Jewel Interview: Striving to Remove Stereotypes and Humanize the Problem of Youth Homelessness
Image attributed to Brendan Walter
Jewel Kilcher is a singer-songwriter, actress, producer, author, philanthropist, mother and advocate. She has received four Grammy Award nominations, and, as of 2015, has sold over 30 million albums worldwide. Shortly after Jewel's birth in Payson, Utah, her family relocated to Alaska. The Kilcher family is featured on the Discovery Channel show Alaska: The Last Frontier, which chronicles their day-to-day struggles living in the Alaskan wilderness.
This year, Jewel joined Deepak Chopra to executive produce a documentary called The Mindfulness Movement, which examines the growing number of people throughout society who believe mindfulness – a peaceful quality of attention anyone can develop by simply focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental way – is the key to creating a healthier, happier world. The film will be released in select US theaters starting on March 26, 2020.
"A lot of these kids were kicked out of their houses for being gay. I think the thing that almost everybody has in common is they all felt it was safer on the street than in their home life."
Jewel has also executive produced, along with Rosario Dawson and others, Lost in America, a documentary that takes a national look at the issue of youth homelessness in America, highlighting the main issues that surround it: sex trafficking, the failure of the foster care system and the rampant rejection of LGBTQ youth. The film follows director Rotimi Rainwater, a former homeless youth, on his six-year journey to shine a light on the issue of youth homelessness and features interviews with more than 30 youth in 15 cities as well as politicians and public figures including Tiffany Haddish, Halle Berry, Jon Bon Jovi, Miley Cyrus, Sanaa Lathan and Rebecca Gayheart. Lost in America is released in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on February 28, 2020, then expands to 10 cities on March 13 and expands to Canada and the US on March 27.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Jewel, as an executive producer, what is the main message that you wish to convey in Lost in America?
Jewel: I think to humanize the problem of youth homelessness. There’s a lot of stereotypes like anybody who’s homeless is lazy and why don’t they just get jobs. Those are just some ways of dehumanizing people so we don’t really have to talk about it, share their stories and get to know how this happens to people, who they are and what we can do to help.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What did you learn in talking to these kids featured in the film?
Jewel: Nobody starts off thinking, “I think I’m going to be homeless. That sounds like a great idea.” It’s usually a series of circumstances that you don’t often have control over one hundred percent. For me, I was living paycheck to paycheck, and a boss propositioned me, and when I wouldn’t have sex with him, he wouldn’t give me my paycheck. So I couldn’t pay my rent that month. I was late often enough on my rent that my landlord kicked me out.
So I started living in my car thinking I would get another job, and I’d get back on my feet. But my car got stolen, and then it was just a series of things that were beyond my control. I would try and get a job at a 7-Eleven, which barely paid, but I wouldn’t get the job because I looked different. Once you’re on the street for a while, it’s hard to really look like everyone else. I didn’t have a physical mailing address which makes it almost impossible to get a job, and that’s me coming from my background.
A lot of these kids were kicked out of their houses for being gay. I think the thing that almost everybody has in common is they all felt it was safer on the street than in their home life. And that’s a big statement, you know. If you feel it’s safer on the streets than at home, then whatever home you have is a real problem.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Does discrimination and/or religious-based bigotry play a part in youth remaining on the streets?
Jewel: It does. We take people who love us and give us a safe place to live for granted. It’s hard for us to imagine that not everybody experiences that, and that level of abuse and rejection is so debilitating and psychologically difficult to recover from. When you start adding that into just trying to survive on a day to day basis, the amount of trauma and fear and anxiety is nearly insurmountable. But not insurmountable. We’ve worked with kids, but you really have to help them fundamentally rewire their brains, rewire how they look at things, retrain themselves to be able to trust and to accept help from an adult. It’s a complex problem, but it really does just take caring and people willing to invest their time.
I remember when I was homeless. Just people smiling at me meant to much. It sounds so simple and cliché, but people treat you like you’re not human, like you’re subhuman, like you’re an animal or worse than an animal. People would see me walking down the street coming toward them, and they would cross the street. I knew why they were crossing the street! They didn’t want to look me in the eye. It’s uncomfortable for them. And it’s so demoralizing and so hard to keep faith in yourself. But just caring, looking somebody in the eye and saying, “Hey, how are you doing today?” is just incredible because many times in those circumstances, they are just living moment-to-moment.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s really heartbreaking to imagine that 13 youth die every day on the streets.
Jewel: Yeah. It’s awful. And we’re such a philanthropic country, you know, and we really do such a beautiful job of raising money for a lot of causes. I don’t think we always realize the problems we face here, how people here could really use their help. We have a lot of judgments and fears about it like saying, “These people are just lazy.”
We don’t comprehend there are many families living with food scarcity, barely making the rent but having no food, just a paycheck away from homelessness as an entire family. That could be a two-income family on minimum wage that are just one accident or one unexpected car crash away from homelessness.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Lost in America indicates that homelessness really started during the Reagan administration in the 1980s and that he basically passed the responsibility for dealing with the homeless to the churches. What should the current president and Congress do to reduce homelessness?
