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Youth MOVE Change Initiative Fellows Q & A: Louie Gasper

We are checking in with the new Youth MOVE Change Initiative Peer Fellows this week, and they have a lot of great things to say. Today, we are meeting Louie Gasper!

What is something about you that you think is important for others to know?

Something that is important for people to know about me is that I have many intersectional interests that lead me to approach youth systems work in unique ways. As a teenager, I fell in love with the process of legislative advocacy and policy implementation while serving for statewide committees related to child welfare. In college, I continued to study the intersection of politics and policy alongside media and communications studies and constantly aim to create solutions from this specific lens. Because of this mixed expertise and professional drive, I have been able to create a specialized lane of advocacy for myself and would encourage others to explore this dynamic as well.

What does being a leader mean to you? 

The characteristics of a leader to me is somebody who inspires others to grow, learn, or wonder. We often think of leadership in the formal sense of somebody who runs the advisory board or manages a project, and sometimes those kinds of leaders can teach us how we want (or don’t want) to approach our own advocacy or professional endeavors. However, the most important leaders are often not those in formal positions of power, but people who lead from behind and in their day-to-day lives. Somebody who I see as a mentor once told me that “you haven’t truly become a leader until you’ve inspired emerging leaders to help others become leaders.” That is something I aspire to achieve as I continue to gain personal capacity and wisdom. Being a great leader is not necessarily about the skills you have (technical skills can be learned), but rather the values you possess. Are you an active listener in your communities? Do you know how to inspire others and connect with people? Do you live and operate with purpose? These are the questions that I believe truly define a real leader.

What’s something that you did that was embarrassing but taught you a lesson?

One embarrassing memory that sticks with me to this day is when I flunked all of my classes in my junior year of high school. I had always been a devout student prior, even the first couple of years in high school when I was transitioning through foster homes and group homes. After being placed at the county’s school with the least extracurriculars and advanced academic options, I found myself losing motivation to perform well and eventually completely disengaged. I quickly went from a 3.9 GPA to a 1.5 GPA, and by the end of junior year, I received all F’s. Although I knew I still wanted to be successful, my teachers and peers branded me as someone who would “waste their future.” Even as a senior, reintegrating back into school was difficult because nobody believed I would graduate.

In my final year, I passed all of my classes and received over 40 virtual credits to graduate on time. I also reengaged in foster youth advocacy and was able to leverage this experience to obtain a few different scholarships. Most importantly, I didn’t have to sacrifice my dreams of going to a four-year college. As a seventeen year old, I googled colleges with the highest acceptance rates in the nation and literally found my school that same day. A couple of months later, I moved from California to Washington and was able to utilize their independent curriculum options to pursue a lot of professional opportunities, travel the world, and build out my permanency (not withstanding a few rocky steps along the way). This taught me that no matter how much hope you lose in your life, if you are able to channel your drive and resilience it’s never too late to create or recreate the life you want.

What does advocacy mean to you? 

Although advocacy comes in many shapes and sizes, the way that I see advocacy opportunities manifest the most is through legislative and policy work, training and curriculum efforts, and perhaps most importantly — direct youth empowerment. 

Policy & Legislative Work: This is a way where youth are at the forefront of advocacy through testifying at legislative hearings, meeting with senators, and drafting bill proposals. This has a more indirect immediate impact, however it is a much larger cycle so the impact of legislative advocacy could benefit a whole state of youth.

Training & Curriculum Efforts: This is a way where youth are at the forefront of advocacy through facilitating training to child welfare professionals and foster youth, as well as developing relevant curriculum for those audiences. This is somewhat direct – somewhat indirect work, where you have the ability to teach and deliver key elements of a workshop, but ultimately it’s up to the attendees to implement it in their lives.

Youth Empowerment: This is a way where youth are at the forefront of advocacy through encouraging and supporting each other on projects and life in general. It is perhaps the most direct advocacy work because anybody can do it and it can be fully self initiated to help others.

While working with the International Foster Care Alliance, I wrote a more specific blog about youth advocacy from my own experience as well as through state and board organization, and state laws/policies.

What is one thing you want others to know about mental health?

The most important message that I want to give about mental health is that neurodiversity can be a positive thing and your “mental health issues” can actually be solutions. There are many stigmas about mental health and so much of the messaging about it is about deficiencies. But there is also an important conversation to have around strengths-based neurodiversity. For example, I have obsessive compulsive tendencies and often get really high levels of anxiety to complete tasks. Because I’ve acknowledged this and continually learned about myself, I’ve been able to use this as a strength instead of a weakness.

One example I always think of is the process of applying for jobs. Oftentimes there are dozens or even hundreds of people applying for a few positions and it’s important to know what sets you apart. It’s because of my obsessive compulsive tendencies that I have to look at my answers to a job application 5-10+ times in a row before I submit them. And if it weren’t for my anxiety, I wouldn’t think about things that stress me as much as I do (which allows me to bring a full and unique perspective from essentially overthinking). No matter your mental health journey, you should always seek accessible professional help or self care when you feel the need. However sometimes, your neurodiversity can be your superpower if you know how to channel it and that is a beautiful thing.

What is one of your favorite ways of practicing self care? 

My favorite way of practicing self care is traveling, which is luckily an emerging option again. Although this can be expensive, I’ve learned that this doesn’t have to be a financially draining process. In college, I searched high and low for as many scholarships for studying abroad as possible. I also always look for deals, inexpensive but worthwhile places (such as Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula), and ways to obtain a cheaper experience (i.e. choosing a hostel over a hotel). If somewhere far away isn’t an option, I enjoy scheduling mini trips where I can stay with friends closeby or get a hostel nearby and explore. 

Another way I’ve started to work on my self care over the past year includes an activity I like to call “people-mapping.” Working to establish relationships and permanent connections has been an increasingly large focus for me over the last year. As a former foster youth, I tend to fall into the “everything is temporary” way of thinking if I’m not careful. I also can often get too caught up in work endeavors to stop to value my connections if I don’t sometimes make that mindful shift. For this reason, I often like to sit down for an hour or two with my journal and brainstorm how to “water” all of the personal and professional connections I have. This often reminds me that I’m not alone as I may feel and it is never too late to value the connections around you.

What advice would you offer to young LGBTQ+ and BIPOC leaders looking to create impact within their communities and beyond?

One piece of advice I would offer to young LGBTQ+ and BIPOC leaders looking to create impact is to build your support network of people who can truly support you and be there for you no matter what decisions you make about your identity. Living in your authenticity is one of the most rewarding things but can also be a difficult thing to do as you’re growing into yourself. This is something I am working on right now and the benefits have been exponential. With a strong support network, you can have people around to give you advice along the way, gain skills and understanding, and ultimately increase your potential. And if you are able to find people who identify similarly to yourself as friends, mentors, and connections – even better, because their wisdom can help you navigate through your life.

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