streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

I first came across this photograph in May 2015 when I learned the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had passed away. I felt entranced by the photograph’s irony: a child living in Seattle dressed up to look like an adult French prostitute. This costume wasn’t far off from reality.

This photo is part of a larger collection of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark for a 1983 LIFE magazine piece “Streets of the Lost,” that documented the lives of street children in Seattle who made their living as prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Among these children was Erin Blackwell (pictured above), known as Tiny, who spent her time on the streets with her friends as a prostitute and lived with her alcoholic mother who said she thought Blackwell’s prostitution was “just a phase.” A year later, in 1984, Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, released STREETWISE, a documentary film about the same children that was nominated for an Academy Award. While at the time Seattle was credited as “America’s most livable city,” this story painted a stark contrast.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Seattle Public Library to see a collection of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs—“Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey”—that included images from the Life feature, stills from the film STREETWISE, and new photographs that fill in the gaps in Blackwell’s story over the decades.

Thirty-three years later, it’s heartbreaking how Blackwell’s story is still relevant today. Families with children make up a quarter of King County’s (where Seattle is located) homeless population. The number of people without shelter in Seattle increased by 20 percent between this year and last. As the city continues to grow, so has the homeless population, which includes many with mental health issues. Blackwell’s is therefore just one of countless similar stories in Aggregate’s backyard.

I’ve come to learn that one story doesn’t change the world, but many iterations of the same tale told over time does. Hopefully Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell’s retelling of Blackwell’s story will help sway public policy in Seattle and the state of Washington to come up with effective ways to address homelessness, and the trauma, abuse, and addiction with which it is associated.

In fact, I like to think this is why Mark and Bell were relentless in sharing Blackwell’s life with us. The story must continue to be told. We must continue to listen and talk about the issues. We must be empathetic and take action to help those around us.

If you have the chance, go and see “Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey” at the Central Library before it closes on November 3. Mark and her husband were working on a follow-up documentary on Blackwell’s life since STREETWISE. Despite Mark’s passing last year, the film, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” is complete and will be screened at the Central Library on October 14. Martin Bell will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. I hope you can make it. Bring a friend and keep the conversation alive.


Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

the loudest day for american women: international women’s day

Five years ago today, a man in Paris stopped me to give me a flower as I walked down the Boulevard St. Germain.

“For you, on your special day,” he told me. Reading the confusion on my face, he quickly added, “Happy International Women’s Day!”

I smiled and thanked him as I accepted the flower.

Twenty-one years I’d been living on this earth, and March 8, 2011 was the first time I had ever heard of International Women’s Day. Why did I have to move abroad to learn about this important commemoration?

Women’s Day isn’t a foreign concept. Its roots can be traced back to February 28, 1909 in the United States when the Socialist Party of America observed the first National Women’s Day, but progress on national recognition for this occasion stalled with the dissolution of the party and earning the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations began to recognize and celebrate the day. In 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

Perhaps the occasion’s ties to labor ideals associated with Lenin’s socialist party affected its success in the United States. Perhaps male politicians thought it was enough to give women the right to vote in 1920 or allowing women to permanently join the workforce after World War II was significant progress.

Whatever the reasons were that have stopped International Women’s Day from being as widely-celebrated in the United States as holidays like Mother’s Day, they are no longer valid. It’s 2016. We should be celebrating all women at all stages of life, especially the independent, working woman.

According to a study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, women today drive the global economies. We invest more of our income than men in education, health, and nutrition, yet in the global workforce, we make 10 to 30 percent less money than men. If women were paid an equal rate, $28 trillion (26%) could be added to the global annual GDP by 2025. If you really think about it, parity in the workforce would open up opportunities and resources to address some of our biggest social challenges.

Today should be celebrated as loudly as Mother’s Day, if not louder. The conversation today should be about gender parity, but it should also go beyond that. We should be talking about empowering women of all ages by: celebrating female friendships, heroes, and matriarchy; embracing singlehood as an opportunity for independence, strength, and growth; vocalizing our right to choose what we do with our own bodies; and, sharing the gifts of diversity in age, physical appearance, and culture. Most importantly, today’s conversations should include men. We cannot expect them to know or share in our thinking if we exclude them.

March 8, 2011 marked the first time I was acknowledged for being a woman in this world—no strings attached—and I continue to celebrate International Women’s Day with my family and friends each year.

Join me in loudly celebrating double X chromosomes today by sharing your appreciation with your friends and family. You can join the larger conversation on social media by using the hashtag #IWD2016.