“Streetwise Revisited”: 30 Years of Impactful Storytelling

Erin holding her Horsey, a gift from Mary Ellen Mark, at a theme park in the early 1980s. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.
Erin holding her Horsey, a gift from Mary Ellen Mark, at a theme park in the early 1980s. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.

Written by Peggy Liao, Firesteel Advocacy Volunteer

Streetwise,” a documentary filmed more than 30 years ago, is about a group of young people living on the streets in downtown Seattle. The footage shows them trying to survive any way possible.

Erin was one of the young girls featured in “Streetwise.” Erin’s mom struggled with alcohol addiction, and Erin left home at age 13. Her street name was Tiny. Back then, Tiny was a teenage girl who dreamt about owning a farm and a horse. Her innocent aspirations were a shocking contrast to her reality; she was raped her second week on the street, and described “pulling dates” in which adults paid her $25 for a hand job.

Erin is now in her mid-forties, a mom of 10 kids whose life story was recently made into another documentary, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell.”

I watched “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” with a full house of engaged people and Erin herself. It was screened as part of the Streetwise Revisited photography exhibition and public programs presented by the Seattle Public Library.

When Erin faced the audience during Q & A after the screening, it struck me that she seemed introverted. That made it all the more remarkable that she had been willing to have her life story recorded, to share how she lives and what she has been through. It’s impactful. Her story shows an imperfect world, and has motivated many people to help. This is the power of storytelling.

Homelessness is a state of emergency in Seattle and King County, and now it’s as important as ever to build understanding. The problem is complicated. It is as big as a dysfunctional education system and institutional racism, and as small as how a person achieves his or her dreams. It’s important to look at the bigger picture when addressing a social problem; otherwise, victim blaming can easily happen.

Erin’s story helps us understand the many issues surrounding homelessness, including the reality that it’s hard to navigate life without stable housing, a caring family, or strong social support.

Learn more

  • Join me at the free, interactive workshop “Create Change from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 29 at the Central Library. Firesteel and YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish are co-presenting this event with Seattle Public Library and Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness. You will help address youth and family homelessness through art, music and family-friendly activities. 
  • Hear how homelessness came to be a state of emergency in Seattle at a free community talk, “A Historical Perspective of Homelessness in Seattle,” at the Central Library on Oct. 30.
  • Join a guided tour of the “Streetwise Revisited” photo exhibit, led by Seattle Art Museum, on Tuesday, Nov. 1. The exhibit closes on Nov. 3.
  • Read a review of the “Streetwise Revisited” exhibit from art critic Jen Graves, and reflections on a discussion about “Streetwise” by Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness project assistants Khadija Diallo and Shan Yonamine.

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