How did you find the foster youth for AMU?


the director as a kid

shani around age 7

“How did you find the foster youth to make the movie, how did you connect?”

This is a common question that comes up often for audiences after viewing AMERICA’S MOST UNWANTED.

As a film director, I like to imagine that I have a natural ability to create great first impressions and connect with a wide variety of people. But I’m being facetious; for this ability, I blame my foster care experience.

Before my mother died of ailments from dialysis in the public health system (another movie in and of itself), I had the opportunity to live with 5 different families. As she lay bedridden for her final 3 years in a hospital, my brother and I moved, from home to home.

Each time we moved we had to follow new rules, eat new food, meet and make new friends at a new school, and more generally, just figure out how to fit in. Eventually, my mother died and I was placed in a professional foster home in another state, separated from my brother.

From those experiences I became very skilled at figuring out people quickly and trying to make connections. This skill has benefited my documentary work including my first video project, WRONG BATHROOM (2005); afterall, restroom safety is not an easy topic to discuss either.

Also helping me was the fact that foster youth have an instant connection with each other just by way of our shared experience. It’s like any subculture in society: a shared experience allows for a basic, and immediate repoire.

What’s unique for AMERICA’S MOST UNWANTED was the intensity of the connection and the kinship we were able to create from this experience. Most important to our ability to connect for this film was the fact that our stories are not shocking to each other.

Nor was I, as the film director, ever really interested in the “how I became a foster kid story.” Sure, this story is important, but for me, such stories fall into the dramatic, the passive, the victim state, and I was more interested in the here and now,  the survivor, and the process of foster care on the present state of the youth’s experience.

My first interview for AMERICA’S MOST UNWANTED was with Senator Mark Leno, before he became elected Senator in 2007. I secured the interview by reaching out to his Deputy Director, Susan Sun, via an email.

My next interview was secured by my friend Eugenie Belle, who connected me to Valerie Mason-John, aka ‘Queenie’, this amazing performance artist, author, and meditation teacher, who was once also a foster youth. She had a natural ability on camera having once worked as an international journalist.

Melissa Lee, a former foster youth who works for ILP and CYC in San Francisco, introduced me to Teruko Dobashi around the same time in 2007. We spoke on the phone and a week later I was filming her graduation from high school at Jefferson High in Daly City.

I met Connor Baba through Matilda Stubbs, both of whom were involved with the Smith Society which assists foster youth in attending the University of California, Santa Cruz. Matilda was a graduate of the program and school (I’m also a UCSC alumni but the Smith Society was not around yet). Connor was considering entering UCSC or any one of his many other options at the time: University of Chicago, UC-Davis, and Reed College. With all these colleges wanting him as a freshman, I had to have such a successful foster youth in my film!

Connor introduced me to Savi Roderick-Deffee. Savi and I connected instantly and the rest was cinematic history.

More than ten other foster youth, five foster parents, and foster youth supporters were also interviewed to make this film. The resulting 21 minutes represents 4 years of editing from 40 hours of interviews.

2 thoughts on “How did you find the foster youth for AMU?

  1. I wanted to point out two other fantastic resources for youth in the foster care system. The first is an organization I used to work for where I was a youth advocate. First Place For Youth provides wrap around services (including housing, employment support and education services) for emancipated foster youth aged 18-24 throughout the Bay Area.

    The second is Bay Area Youth Center’s (BAYC) Our Space. Our Space is a drop in service for queer id’d foster youth aged 14-21 located in Hayward (though the youth can be from any area). They have a number of fun activities like spoken words, movie watching and access to mental health services.

    • thank you courtney! we’re aware that there are many, organizations we’ve not been able to include so appreciate your reachout. we will be screening at BAYC in hayward in April–how can we screen at First Place for youth?
      we’ll be adding your sites as soon as we can, hopefully we can figure out a way so folks can add themselves soon!! we’re a staff of 1 FT… so appreciate your support and patience!

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