him make it through the semester.
My heart is aching for all of those in need. I feel really lucky that my amazing husband and three cats are healthy and happy. We’ve been spending time, now that we’re sheltering-in-place, settling into our home and taking advantage of our time together – baking bread and bagels, and trying out new things in the kitchen. When I think about what so many kids and families are going through right now, it is easy for me to be thankful for what I have.
Editor’s Note: May is National Foster Care Month. If you’d like to support kids and youth in foster care in California, please take a few minutes to sign-on to this letter asking legislative leadership to restore the Family Urgent Response System (FURS). FURS will provide 24/7 trauma-informed support to current and former foster youth and their caregivers through a statewide hotline and county mobile response systems. It is a critical resource – especially during these difficult times – that is in jeopardy due to proposed state budget cuts.