CalSWEC’s Sokhom Mao Is White House Foster Care Champion of Change

Who: Sokhom Mao, B.A. (Criminal Justice), San Francisco State University

Most recent honor: Mr. Mao is one of 12 former foster youth across the nation who will be honored as a 2015 White House Champion of Change in ceremonies in Washington, D.C., on May 19. As a part of National Foster Care Month, the event showcases the stories and work of these inspirational leaders for making a difference in their communities; for their courage, resilience, and contributions; and for their commitment to furthering their education. The Champions of Change program was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature individuals doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities. 

Other honors include: Foster Youth Alliance (FYA) Community Hero Award; National Foster Care Month, Changing a Lifetime Award; Commendation from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors; California State Senate Certificate of Recognition

RELATED: Q & A with Sokhom Mao

RELATED: More about Mr. Mao

Current positions: Data specialist, Research and Evaluation, California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC), where, among other activities, he supports curriculum development and training for social workers and the inclusion of feedback from youth in curriculum relevant to transitional-aged youthJuvenile Justice Commissioner, Alameda County; Police Board Commissioner, City of Oakland

About Mr. Mao: Being a foster youth has not defined who he is, but that experience has defined Mr. Mao’s agenda as an activist and civic leader, driven by his concern for the welfare of foster youth in the system and beyond and by his interest in the juvenile justice system that often touches their lives as well.

The fourth of six siblings, Mr. Mao, 27, was born to refugees who fled Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. His mother died when he was age 9, setting in place a series of life-altering events that took him on a journey through California’s foster care system. He was placed—at various times apart from or together with his siblings—in kinship care,  group homes, and eventually the Bay Area Youth Centers’ Real Alternatives for Adolescents (RAFA), which provided him the impetus to prepare for college and the next phase of his life. He joined California Youth Connection and eventually became vice-president of its Board of Directors.

As an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, Mr. Mao personally benefited from the then-fledgling Guardian Scholars Program, created to help foster youth navigate higher education, while also helping to shape the program to better meet the needs of youth like himself. It is little wonder that he was named an ambassador for the program, advocating for foster youth services in higher education. While in college, Mr. Mao also reunited first with his younger siblings, who moved in with him and whom he cared for, and later with his older siblings, who moved into the same apartment complex in Oakland.

With his sound foster care and advocacy credentials, Mr. Mao in 2010 traveled to Sacramento at the request of Fostering Media Connections Executive Director Daniel Heimpel to urge support for Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering to Connections to Success Act. Mr. Mao’s strong voice for foster care reform was heard across major local and national news media; he is credited for assisting in the passage of the landmark measure that extended foster care services from age 18 to 21. 

Q & A with Sokhom Mao

Q: Who is your Champion of Change?              

Mr. Mao: As I look back on my life’s journey, two people who really engaged and helped me to be where I am at today are my Youth Development Specialist, Katherine Teague, and my Guardian Scholars Director, Xochitl Sanchez. Both are amazing people in my life who helped shape my future so I can be where I am at today. I am very proud of my accomplishments; I cannot explain the humility that I feel to be honored in this manner at the White House.

Q: What accomplishment are you proudest of?

Mr. Mao: The accomplishment that I am most proud of is my ability to advocate and participate in actively engaging policymakers and local, state, and national officials on the issues of foster care. The work is not complete; there is more work that needs to be done ahead. 

Q:  Who or what is the greatest source of your inspiration?

Mr. Mao: My greatest motivation comes from my fellow former foster youth who have been through various challenges in their lives, as I have. So, seeing an improved system that accommodates their needs is a crucial part of my motivation and drive. As I continue my work in child welfare, I will continue to focus my efforts on finding the best solutions based on my own personal experience and on existing research; this is all towards helping foster youth succeed in life. 

Q: What are your future plans?

Mr. Mao: I continue to be optimistic about what the future holds. For now, I am focusing on doing the best job I can at the California Social Work Education Center.

Q: What being a Champion of Change mean to you?

Mr. Mao: A Champion of Change means a catalyst, a catalyst that sparks. I believe there's a spark in each and every one of us. We have to go out and seek that passion and use that passion for the betterment of society. I strongly believe youth are very important to the progression of our community, alleviating economic and educational disparities and inequalities, the lower and under class of American society. So, for me, being a Champion of Change means you go out and do good work!

More about Sokhom Mao