Jewel: You know, that really isn’t my area of expertise. When I was homeless, I had really bad kidneys and had difficulty holding jobs down because of it. To get on Medicaid and Medicare, I took multiple bus rides out into sort of the middle of the desert where the city office was for this program. It was so demeaning, and they were so suspicious of me that I don’t know how anybody does it. I couldn’t even get on the program because I couldn’t go out and meet those appointments.
I think anybody should do whatever they can. I do think humans owe it to humans to help in whatever capacity they find themselves in and are in a position to help. Whether you’re a writer or a journalist or a politician or a housewife, we owe it to help one another. I’m not a political analyst. I don’t understand how bureaucracy works. I know it’s incredibly inefficient (laughs). I know there’s more we can always do. But we need to talk about how we go about it. We have to really calm down the rhetoric and the vitriol that our country is experiencing on both sides to try and remember that we have to find a way to connect to one another because it’ll ether pull us apart or bring us together, and that’s a daily choice that we make.
I hope everybody in whatever position find or are finding a way to help. I always hope the government helps more, but I also really believe we are capable of turning our lives around. Nobody should be able to hold us back. Some of us have had extraordinary things to overcome, but I really believe if you stay focused, and as long as you don’t lose that belief and work toward it every day, you can find your way out. But it can’t be without help.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you write “No More Tears” while working on the documentary?
Jewel: I did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Such a beautiful song. Will it be on the new album coming out this year?
Jewel: It will be, yeah.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What can you say about the new music?
Jewel: The record coming out will have sort of a soul feel. It’s my first record since 2015, I guess. I’m really excited about it. I’m writing for my voice more on this one and exploring my songwriting, and it’s a different style for me. That has been fun.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I like the new song “Change.” What was the inspiration?
Jewel: I’ve been writing a book about change, what it takes to change, what is the metrics of change. A lot of us grow, we develop, and we become different but actual foundational, fundamental change is a whole other animal. As I look at my life, I’ve had a lot of what I would call change. I went from a homestead with no running water to a cover of a magazine to single to married to divorced, lots of drastically different circumstances.
But I was having the same experience over and over. There was betrayal, a lot of drama, a lot of anxiety. So it was sort of like being on a road and getting the scenery to change. But I was on the same road, and I wanted to try and figure out how to get on an entirely new road to have a real change. So I started investigating just different ancient wisdoms and writings and wrote a book about change basically. It’s about how we form our reality and how our thoughts and beliefs can form our actions, how to look at the invisible architecture of that and fundamentally change some things and to be able to create different actions. I wrote the song “Change” during the research for the book.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have another film called The Mindfulness Movement. Tell me about that.
Jewel: I started meditating when I was about 14, and when I was homeless, I was having really bad panic attacks. I was agoraphobic and was suffering intensely. I was shoplifting to get by and was really debilitated by agoraphobia, which is a fear of leaving a house, which is hard to do if you don’t have a home (laughs). In my case, it was a little corner where I parked my car. I just realized if I didn’t change my life, I would probably die or end up in jail.
I remembered a quote that said, “Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It just depends on what you think.” So I decided to see if I could turn my life around one thought at a time. In that time of my life, I rephrased, “I think therefore I am,” to say, “I perceive what I think. Therefore, I am.” I realized if I could observe a thought, create a gap before acting on that thought, then that gap was where I could insert new behavior.
A lot of that I’m sharing in this new book. But it’s taking mindfulness and using it to rewire our brains. There’s a website called "Jewel Never Broken" for everyone, and it shares a lot of these exercises that I developed. Neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer shows how they work and how to rewire your brain, which is pretty cool.
Suicide is up 60 or 70% since 2006, and that’s a very unacceptable statistic. Everybody’s affected by it. We all know people that have taken their lives in every age demographic and economic background. It is an epidemic. People are in tremendous pain, so I always have my music about that. But I’m also dedicating other efforts not only from the book but from things like the website, charities, and I developed a language arts program for public schools.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very cool. You have quite the ancestry in Alaska, and your family’s featured on the Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier. How does that feel?
Jewel: It’s neat. When they first told me they were looking at a television contract, I thought they meant an electronics store. They were talking about a reality television show (laughs). They don’t have a TV, so it’s pretty funny. But it’s great. I’m very proud of how I was raised.
I had a very hard time in the press when I explained what my childhood was like. It was just so foreign to people. They were like, “Do you live in a commune?” They couldn’t understand what a homestead was. So being able to see it on television, it’s such a beautiful lifestyle. I think there’s a real hunger in society right now for being self-sustaining and knowing you could survive if things go wrong, just feeling a little more independent over your life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you always known what you wanted to do with your life?
Jewel: I didn’t think it would take me to a world stage. I loved practicing. I’ve no idea why, but I really loved it. I was shy. I was very shy on stage. I wasn’t a ham or like a little pageant girl at all. But I think I probably always had a writer’s heart. My heart moved when I sang. It moved my heart, and I liked touching people. I saw that at a young age that you could touch people’s hearts, and that was a beautiful thing. So that really kept me going through the really embarrassing and awkward part of being on stage, the applause and all that, but it’s still not my favorite part.
When I was homeless, I think the biggest misconception is that I did that for my career, that I was trying to make it, and that wasn’t the case at all. I just happened to start singing in a coffee shop because I wasn’t getting any other jobs. So getting discovered was shocking. But I had worked also at the very same time at my storytelling and my emotionality, not because I thought it would make me famous but just because it’s what I love to do.
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