Aleah, 17, has just discovered that she’s pregnant. But she has no good options: Her abusive boyfriend, who runs with a gang, is also cheating on her. Her mom called her a “hoe” and kicked her out. Before Aleah can figure out where to go from there, she’s caught in a shootout in front of a housing project in East New York, the neighborhood where she lives. She falls to the ground, clutching her bloody belly. Her boyfriend, involved in the crossfire, runs to her side.
Aleah is not a real person, but she could be. “Me personally, I was Aleah. I was the one in a domestic abuse relationship. It’s my mom’s story, but it’s also a lot of my own story,” says Clinton Hill teen Lani Pringle, creator of a film called Aleah.
Pringle, also 17, is one of three teens who debuted short films at the Angelika Film Center in New York on Tuesday. Paired with professional directors, each writer focused on issues like transgender identity, self-harm, homophobia, and domestic violence in the black community. Over the next year, thousands of students will watch the shorts in classrooms — about 2,500 in New York City alone — to foster conversations around race, identity, gender equality, power dynamics and sexuality. The films also air on Showtime.
The movies are the culmination of a two-year contest created by Scenarios USA, a national nonprofit that takes an unconventional and refreshing approach to sexual education. “Scenarios centers the curriculum around students’ lives helping them to make meaning from their realities and in turn influence how they are seen in the world,” said Scenarios USA Co-Founder and Executive Director Maura Minsky. “This is important for all students, but especially for students who are not accurately represented in the media or in their studies, which is typically students of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, those living in poverty, and the incarcerated.”
Scenarios’ curriculum recognizes that sexual health is tied to identity, self-esteem, gender equality, social norms and culture, and attempts to address those root issues in order to raise awareness about safer sexual practices. Take this incident, which happened to a former Scenario contest winner: The teen was pregnant at her film’s premiere; she’d been thrown out of her home and taken in by a boyfriend who refused to use protection. Minsky posed the girl’s story to the Population Council as an example how we too-often simplify issues around teenage pregnancy, saying, “Her becoming pregnant wasn’t a question of not knowing the facts. It didn’t fit the stereotypical notions of why young people get pregnant by accident. It was actually a question of safety and housing.”
From left to right: writers Skyler Egde, Janaya Greene, Lani Pringle with comedian and host Issa Rae
“These films are woven into a new curriculum that goes back into the classroom, and that curriculum will culminate in another ‘What’s the Real Deal’ question at the end of the year, which results in hundreds of youth-written submissions that are read through by a broad and far reaching selection committee,” said Rebecca Carroll, Director of Digital Media & Marketing at Scenarios. “Three more stories are chosen, and in the meantime we find the directors to match them up with the winning stories. Then the films are made and given a gala premiere.” According to Minsky, the curriculum is taught at between 50 to 75 public schools in New York, as well as schools in Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and Texas, typically in Language Arts class.
In the fall of 2013, Pringle, then 16, answered: “What is the REAL DEAL about Place and Power?” Her English teacher asked students to think of a place that “had either given us power, or ended up taking it away from us,” Pringle said. “So what I wrote about was my father and the neighborhood he was from, and how it affected his life.” Her father was shot, like Aleah, in gang violence in front of East New York’s Linden Houses when Pringle was a baby. “Scenarios has got me way more open to talking about it, because it is a story that really needs to be heard,” said Pringle, who was paired up with director Laurie Collyer after being announced as one of the contest’s nation-wide winners. “I have gotten way more in touch with the community there, and had the whole community supporting me when I did this film,” she said.
Scenarios USA board members
Realizing that victims of domestic violence are often in denial and feel alone, Pringle said, “I’ve had so many people who tried to help me, and I just didn’t want the help. I just felt like no one understood me.” The film, she hopes, will help teens realize their right to a healthy relationship. “I have had several people come up to me and tell me that they were an ‘Aleah,’ and they’re doing so much better now, or that they know an ‘Aleah.’”
Interestingly, all three films contained trigger warnings about the violent and graphic content ahead, but it’s hard to wonder who those are for, considering the films also reveal how commonplace these struggles are. In the U.S., about 1.3 million women suffer from domestic and partner violence, and black women — also the least likely to report it — are “three times as likely to experience death as a result” when compared to white women, reports Time. Says Pringle, “I would really hope that it wouldn’t be too much for someone to handle [seeing], because it’s reality. It’s what’s going on, and people don’t even know, sometimes. People do think it’s such an adult subject, but it’s really not. So many teens are in domestic abuse relationships, and no one knows. And it’s overlooked because too many people think, ‘Oh, they’re teenagers. What can they really be going through?’ But teenagers go through a lot on a day-to-day basis.”
“These things are real, and they can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said.