The Fight for Her Life — “Streetwise” and Keanna’s Triumphant Story

Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing “Streetwise Revisited” work, our student project assistants are blogging about key events. Both Khadija and Shan wrote about the “Streetwise” screening; here’s how Khadija saw it.

By Khadija Diallo, project assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness 

 

keanna-pickett-1
Keanna Pickett, educator, photographer, social justice activist and daughter of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell.

Keanna Pickett said that she “had to fight for her life from her first breath.”

When Keanna said that at our campus screening of the film “Streetwise” Oct. 7, it  stuck with me, because most of us fight to succeed and make something of our lives. But for Keanna, that quote had more meaning — because she said her mother, Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, while pregnant with her, did “every possible drug” to try to kill her in the womb.

That sort of revelation from her mother could have possibly caused a permanent rift in their relationship. Apparently it didn’t, because Keanna seemed  perfectly comfortable talking about her difficult upbringing.

streetwise-su-screening-discussion-by-kd
In our post-“Streetwise” discussion, Keanna Pickett (middle) with moderator Catherine Hinrichsen (L) and fellow speaker Prof. Claire Garoutte (R).

 

We had invited Keanna as our guest speaker for a post-film discussion, along with Prof. Claire Garoutte, Seattle University’s documentary photography professor and longtime documentarian. Keanna is the third child of Erin Blackwell. We hosted this screening at Seattle University’s Campion Ballroom as part of the “Streetwise Revisited” series presented by The Seattle Public Library, which we are supporting. About 180 SU students, staff, faculty and alumni and community members attended, and participated in the discussion, moderated by our project director, Catherine Hinrichsen.

Living in Two Worlds

I was fascinated with Keanna. I gathered that she is living in two worlds. She is taken back to Tiny’s reality as she stays in contact with her mom and grandmother, bringing back memories of her unconventional childhood; but she is also in a different world as an activist, educator, photographer and mother of two making a name for herself in Seattle.

Keanna is an educator at Washington Middle School in Seattle (my alma mater, by the way). She is also a gifted digital photographer, and an activist. She is connected to Seattle University because her husband, D’Vonne Pickett, Jr., is an alumnus who played for our university’s basketball team.

As an educator at WMS, she’s also part of the SU Youth Initiative, an award-winning campus-community engagement program that also encourages Seattle University students to volunteer at the elementary, middle and high school in our neighborhood (Bailey-Gatzert, WMS and Garfield). She also runs a mentoring program at WMS and serves on the race and equity team.

claire-garoutte
Prof. Claire Garoutte, SU documentary photography professor and documentarian. Photo by Seattle University.

Prof. Garoutte was a fantastic addition to the panel; she says she’s seen the documentary dozens of times since its premiere in 1984 because she shows it to her SU Documentary Photography class every year. She pointed out how intimate, yet balanced the movie is, because while the subjects in the film never spoke to the audience,  the audience is still pulled into their world.

To learn more about the film, you can read this review of it by my colleague on this project, Shan Yonamine.

Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983
Erin (who goes by her street name “Tiny”) on Pike Street, Seattle, 1983. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

 

Growing Up Too Fast

To think that all of the kids featured in “Streetwise” were around 13 to 15 years old reminds me of how different my life was when I was their age. When I was 13 at Washington Middle School, all I thought about was finally getting “promoted” to high school (as they called it). My biggest worry was being separated from my best friend because we would be going to different high schools.

The kids in “Streetwise” experienced at least a decade more of “life” than I had at that age. Then, I was resentful toward my parents because I felt they sheltered me too much, but now I realize that they just wanted me to not have to go through a “phase” (as Tiny’s mom called it in “Streetwise”) and have the urge of running away from home and facing a harsh reality at such a fragile age, like the “Streetwise” kids did – poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, doing things children should not have to, just to survive.

Thoughts Running Through My Mind

The entire week leading up to the “Streetwise” screening, I was a nervous wreck — very nervous  about meeting Keanna because I had so many questions for her. As we watched “Streetwise” together at the screening, I wondered if anyone else felt anger, confusion, and sympathy for Keanna and her siblings, knowing that they have to share such an intimate part of their mother’s story with thousands of people.

What kind of an effect does watching your mother as a teen “pulling dates” (doing sex work) have on your perception of her? Do Keanna and her siblings resent their mother, or do they just respect her for always doing her best to provide for them? After hearing Keanna talk, I’m still confused as to the current state of her relationship with Erin.

streetwise-su-screening-tiny-with-baby-keanna
Erin and baby Keanna. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark; this is a photo I took at the “Streetwise Revisited” display.

 

I also wondered how watching “Streetwise” affects Erin today. Currently in her forties, does she remember some of the scenarios that were featured in the film? Are there any parts of her childhood that she regrets? (I would have the opportunity to find out soon, because I would be seeing Erin at the screening of the update film about her, “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell” at The Seattle Public Library Oct. 14. More about that in a later post.)

 

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“Streetwise Revisited” poster at The Seattle Public Library, Central Branch. The exhibit runs until Nov. 3. Photo by Catherine Hinrichsen

 

During our screening, I noticed that the room was almost silent the whole time that the documentary ran. To me, that meant that the audience was focused throughout and truly mesmerized.

From seeing this film in that setting, compared to the bootleg YouTube version, I realized that “Streetwise” has had a huge impact in the Seattle community, because it documents the city’s history in the early 1980s. This movie is special for Seattle because we’re able to feel comfort in seeing landmarks like Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, but we also learn a history lesson and catch a grim depiction of our beloved city from 30 years ago.

I learned the benefit of a post-screening discussion: it helps raise awareness for an important issue through art (film as an art form) and a deeper understanding. It also enables the audience to process what they’re feeling. This event brought together students, fans and collaborators and it widened the audience for a documentary that was shot long ago. At best, it also tells us what we can do to help.

As Prof. Garoutte said during the discussion, “This movie is as, if not more, relevant today than it was 30 years ago.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few action items that we shared at the screening:

  1. Get active in the community. Learn about the causes of homelessness; use social media as a tool to educate and empower others. More here.
  2. Attend The Seattle Public Library’s “Create Change” community workshop on Saturday, Oct. 29 to learn how you can use your creativity to address homelessness.
  3. Attend one of the community-curated tours of the “Streetwise Revisited” Exhibit at SPL happening now until Nov. 1 at the Downtown Central Library. The exhibit ends Nov. 3.
  4. Visit Seattle University Youth Initiative’s website to learn more about work with Washington Middle School and other schools in the SU community.
  5. Get an update on “Tiny” from this column by Nicole Brodeur of the Seattle Times, who caught up with Erin Blackwell last May before the screening of the new “Tiny” film at SIFF.
  6. Follow us on Facebook  and other pages like “Facing Homelessness” to see how you can directly make an impact on a homeless person’s life.
  7. Watch “Streetwise”  on YouTube and read Shan’s reflection on how it relates to our work today.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Fight for Her Life — “Streetwise” and Keanna’s Triumphant Story

  1. Pingback: “The Uncomfortable Conversation” — Using “Streetwise” as a Tool for Advocacy

  2. Pingback: There Is No Perfect Answer — What I Learned from “Tiny – The Life of Erin Blackwell”

  3. Pingback: “Seeing Is Active” — A Collection of Memorable Quotes from “Streetwise Revisited”

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