Sokhom Mao, a data specialist at the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) – a Berkeley Social Welfare-hosted collaboration among social work practitioners and educators throughout the state – has been named a White House “Champion of Change.” Mao, along with 11 other former foster youth from all over the country, will be honored at a ceremony on May 19th as part of National Foster Care Month.
An Oakland native, Mao first became a part of the foster care system while in middle school. The death of his mother when he was nine and the inability of his father to care for him and his five siblings led to his family’s involvement with social services. Mao would subsequently move from group homes to temporary stays with his aunt, who was granted kinship care, to transitional housing.
Despite the constant instability of his housing situation, Mao successfully completed his degree in criminal justice at San Francisco State University. SFSU was also where he joined the newly established Guardian Scholars Program, which provides support and guidance to former foster youth in higher education. His participation in the program marked his foray into advocacy work.
In addition to his role at CalSWEC supporting curriculum development and training for social workers, Mao currently serves as Alameda County’s juvenile justice commissioner and the City of Oakland's police board commissioner. He was also recently appointed to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Alameda County LGBTQ Task Force. He has dedicated the past 13 years to raising awareness and lobbying for policies affecting foster youth’s access to higher education, employment and housing stability. It is Mao's hope that his White House honor will help focus attention on these issues.
“I am very honored to receive this award,” he says. “But I want to make sure that it highlights the importance of providing a stable home and environment for foster youth.”
During his trip to Washington, Mao is scheduled to meet with numerous child welfare stakeholders, including advocacy organizations, Department of Health and Human Services officials, the Children’s Bureau Commissioner and more than 70 foster youth, to share his story and inspire action. He will be attending the White House Champions of Change awards ceremony with his “lifelong mentor” and School of Social Welfare alumna Sonja Lenz Rashid (PhD '03), a co-founder of the Guardian Scholars Program, as well as Foster Youth in Action Executive Director Matt Rosen, who nominated Mao for the award.
“I need to take time to let it all sink in,” says Mao about being named a Champion of Change. “I am humbled and excited at the same time.”