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Alumna defies all odds

Mills College Weekly

Mills alumna Georgette Todd has been consumed with writing the story of her childhood for the last two years. She's making the finishing touches on her debut novel, .38 Caliber. That's the caliber of bullet that lodged in her mother's head during a botched drug deal and began Todd and her sister's turbulent life with her stepfather, eventually landing the siblings in the California foster care system, a system that Todd says is tremendously flawed and one that she has been working to change.

Originally .38 Caliber was one book, but while at Mills she learned that having "a book length's [worth of writing] doesn't mean you have a book. I learned my voice and studied the craft, learning new ways to write," she said. Now her story has grown into at least two books and a documentary film.

Her life in the system has inspired local filmmaker, Anna Bjeldanes, who picked up Todd's MFA thesis and is planning to start filming the documentary about foster care in January. The tentative title for the documentary is Case No. 510846A, Todd's case number when she was in the foster care system, and the partial title of her thesis and her second book, The World's Tallest Flagpole: Case No. 510846A. She's already looking forward to completing her second book sometime next year. The book combines autobiography with historical documents from her case file using a technique that author, Mills professor and Todd's thesis director Ginu Kamani encouraged her to use. The inspiration for the book came after Todd wrote to a judge to get access to her file and was able to convince him to waive the $300 fee.

"I refused to pay for my own life," she said. It was this file of her "most personal information, written in the driest manner by strangers" that prompted her to write her turbulent and colorful story.

It's a story that chronicles how she and her sister were moved around more times than Todd can remember. They suffered neglect at some of the homes and indifference by their own social worker. Having to be her own advocate, she worked with her court appointed lawyer to do what she could to improve conditions for her and her sister.

Her intimate knowledge of the system was one reason she wrote an essay addressing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's suggestion that California should have a foster care czar in his 2004 California Performance Review Report. She read the essay, "Pick Me," on National Public Radio's "Perspectives."

And until recently, she wrote a column for a California legislator's newsletter titled, "The Emancipation Proclamation." Her column dealt with the issues that arise when foster children are let out of the system at age 18 and don't have anywhere to go or anyone to rely on.

"I am an open book," Georgette Todd said as we walked down the calm streets of suburban Alameda toward her new home. She spoke candidly about taking a break from advocacy and taking a step back so she can refocus on her writing career. She unapologetically told me that she lived in the laundry room, happy that she found a nice space for only a couple hundred dollars – part of her plan to simplify her life. As we walked, the streetlights cast shadows on the neatly mowed lawns, and fall was just beginning to litter the streets. The sound of leaves gently falling in the wind added emphasis to her newfound sense of patience.

"Things just seemed to go into a tail spin when the job offers didn't come after graduation. I took some time off and now I'm ready to take on the world," she said on our way into her shared home.

Her graceful six-foot plus frame ducked through the doorway of her huge room and we were met with the comforting smell of clean laundry. Her steely blue eyes darted around as she pointed out her impressive collection of books. Among the several Frida Kahlo posters adorning the walls hung a picture of her now 24-year-old sister and a picture of her mother with her grandfather.

After graduating last semester from Mills with her MFA she was offered several lucrative positions in San Diego but turned them all down. Returning to San Diego would be like returning to the scene of the crime in a lot of senses. Although she admits that she lives through the past because that's what makes her able to write her story, she doesn't want to live in the past, and the Bay Area means happiness and a stable writing community for her.

Todd's story continues to get national attention. Earlier this month the San Francisco Chronicle did an article titled "Against all odds" on Todd and California's failing foster care system. She's a little disappointed that she hasn't received more response from the article, but realizes that "everything happens when it's supposed to."

She's working hard with her editor Alison Earle, another Mills alumna, to get a book deal. At 26 she has a lot going for her, but the "obsession with my books, my works and my past won't let me be truly happy until I get published," she said.

Considering that less than one percent of foster care children who are released from the system make it as far as she has, she doesn't think that she'll have any trouble attaining all of her goals.