Profile: Foster Kid Turned Youth Worker Leads by Example

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Editor’s Note: This week, Smith, Youth Today’s Washington, D.C. correspondent, is reporting from Cincinnati where some 3,000 people are attending a convention sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund. Itang Young is just one of many young people she has met and will be writing about this week. 

CINCINNATI - The pain still shows in her eyes. It shows in the way her face goes still, as if to hold the pain inside, when she talks about her mother.

Itang YoungElegant and poised, Itang Young, 28, constructs her sentences carefully. She speaks with deliberation, as if to impress upon the listener the weight of the things she is describing. She speaks of ideals and inspiration, hope and destiny – a skill she’s cultivated as a Baptist preacher, as a recent graduate from a New York seminary, and as a trainer of young activists for the advocacy organization Children’s Defense Fund. 

Young’s careful words and meticulous appearance demonstrate the extent to which she has groomed herself – inside and out – into a role few would have expected from someone with her background. Her Nigerian father was never part of her childhood. Her mother, who bore her first child at 13 and continues to suffer from chemical addiction, wound up in jail after abandoning her five children when Young was just 9.  

Somehow, Young and her siblings got through childhood. Sometimes her older brother raised them, sometimes she raised her young siblings. They lived with their aunt in a kin foster home. Young became the first in her family to go to college, won a Children’s Defense Fund scholarship for students who have beat insurmountable odds, earned an engineering degree, and then went on to a successful job at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for three years. 

But something was missing. 

“I went on to have the life you’re supposed to have. You go to college, get titles, get material wealth,” Young said. “But in all that acquisition, I did not find much fulfillment.” 

There was too much unresolved in her past. The scholarship she won from the Children’s Defense Fund, called Beat the Odds, haunted her. 

“I came to ask important questions,” Young said. “What is my purpose? What is it that I am called to do? What kind of impression am I going to leave around me?” 

The answers led her to Union Theological Seminary in New York, and to a career focused on working with young adults. 

“There are so many young people who are beating the odds every day but they are not receiving any kind of publicity for it,” Young said. “Given the fact that there are so many young people who are experiencing similar challenges, I felt it was important for me to share my story to inspire some other young people to transcend theirs.” 

When Young’s father died her first year in seminary, even his death became a kind of gift, she said. It led her to reconnect with his family in Nigeria, and to fall in love with the country and her heritage during a visit to Africa this year. 

She now thinks of her childhood experiences as a necessary part of her development into a youth leader. She doesn’t just see herself in the minority youth she trains in community organization strategies, she said: “I am them.” 

Young says she has learned to forgive her mother, although it wasn’t always this way. She will never truly be healed, she says. But every time she ministers to another young person, she says, their healing becomes part of hers. 

Photo courtesy of Kaukab Jhurma Smith.