And while the vibes of family reunions are usually high energy, there is sometimes the ambiguity of meeting new cousins and discovering folks one may have never met, which Sixto Cancel can relate to.
Cancel knows firsthand the impact of not growing up around family or knowing where he belonged.
He started navigating the foster care system when he was 11 months old. Since then, his journey has been full of challenges but also a realization that the system tasked to support and help him was consistently failing him. At one point, he had even given up on the concept of family.
“When I was 15, and I realized that the system was going to continue to fail, it was like, ‘Okay, Sixto, how do you make sure that you are prepared to live on your own, you’re prepared to be able to work, you’re prepared to make your own money because there’s nothing that’s going to come that’s gonna be given to you,'” Cancel said.
However, a couple of years ago, a phone call from his sister changed what that would mean for him.
“I got a phone call from my sister, and she told me that, just in three hours, there’s gonna be this family reunion,” Cancel noted. “And that’s when I raced over to Harlem and got to meet, you know, my father’s side of the family.”
Although this meeting was pivotal to his journey, it was a significant marker in his work, advocacy, and fundraising to support foster families through his organization, Think Of Us.
Cancel leveraged his upbringing in foster care to work to ensure that others do not face the same type of journey he did. While his experiences helped shape his work and perspective, they did not detract from his difficulties during those times.
He admitted that he was once reunited with his biological mother for one year but was faced with a movie-like experience as he was forced to separate from her.
“It was a very traumatic experience,” Cancel recalled. “I remember being hidden in the kitchen cabinets. My mother refused to give us up to the system, but she wasn’t given a choice. It was either going to jail, or you can go to rehab, put your kids in the system, and sign this voluntary paperwork.”
From there, he found himself in an abusive foster home fueled by racism and prejudices. And navigating these varied spaces led him to worry about what would happen once he reached 18.
In many states, once foster children turn 18, they are typically considered independent adults. However, some programs will support a person after they reach that age. In Cancel’s case, he found out that government funding is limited and was at risk of not being available at all.
Worried about his own future, he set out to create a plan that would support families to receive funding and help them navigate the system so that kinship care became the first option before forcing a child to face traditional foster care.
According to the Child Welfare site, kinship care “refers to the care of children by relatives or, in some jurisdictions, close family friends (often referred to as fictive kin).”
And since Black and brown children are disproportionately a part of the foster care system, adjusting to this model will better support Black and brown families directly with funds that support children.
According to a report from the Children’s Bureau, Black children make up only 14% of the general child population, while they make up 23% of the foster care population. Not only are these families broken up, but they also are not receiving the billions of dollars set aside for foster care assistance.
Cancel’s platform seeks to change that through simple, innovative technology by helping governments redesign their foster care systems.
“The tech piece that we have that exists today is a data warehouse where we are taking in tens of thousands of young people’s stories that tell us about their actual needs,” Cancel explained.
Through the power of storytelling and research, Think Of Us uses its technology to know precisely what the needs are and what the children are saying. And this simple shift in the narrative opens access to a wide range of funding.
“But the simplicity of understanding what’s happening means that we get to change the rules, which means that we’re shifting billions of dollars and saying how things should work,” Cancel said. “Because we’re talking about a system that spends over $33 billion a year on less than a million families.”
Think Of Us has gained traction as Cancel’s team is a part of The 2023 Audacious Project Cohort, a collaborative funding initiative housed at TED.
On April 17, it was announced that more than $1 billion has been committed to its latest cohort. Cancel received a reported $47.5 million over five years for Think Of Us.
“I’m completely honored to be the youngest one in The  Audacious Cohort — a leader of color,” he told AfroTech in an exclusive interview. “This is the largest investment in our sector that is given to a Black person who has lived experience in the system running a systems change organization. Shout out to all the other folks who have lived experience and are running direct service and like running other verticals.”
He added: “But for systems change, this is the largest investment, and so we’re completely honored to be there.”
The funding is helping them continue their mission while expanding the work, but more is needed to advance initiatives.
Cancel has a $100 million fundraising goal to support the $97 million plan he has in place for Think of Us. According to his website, the Think of Us app has assisted government agencies in disbursing $400 million to former foster youth as a part of the Federal pandemic relief funds.
Currently, a federal decision is up for approval that would make it easier for kinship care, providing access to about $1.3 billion directly to families.
Access to this funding would change the game for Black families and hopefully provide more safe and stable spaces for foster youth.
Editorial Note: This piece has been edited for clarity since initially published.