November 2009: Naomi Nelson
One Grrl's Film Is Helping Kids in Foster Care
Naomi Nelson, 18
Lights, camera, action! That's what 18-year-old Naomi Nelson is about—getting things done. For the past three years, Nelson has worked for Reel Grrls, a nonprofit after-school media and technology program that teaches girls to take charge of media. Teen Voices talks with Nelson about her latest documentary, her take on the media, and why she taking a stand to help foster care kids like herself.
Teen Voices (TV): Can you tell us a little about Reel Grrls? How does it work and what is the goal?
Naomi Nelson: Reel Grrls is a non-profit organization for young woman to be introduced into the film making industry. [It teaches] skills for filming, and editing. I currently have a job with them doing documentaries. When I started in 2007, [I was] doing little short films, like PSAs* and stuff like that. They're a cool organization that gets people started in the film industry even if they have no clue whether or not they would be good at it or even like it.
TV: What sorts of topics are covered in the films the group produces?
Naomi: All kinds of topics, mainly activist type stuff. Right now I'm working on a documentary for El Centro de la Raca, which is also a non-profit organization working to better the community while some other people are working on [promoting] an animal shelter.
TV: How did you become involved with the group?
Naomi: I actually heard of it through a different organization I'm involved with, Treehouse. I'm a foster youth at Treehouse, and because they knew I was into arts, they told me they had this nonprofit organization Reel Grrls coming in to do a workshop. Reel Grrls went to Treehouse for a couple days and did a workshop that they call "media boot camp." That happened in 2007 and that was my first Reel Grrls event.
TV: Tell me about your documentary. What is the main message?
Naomi: My main message was just making sure the community knew that most foster kids don't graduate high school and that it is a big issue. It's pretty rare that foster kids graduate and go off to college, especially four year universities. Some kids go to community college and that sort of thing, some go to finish their GED, but it's rare when a kid graduates high school and goes to a four year university, and I'm one of those kids. When I tell people my story, they're like, "Oh my God, that's amazing, congratulations!" and as much as I love the praise, at the same time I wonder why it's such a shock to everybody. When you're a foster kid, people kind of half-expect you not to graduate, so raising the standards for foster kids is a big issue for me, as well as giving foster kids a chance at education in general. My whole documentary is about making sure kids get the education they need, especially foster kids because they're going through enough as it is.
TV: Is this an issue which you have had personal experience with or witnessed?
Naomi: As a foster kid I went from school to school. During elementary school, on average, I went to three different schools a year, so I missed a lot of basics like math and reading. When I went to high school, I tried doing all the higher level papers and math classes and I just couldn't succeed. I asked my principal to help me out with learning those basic skills, and she straight up told me, "we don't teach that here." I think that a lot of that had to do [with other factors] not necessarily me being in foster care, but because I'm a foster kid I needed more than the average kid. On top of all this, a foster kid has to [sometimes] deal with [issues] like drug dependency, house placement stuff, not being with their actual family, and being a kid all at the same time. My personal experience was fighting with the educational system, trying to get what I need and what I legally should be getting as a student, which was being denied to me. Fighting for that was a really big struggle on top of trying to learn it, so I knew for a fact that a lot of other kids were fighting for the same thing.
TV: When did the idea to make this documentary first come to you?
Naomi: Originally it was because of my senior cumulative project. I knew I wanted to do something involving foster care for my project, and I knew I wanted to do something artsy. I wasn't sure how to combine the two and, but then I thought about doing the documentary, which was probably the best choice just because it can be watched over and over again. Now that my senior project is over, I'm making the project a lot bigger. I'm getting it into film festivals, and I'm showing it to different workshops that are held for foster parents and case workers who are being trained to work in that field.
TV: What did you enjoy most about making this film?
Naomi: [I enjoy] just knowing that it's going to possibly make a big impact. That was my whole thing; I want people to remember this film, I want people to know this is a big issue not only for me but for every other foster kid in the system. So having that idea was my motivation to get it done sooner, because the sooner it's done, the sooner it can be out in the public and the sooner it can make a difference.
TV: What did you have the most trouble with?
Naomi: At the time, I didn't have the strongest skills in producing, editing, and directing films. I had mentors and other filmmakers help me out, but I was the central part of the whole thing. I had to decide every branch of it, every detail of every movement and everything had to go through me. Having that much responsibility was different for me. I've directed a stage play before but it's nothing like directing a video. There's a whole lot more technical aspects in it that I hadn't experienced yet, so the most difficult part was the actual logistics of making the film.
TV: Were you nervous about sharing your ideas and personal experiences with others?
Naomi: I actually wasn't. Out of like 44 foster kids there were three who were willing to share their story. I find that a lot of foster kids are afraid to tell their story because they're afraid of being judged, or they're shy, or they don't want to admit that they're in foster care. I think it's important that we [as foster kids] tell our story. A lot of people are telling me, "It's amazing that you're telling your story," and I like talking about myself anyways so telling my story wasn't a big deal, but my main motivation, again, was just knowing that my story was an example for everyone else.
TV: What is your goal for your documentary? What do you hope to achieve through it?
Naomi: Ultimately it's the first stepping stone towards making a difference in teaching future foster kids what there is out there. For me, my whole idea of change in the foster care system doesn't stop here. This is just my way of making sure positive change does happen in the foster care system.
TV: Do you have more plans for future work on this issue?
Naomi: Definitely. I'm still working on the video itself just to make it 100 percent perfect. Once that's finished I'll be distributing it to make sure the community sees it and [to hopefully make a profit off of it]. I want to use a lot of that money to make a group or join a group to see if there are any other youths out there willing to work with me on this. My ultimate goal though is to become the Superintendant of Public Instruction. There I'll be able to make the biggest changes.
TV: Does your work with Reel Grrls encourage you to promote change in your community?
Naomi: Definitely. Before Reel Grrls, I was doing little teen things for myself. Not that that's bad but at the same time, now that I've had this experience with Reel Grrls, I have more resources to affect the community in bigger, more effective ways. Before I was just talking to little groups or to my friends and family, but with this video I can connect with people without even being there.
TV: How has the group prepared you to make change you want to see in your world?
Naomi: Reel Grrls has taught me how to get the resources I need for media, how to work with a client and how to work with an outside group to make a video or any project for that matter, productive. They taught me how to connect with people to make my project work, whether it be connecting with a city council to talk about politics or getting to know a community leader to talk about community issues. They taught me how to find those people and connect with them.
TV: What do you think about film and media as a vehicle for changing our world?
Naomi: I think it's a huge explosion of amazingness! So many people are going on YouTube and watching videos, and so many people have different reactions to videos and media. More young people are watching TV or [browsing] the internet instead of reading a newspaper, or a book, or a magazine article, and you want to get a message across and put it in a form that someone is going to care about, something they'll listen to. I don't read many [print] articles; I mainly go on the internet and watch the news, and my friends read articles online. I think using media and film is more productive.
TV: Are you working on any new films? If so, do you mind telling us a little about them?
Naomi: I'm working on a documentary right now. It's a promotional documentary for El Centro del la Raca, which means 'The Center of the People' in Spanish. It's a nonprofit organization geared toward the Latino community in Seattle, but it offers programs for everyone in the community, not just Latinos. They have programs [that range] from helping pregnant moms to helping prevent home foreclosures and everything in between. They're having a fundraiser in a couple months and my team and I at Reel Grrls are doing a promotional documentary for them. We're actually out on a shoot right now.
* Public Service Announcements (PSA): A commercial, video, or advertisement generally released by a nonprofit that seeks to educate and inform viewers on a particular cause or issue.
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