From an early age, as Zimbabwe Davies played with his siblings in front of their house in the Ghost Town neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., he would often look up to see his mother in the doorway with her video camera rolling, jazz drifting from the stereo inside the house.
So when Davies, now 34, decided to make a documentary about his life before, during and after the years he spent in foster care, he already had hours of footage and the beginnings of a soundtrack.
Davies was inspired to make the film while working for the past eight years as a residential counselor to young men ages 18-24 in the housing program of Oakland-based Beyond Emancipation (B:E), a nonprofit serving transition-age foster youth, which recently hosted a screening at the New Parkway Theater.
“I’d seen a lot of foster care stories where youth talk about the challenges but I hadn’t seen a lot of success stories,” Davies said, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “I wanted a movie to give youth hope.”
To get to Davies’ success story, the audience first travels with him back to his early years, the camera following him around his old neighborhood as he narrates memories from his childhood before it was cruelly interrupted by the loss of his mother when he was barely in his teens.
The film cuts between snippets of home movies made by Davies’ mother, Brenda Jean Moss, in the 1980s and interviews shot in 2014 with his family, friends and mentors. In the vintage clips, a young Davies and his siblings learn to rollerblade in front of their house and play games in the living room. The family laughs together around the dinner table, someone asking for more egg nog.
“It was a beautiful time,” Davies said, describing those early years living in Oakland with his mother and stepfather, Joe Russell, and his older brother and younger sisters. “I never looked at where I grew up as poor. Being around family and being around love, it makes you feel like you’re in a million dollar home.”
His stepfather would sometimes bring home pizza on payday. “Pizza on a Friday—that was like Disneyland,” Davies says.
Twenty minutes into the film, Davies’ mother steps out from behind the camera, smiling and dancing to what Davies in a voiceover says was her favorite song, “I Only Meant to Wet My Feet” by the Whispers.
“She came off with a powerful vibe of leadership and greatness,” Davies says, recalling how family members and neighbors often came to her for advice.
When his mother passed away from kidney failure when Davies was 13, he and his older brother were placed into relative foster care with his maternal aunt in Reno, Nev., as his stepfather, who is interviewed in the film and with whom he remains close, was unable to care for four children on the income from his job at a laundromat.
“He told me he loved me, and I knew that he loved me,” Davies says. “It was a heavy load…going from two parents taking care of four kids to one parent taking care of four kids. That’s a strain. I understand that.”
Davies does not flinch from describing the hardships that followed after his mother’s death.
“I didn’t understand why she passed away,” he says in the film, later adding, “Not having my family, and being split up from my sisters, that led to a lot of depression and isolating myself from everybody.”
In Reno, Davies recalls having a sense of stability at first but it didn’t last long. After he got into trouble at school, his aunt had him moved into a group home. She soon relented, and brought him back to her home but before long, his brother was placed in a group home in Las Vegas after getting expelled from school.
About a year after arriving in Reno, Davies found himself living mostly on his own at just 14 as his aunt stayed out for days at a time. She had become addicted to crack cocaine.
“I heard it first in the streets,” he says. “And I didn’t want to believe it.”
Not wanting his aunt to get in trouble, he didn’t tell anyone what was happening. His child welfare worker was not in touch, Davies said, so he did not consider contacting her.
One person, however, caught on.
Over a school break, Davies visited another aunt, Desiree Jeffrey, and his cousin Stanley Cox (now aka Mistah F.A.B.) back in Oakland. One year younger than Davies, Cox picked up on how difficult Davies’ life in Reno was, and asked his mother if he could live with them. She agreed, and took the necessary steps to have Davies placed in relative foster care with her.
Finding stability in this new placement, Davies was able to settle into high school, even playing on the football team.
Both during his time in Reno and back in Oakland, Davies said, he managed to stay positive by holding to the philosophy he shares with the young people he works with today: “Don’t let your circumstances define you. Build healthy relationships with people, stay consistent and be involved in positive things.”
His aunt helped him get into group therapy and enrolled in the Alameda County Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP), a program that provides life skills classes to transition-age foster youth, where he met several people who became his mentors, including three people interviewed in the film.
Pursuing a love of design, Davies attended Brooks College of Fashion Design and Merchandising. After returning to Oakland, he produced two fashion shows to raise money for ILSP and worked with the Alameda County Social Services Agency to provide youth input into child welfare policy discussions.
According to Lori Cox, director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, who is interviewed in the film, Davies was “instrumental in setting the stage” for the inclusion of youth voice in child welfare policy decision-making on a larger scale. Davies’ work “was influential,” Cox says, “in how we do business even today in the child welfare department.”
Holding onto another positive relationship in his life, Davies reconnected in his early twenties with his first love, Denisha. After they met in Reno when she was 13 and he was 14, they were inseparable until she and her family moved away. “I had his heart and he had mine,” Denisha says in the film. “Even though we lost touch for ten years, something told me we’d meet again.” The couple married in 2011.
Kate Durham, executive director of B:E, where Davies counsels young men in the housing program, called the film an example of the way he is “a tremendous role model for other young people– to go through this creative process as a way of reconnecting with his strengths and his capacity, his goodness and his heart.”
Toward the end of the film, his stepfather describes what he sees as the secret to Davies’ success in his work with young people in foster care.
“He knows what love is,” says Russell. “He’s like a healer. He tells the truth.”
His cousin Mistah F.A.B., in a powerful scene, sums up what it means to be a champion: “He had one pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, a couple shirts, not knowing what he was going to do to make it through the night, through the day. That one could make it who didn’t have anything. And to still come out standing tall….That’s a champion.”
While he also intends to make more films, Davies plans to continue working with youth in foster care, which he says is “sometimes like looking in a mirror.” He understands their challenges, he says, and aims to show them how to navigate through them toward the success he knows is possible.
To that end, Davies hopes his movie will “break the ice,” and plans next to film youth telling their own stories.
To learn more about Enter a Challenger, Exit a Champion or to host a screening, find Zimbabwe Davies on Facebook.
This story was updated on 8/30/16 to include the link to the film on Vimeo.