Published: July 15, 2021
Meet Adriene. She’s an Army spouse, mom to two young girls, and recently started serving as the DEPLOY Fellow for Blue Star Families’ Craig Newmark New York Tri-State Chapter. Adriene and her husband have a long history with the military. The two were military dependents as kids, and Adriene comes from a dual military family, with both her mom and dad serving in the Air Force. When you put it all together, they’ve moved a lot.
Moving so much as a child, and then as an adult, has been an adventure— one that’s brought so many wonderful experiences. But it’s also created a few challenges. “Growing up in the military, neither of us really have a hometown or a place where we can truly say we are from,” Adriene shared. “I had a really difficult time finding who I was as a military child. I didn’t look like the kids in my neighborhood and was always one of just a handful in my schools. My parents did their best to never let my sibling and I feel like we were any different than other kids, but there was always the obvious contrast: the color of our skin.”
Belonging is a common topic of conversation here at Blue Star Families. Why? For starters, we know belonging is strongly associated with mental health. According to Blue Star Families’ 2020 Resilience Under Stress Study (RUSS), conducted May – June 2020, military families who feel a sense of belonging to the local community are less stressed, have more social support, and have less social isolation. We also know, from the annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, that many military families struggle to create connections, leaving them feeling isolated. And when there’s stress at home, mission readiness suffers. “We started asking questions about belonging,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and Founder of Blue Star Families. “‘Do you feel that you belong to the community in which you live?’ When half of military family respondents said no, I knew we had to do something.”
In response, Blue Star Families quickly piloted a local Chapter model with a specific and measurable social impact goal: improve military families’ sense of belonging to their local communities. In 2018, just two Chapters existed, and now, there are 11, with plans to launch more. Today, these local Chapters serve as a way for military families, who move more frequently than civilians and often live far from family and friends, to quickly connect to a support network within their new community through programming that integrates them with civilian families. And they’re accomplishing that mission. The Connected Communities Impact Study found that our Chapter model works to provide the building blocks toward belonging and to produce positive mental health outcomes.
But there’s still a lot more work to do. The 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey (MFLS) found that only half (49%) of active-duty family respondents feel welcome in their local civilian community. Adriene tried to find her place through volunteer work. She learned as a child that getting involved by helping the community could foster connections, and the same was true in adulthood. But volunteering can be intimidating when you don’t see yourself represented in those organizations. “I know firsthand what it’s like to be the only person of color in a volunteer organization, and I see that in many military support organizations,” Adriene explained. “If I don’t see individuals like me attending an event or working with an organization, I feel uncomfortable attending because I’ll stand out. When you see faces similar to your own, you feel somewhat more welcome or open to receiving the information and participating.”
The lack of representation doesn’t just stop families from volunteering and getting involved. We know from the 2019 MFLS that military families of color report financial stress as their top military life stressor, and, from the Pain Points Poll that communication about available resources was the second most commonly cited unmet community need by both Black and Hispanic/Latinx respondents. Still, the leadership forming Military and Veteran Service Organizations to support military families are disproportionately white. That’s a problem for two reasons. First, military families of color are oftentimes not being reached when organizations are offering services. Second, if families of color are getting the message, they’re less comfortable asking for help or accepting help when they don’t see themselves represented.
That’s one reason why Blue Star Families is on a mission to empower all military families to thrive by building strong communities of support around them, thus improving military readiness. While the Chapter model has helped accomplish that mission, additional efforts were needed to support families of color. As a result, the DEPLOY Fellowship program was created. “DEPLOY Fellows is a Blue Star Program within our Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative (REI) designed to diversify and expand the pipeline of leaders in the military community,” Kathy Roth-Douquet said. “The effort will embed and train individuals from historically underrepresented populations into Blue Star Families’ organization as paid staff in national and Chapter roles. Through our training, we’ll seed a new generation of leaders throughout the veteran and military family support space.”
Adriene is among the first group of DEPLOY Fellows hired as part of the REI. Thanks to the support of Craig Newmark, in this role, Adriene is committed to reaching and supporting military families and service members of color within Blue Star Families’ Craig Newmark New York Tri-State Chapter. Not only can Adriene relate to families as a former military dependent and current military spouse, but she also has an extensive volunteer background, which includes serving on several corporate boards focused on engagement and inclusion. “I want military families to not only see themselves represented, but also feel connected to Blue Star Families,” Adriene shared. “Through the growing trust we build together, we can really fulfill the needs that are present and uncover those that have been hidden from view. We are bridge builders. I want to help all families immerse themselves in their community and recognize that, regardless of what they look like, this is their home. No matter where they go, they can grow roots.”
The Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative and DEPLOY Fellows Program were created after hearing from and listening to military families like yours. And we don’t want to stop there. Take the survey to share your diverse experience as a military family of color. Tell us what challenges your family continues to face and opportunities you are looking for to enrich life as a military family. Together we can impact change.