Of the more than 400,000 children currently in foster care in the United States, less than 10 percent will graduate from college, according to fostercareforsuccess.com. Alexis and Justin Black are among that small percentage who have graduated from college, and they want to use their success at defying the odds to help others do the same.
So they wrote a book together, Redefining Normal: How Two Foster Kids Beat the Odds and Discovered Healing, Happiness and Love, which has allowed them to share their story with others and opened the doors to much more.
Alexis, 27, and Justin Black, 24, met at Western Michigan University in 2016 when Alexis (then Alexis Lenderman) was a junior and Justin was a freshman and both were a part of the Seita Scholars program, which supports WMU students who have been in foster care. They lived in the same dorm (which happened to be the same dorm where Alexis’s adoptive parents met in their first year at WMU) and bonded over their upbringings and experiences in the foster-care system. They married in August 2020.
Alexis and Justin were both placed in foster care at a young age. Justin, who grew up in Detroit, entered the system at 9 and lived in several different homes with, and apart from, his family at different times. Alexis, who was raised in Flint, suffered from years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her biological family. She was placed into foster care with a couple who later adopted her.
“Foster care saved us,” Alexis says. “It got us out of that environment and exposed us to a healthy living situation, stability more than anything, and consistency. We both knew we wanted better, we wanted more, but we had no idea what it looked like. So, when we were taken out of our homes and put into foster families, we were given the opportunity to see that. I think most people need to see by example.”
What the couple say they learned through their experiences is that it is important for people who grow up in such emotionally toxic environments to understand that what they are experiencing is not normal and to reject the abusive patterns they’ve experienced and break the cycle of generational violence and unhealthy behaviors.
“We want them to stop the generational patterns and to be aware of those because so many things can be normalized,” explains Justin. “If someone were to point one of those patterns out to you, you wouldn’t even exactly know or be aware of them. It’s like, ‘That’s what I do. That’s what my family does.’”
“Most people go down a certain pathway in their life, the one that’s set before them by their parents, family, society, whatever it is,” Alexis says. “And you have to decide for yourself: Do you want to continue in that? Or do you want to diverge from that?”
How the couple managed to diverge from their pasts is the focus of Redefining Normal, which they self-published. In the book, the couple share their stories and discuss how they worked to transcend their backgrounds, learned to redefine what love and healthy relationships look like, and overcame the toxic and abusive norms in their lives.
The book, which was released in November 2020, quickly resonated with others. Alexis and Justin found themselves being asked to speak to audiences across the country, and they looked for other ways to share their message.
They created a podcast and a blog that discusses in more depth how to live out their message of living lives that are emotionally healthy, self-aware and intentional. They recently released a youth edition of Redefining Normal as well as a Christian edition that looks at their process from a faith perspective, and they are planning to release a version of the book for advocates of people who have experienced trauma.
Their hope is that Redefining Normal will inspire people to break toxic cycles in their lives and become healthier people. For Justin, that change also involves breaking free of masculine stereotypes.
“I try to be as vulnerable as possible,” Justin says. “There are so many false narratives around masculinity and manhood that I want to talk about, about how those roles have played in my life and how I had to debunk those ideas and things.
“Men have reached out to me and talked to me about how that has helped them, my stories overall. I’ve had a few people who told me, ‘It sounds like you’re reading my story and what I’ve been through.’ I’ve been able to speak to those people and help them in any way possible. And it’s just been an incredible opportunity.”
The couple has also developed two other related initiatives operated under the umbrella of their Redefining Normal brand: ROSE (Rising Over Societal Expectations) Empowerment Group, which is focused on closing the information gap for Black and Brown young adults and other marginalized groups and is based on Justin’s experiences as a Black child in the foster-care system, and The Scholarship Expert, a workbook and planner that provides students with information on finding funding to graduate from college debt-free.
Alexis, who graduated in 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in entrepreneurship and global and international studies, manages the company full time, while Justin, who graduated in 2020 with a degree in public relations and African studies, works with Alexis part time and as a communications assistant for the National Association of Counsel for Children, a Denver-based organization that provides legal representation to children impacted by the child-welfare system.
The Blacks say they have heard countless testimonies of how their stories and work are impacting others, including encouraging people to serve as foster parents for youth or go on healing journeys of their own.
“The most impactful testimony for me was a mother that I know who has a couple younger kids,” Alexis says. “She told me that reading our story has given her the courage to go through her own healing journey and to have conversations with her husband about things she had never spoken to him about.”
Where Redefining Normal will take the couple in the future remains to be seen, but both say they are committed to continuing to help people create change from within, especially those in the foster-care system.
“Ideally you don’t want a foster-care system,” Justin says. “You don’t want a system that leads to people not having their biological parents, not having families, and being neglected. So, ideally we want to help foster youth reinvent the wheel to stop the cycle of abuse.
“We want to be able to influence their lives and have families, communities and institutions be as self-reflective as possible. It’s so easy to do what your family did or what was done for generations, but being uncomfortable and challenging myself is taking a harder way.“