By Andrew Cohen
Lily Dorman Colby ’14 recalls how a routine visit to her pediatrician years ago led to a surprising revelation. “My jaw almost hit the floor when I saw his filing cabinet,” she said. “I thought, ‘Whoa, you can actually find information based on names and dates and pull it up just like that?’ For me—growing up in chaos, switching beds constantly, clothes never folded, nothing kept in place—that level of organization blew my mind.”
Dorman Colby missed 52 days of school in fifth grade. With her parents unable to properly care for their family, she and her three brothers were soon ordered into foster care—and separated. Dorman Colby lived in four homes during middle school, joining a system from which only a small percentage make it to college.
So how did she earn a full ride to Yale and land high-level summer internships on Capitol Hill?
“In sixth grade, a friend’s mom almost died of an overdose right in front of me,” she said. “I realized I could try to be like my teachers, who cared about people and talked about this thing called college, or end up like so many in my neighborhood: pregnant, on drugs, or incarcerated.”
Now a fierce advocate for foster care, education, and juvenile justice reform, Dorman Colby has come a long way since sixth grade. Over the past few months, she has won an Unsung Hero Award from the Youth Law Center and a Woman of Inspiration Award from Ms. JD, a nonprofit that promotes women in law school and the legal profession.
Dorman Colby got her advocacy start as a student at Berkeley High School. There, she trained fellow students in educational inequality and gay rights and raised their awareness of racism and sexism. Elected to the only student position on Berkeley’s Board of Education, she learned about government, politics, and advocacy—and closely monitored issues affecting low-income students.
With a knack for math, Dorman Colby majored in economics at Yale. “Too many people involved in social justice don’t understand numbers, which hurts their cause,” she said. “If you’re arguing for preschool education, you should be able to explain how it pays for itself 10 times over.”
In Joan Hollinger’s Sustaining Children and Families seminar at Berkeley Law, Dorman Colby amassed copious information about the barriers to effective recruitment, preparation, and retention of prospective foster and adoptive parents. “Her final paper included a well-constructed strategy for reducing these barriers,” Hollinger said. “It deserves to become a blueprint for state and federal legislators and child welfare reformers.”
While interning at the American Bar Association, Dorman Colby drafted language that became part of a bill on foster care. She also helped persuade lawmakers to include former foster children on citizen review panels that make recommendations to child welfare agencies.
Less than a year out of the system herself, Dorman Colby became a foster parent for her autistic younger brother, David. “Because he’s a special-needs kid, I was told he’d be entering temporary placement and moving every two to three days until they could find him a permanent home,” she said. “I had to grow up real quick.” David is now a sophomore at UC Berkeley.
Dorman Colby has since fostered two other children with her fiancé and plans to foster more after taking the bar exam next summer.
“I’m grateful that my background helps me navigate very different communities,” Dorman Colby said. “My old neighborhood and the foster care system are light years removed from Yale or legislators’ offices. It’s rewarding to help connect groups that struggle to communicate with each other.”