“The Uncomfortable Conversation” — Using “Streetwise” as a Tool for Advocacy

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, first Khadija and now Shan.

By Shan Yonamine, Project Assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness


Poster for our campus screening of “Streetwise,” designed by Amy Phung.


“It didn’t change anything for us then,” said Erin “Tiny” Blackwell’s daughter Keanna Pickett about the impact of the documentary “Streetwise” on her family. “When people watch it, it’s a movie. You’re able to go about your life after you watch it.” In other words, Keanna was able to remove herself emotionally because the film can elicit powerful emotions that may be uncomfortable to deal with.

However, when “Tiny’s” daughter tells you that “Streetwise” should be used as the catalyst for an “uncomfortable conversation” about family and youth homelessness, you listen.

Keanna, Erin’s third child, was our guest at our campus screening of “Streetwise” Friday night, Oct. 7, along with SU Prof. Claire Garoutte, assistant professor and director of photography in the Art and Art History department.

Prof. Claire Garoutte has seen “Streetwise” dozens of times and shows it in her documentary photography class. Photo from SU.

Before the screening, I had shared my thoughts on “Streetwise” on this blog, and mentioned that the film could be used as a “powerful tool for advocacy.” I saw this in action at our campus film screening of “Streetwise,” where I witnessed the audience reacting viscerally to this powerful film and also heard Keanna and Prof. Garoutte urge us to use our emotional response to help create change.

This film screening was part of The Seattle Public Library’s “Streetwise Revisited” project, a public education program focused on “Streetwise,” the 1984 documentary film, and the 30-year collection of photos of Erin by acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark. We are excited to be a community partner, and hosting the screening was just one of the ways that we supported the project.

Before the Screening: Anticipation and Preparation

I was introduced to the “Streetwise” documentary through my work with the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness. Before this screening, I had only seen the film once before. Even so, the film had a profound impact on me and I found myself replaying parts of the film, reading related news articles and reviews, and researching the nine children that were featured.

I quickly found out that getting a copy of “Streetwise” that could be shown to a large audience is a bit of a process; The Seattle Public Library (SPL) had to get a special copy burned on Blu-ray from the producers, and we had to get special permission from the producers to use that same copy. So part of me wondered what our audience would be like. Would most of them have seen the film, or would they be watching it for the first time with us? How did they learn about “Streetwise” in the first place? How would they react to seeing the film at a public screening? How would I react?

My time as we set up for the Oct. 7 screening was filled with anticipation and preparation – placing programs on chairs, testing our projectors, thinking about what I would ask Keanna and so on. And, as I sat at the registration table welcoming our attendees, I felt both excited and nervous – for what, I wasn’t exactly sure. However, my excitement calmed when our 183 attendees filed through the door and took their seats and I pressed “play” to start the film.


The audience watched our informational slideshow about homelessness before the screening.


Audience Reactions – A Visceral Connection

Whatever thoughts were buzzing around in my head had to be put aside when I took my seat among the audience, because “Streetwise” deserved my undivided attention. The thing that I had found when I watched “Streetwise” for the first time is that it’s immersive. It wasn’t a film that I could half pay attention to while doing something else; it was captivating and it sucked me in.

And, as I fought to tear my eyes away from the screen and look around the audience, I could tell that this was true for them as well. I had never been to a screening that was so quiet; everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen as they experienced what it was like to be a teen living on the streets of Seattle in the eighties. I watched them laugh at Rat’s charismatic character, cringe as Tiny and the other girls talks about their “dates” (men who paid them for sex) and tear up at the sight of Dewayne in his casket. I watched many of the audience members develop the same visceral connection to the children that I did.


Catherine, Keanna and Prof. Garoutte engaging in discussion after the “Streetwise” screening.

Decompressing through Discussion

There is no doubt that “Streetwise” is an emotional and impactful film. This is why we gave our audience a few minutes to decompress and gather their thoughts before we entered into our discussion. Once most of the tears were wiped away and people were settled, our project director, Catherine, introduced our speakers, Keanna and Prof. Garoutte.

The first time I watched “Streetwise” I watched it alone, and I had no one to talk to and no way to decompress or reflect on what I had seen. Our post-film discussion allowed the audience to engage in a powerful discussion about the film with someone who was personally connected to Tiny and with an expert on documentary film making; this was the post-viewing experience that I wish I had the first time I watched “Streetwise.”

Keanna Pickett is a gifted portrait photographer. You can view her photography portfolio here.


As I expected, many of the questions were geared towards Keanna and I appreciated how candid she was in her responses and about her reaction to the film.

For instance, Catherine asked her how she was able to overcome her childhood challenges. Keanna’s answer was very provocative.

“My mom was 20 years old when she was pregnant with me; she had already had two kids and, at the time, she just didn’t want to have another, so she tried to kill me off by doing a ton of different drugs and everything you could think of,” she said. “And I just wouldn’t go anywhere, and I fought before I even had a breath.

“So at a young age I was raised seeing ‘Streetwise,’ and … I was aware of where we were; and I was raised in the projects so, I was just always, I guess, happy that I was alive.”

Despite her challenging upbringing, today, Keanna is a gifted photographer and an educator at Washington Middle School, where she serves on the racial equity team and leads the after-school mentoring program for girls. She is married to SU alum D’Vonne Pickett, Jr., who played basketball for SU, and is the mother of two young children.

Keanna’s main message was that “Streetwise” should be used as a tool for advocacy and to create conversation about youth and family homelessness.

“Even though this film is from the ‘80s, it definitely speaks to today in that there’s a lot that we can do,” she said.  “Just to have more compassion and do our part and helping our community, which will eventually help our state, our country and the world; just do your part and be compassionate.”

I was amazed by Keanna’s willingness to speak openly about her mother and the film, and inspired that she wants use her story to empower others to enact change.

“Streetwise” is more than 30 years old and many things have changed since the time it was shot; however, the issue of youth and family homelessness has not. Initially, for me, it was disheartening to learn that we have not solved these issues after all this time but it is important to acknowledge the efforts and progress that are being made.

Keanna said that what SPL and the Gates Foundation are doing with this project  “is helping, it’s creating a conversation.  And it’s like yeah, that’s sad, but now is the time that everyone is trying to figure out a way to make our society better, how do we change it, how do we do our part. Let’s have the conversation that’s uncomfortable and let’s figure this out.”

What You Can Do







4 thoughts on ““The Uncomfortable Conversation” — Using “Streetwise” as a Tool for Advocacy

  1. Pingback: The Fight for Her Life — “Streetwise” and Keanna’s Triumphant Story

  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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