By Laura Doggett
Etta, pointing at a hole in a tree in the forest: “Look, the owl lives there. It might be a home. It looks like a home. It’s nice and deep and hollow. It’s very brown and earthy. We kind of share the same home because we live together on the same earth… but, that’s his home. You know, I could live right here and be okay.”
“I could live here.” Etta tells me this enthusiastically when we are in the forest, by the ocean, in the sky in a tram car above New York City. I met Etta one day in the art room at the Next Generation Center (NGC), where I have been running photo and art workshops this year as a Lewis Hine Fellow. Etta is one of the young women from the Center I’ve begun working with to make short videos, using the camera and their artistic expression to create portraits of their realities and dreams during these transitional moments in their lives.
The Next Generation Center (NGC) is a community-based center in the Bronx with programs designed to support the needs of youth in foster care and those who have aged out of foster care, as well as those involved in the Juvenile Justice System. NGC is more like a second home to the teens and young adults who frequent the building, filled with the genuine warmth and interest that emanates from the counselors and mentors, and the smell of food wafting out from the catering kitchen into the center room where lively conversations are happening on the sofas and pool balls are flicking across tables. NGC is a mellow hum of bass and beat bursts vibrating from the music studio, a shrinking pile of Homer’s Iliad books used for Rap Odyssey, yoga mats for meditation, a circle of chairs for girls group, and so much more. Afternoons at the center, young people take in the newcomers like familiar brothers and sisters.
The first time I met Etta, she whipped out her art journal, which documented her summer in wild, scrawling black-inked figures, each page and day never quite ending but spilling into the next. It was her summer of 17, a year she says was pretty reckless, trying to stay out of her home and her head as much as possible. These days, newly 18, she’s well into her winter journal, and while familiar summery sketches wind through a page or two, these red-inked pages are filled with lots of writing, and self-reflection.
18. The year of rebirth, Etta says. The year of redefining herself, of living with a new moral compass. It’s also the year of emancipating herself from the foster care system, opening up her first bank account, and figuring out how to live on her own.
“My film is about truly transitioning from the beginning to the middle. Sometimes I like to think that this is the end of the beginning. It’s like a series of books. The beginning was 18 years ago, and I think I’m ready for another one where I’m taking in my transition of this is who I am, this is who I want to be, these are my goals, this is how I’m going to reach them.”
“Every day I wake up, and I always feel different because I’m aware I’m changing. I think about it all the time. I was on the train today and I was like, I wish I wasn’t so aware of all the things I’m aware about, you know? If I can just live my life and be aware but not really know that I’m being aware. Just actually live in the moment. And I’m like how can I enjoy life when I’m constantly thinking of how to make this situation better in the process?”
“I grew up faster than I needed to… Growing up I had a lot of responsibilities, taking care of my sister and stuff. I was the mom, I was the leader of the household the person making all the rules and decisions. I’m used to being the mother around the house. I’m used to if they make a mess, I clean it and make sure things are right. I don’t want to come home and hear mommy’s mouth, you know? It was always best to just get things done.”
“I’ve tried to figure out the root of the problem. I was like I don’t know if it was life itself, or my mother, or my father not being there, or always moving from home to home. I tried to look down and deep to see when did this darkness overshadow me. Like I’m just this big ass ray of sunshine, and then I got this dark ass hurt.”
“I don’t know… This film for me, I want people to watch it and be enlightened. I don’t want them to feel bad for me. I hate pity.”
“So for my film I’m going to direct this scene of my vision for a better humanity. I would use the place (the farm house and land) in the Catskills, and all the actors will go there, and I’ll just record… we need to get some children running up in that place, so we can have scenes where there are mothers taking care of daughters.”
“The only way to live in NY and to survive and have money in your pockets is if you’re roommating with like 5 people. So why not just have a huge household where there’s a whole bunch of adults making children, loving each other, pushing each other to do better, inspiring each other, being there for each other. A nuclear family is not a good family. Because then your children are just getting two people to choose values from. And it’s just like hey, I can take all these learning experiences, and we learn from each other, but we have to learn in different ways. That’s why school just doesn’t work, because that one authority, that one person there, having more power over that child, where that child can learn extremely fast if they can just learn in different ways. You know? And if there are different ways, then the children could actually teach each other…”
“There will be a class where like we’re not divided, we’re together, we’re one, we’re like in unity. There’s no reason to single out anyone. There’d be like a lot more group work, and hands on stuff, and different ways of learning. Because not everybody is the same learner. The majority of the class would graduate to move on to the next grade, but there’s still some left behind. You know, because they have to teach the other kids. So in order for this to continuously work, these kids continuously teach these kids, who teach these kids, who teach these kids. And in order to move on you need to be able to teach this, this and that. We’ll like map out this big schooling system where we basically live and learn, you know?”
“Me, I’m a visual learner. You know? You visualize something and it becomes a reality once you’re able to envision it. So to be able to take my documentary and say here’s my vision, and then watch in 20 years, or 5 years later, or 2 years later, and to be like, here it is happening, like 2 years later, because I envisioned this. You know? So I think to direct this, i need to get like an older me. And I’ll put her around a lot of children and stuff, and she would literally be just… the awesomest Etta ever.”
“I’m excited. I’m excited to become the best entrepreneur movie maker multi-media artist teacher leader… just… a creator. A happy, loving, prismatic, creative, outgoing, free-spirited goddess that taught us how to really live.”
Stay tuned in the months to come to hear more from the filmmakers from NGC.