Revisiting Nickellennium, The Millennial Time Capsule of a Brighter World That Never Came

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Revisiting Nickellennium, The Millennial Time Capsule of a Brighter World That Never Came

Brendez Wineglass, a 12-year-old Black girl wearing dainty earrings and a broad grin, had a very simple plan for a more just and common-sense future, mirroring that of many children living under the tyranny of sensible bedtimes, mandatory vegetable consumption, and the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Wineglass was matter-of-fact in her conclusion: “We could probably have two different cities. There’d be a kid city and an adult city.”

While Brendez dreamed of a land where kids ruled, Maddy longed for a machine that would make her brother shrink, Nishant dreamed of being a kid forever, Ishma hoped people would be less racist, Alicia fantasized about the end of bland uniformity, and Tiffany just wanted to take care of her mom. Their stories were all part of Nickelodeon’s Nickellennium, a 24-hour, commercial-free documentary that aired on January 1, 2000, featuring over 600 children from around the world speaking candidly about their hopes and fears for the future and the realities of the present.

Participants spoke of war and peace, beauty standards, and the dangers of climate change and deforestation—but also the woes of annoying siblings and dreams of a future where they don’t have to do chores or eat vegetables. Then there were moments like a discussion between two eight-year-old British girls named River and Sheraine about the pluses and minuses of nudity.

“God didn’t create us to be rich and stuff, God created us to be happy, so I think we should all be naked and stuff,” River said; “I don’t like being naked, I think being naked is nasty,” Sheraine countered. “I like clothes. Clothes is fashion.” Ultimately, they came to an agreement that people should do what makes them happy.

Like many others, I tuned in on the first day of a new century, age nine, and watched as my peers discussed the issues of the day and dreamed of the future. While the adults were nervous about the implications of Y2K, for us kids, the hype over a new century—a new millennium—and the hopes that came with it were intoxicating. The internet was more accessible than ever, flooding homes with the most exciting technology in decades. The calendar promised a fresh start, a clean slate, a runway for the sort of flying-car future that we saw on Jetsons reruns, and the metallic latex glory of the Disney Channel’s 1999 original movie Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. The documentary didn’t radically reshape my outlook on the world, but I do remember feeling a sense of camaraderie with these real kids from different countries, with different accents, who spoke different languages, who had hopes and dreams and fears and likes and dislikes just like me.

While the adults were nervous about the implications of Y2K, for us kids, the hype over a new century—a new millennium—and the hopes that came with it were intoxicating.

By the end of the next year, whatever good cheer and optimism there was to be had about a peaceful century shattered. First, the Internet bubble popped, one of many economic upheavals Nickellennium viewers would witness. Then came September 11th and the American response that turned the rest of the world upside down. The events that followed a cheery, hopeful turn-of-the-century included multiple wars, color-coded terrorist threat levels, economic collapse, the rise of right-wing extremism, commonplace mass shootings, increasingly dire climate disasters, continued economic stratification, and, now, a fatal global pandemic that has killed over 1.2 million people worldwide.

It’s been 20 years since Nickellennium aired, but as an artifact of the ’90s-’00s cusp, the documentary has stuck with me as an eerie calling card from the past. Recently, I dug up the five-hour YouTube upload and rewatched all of it, gazing at the faces of these children—my cohorts—who are now adults in their late 20s and 30s, who couldn’t have predicted the calamity that would define their generation, and I wondered how they’d fared in the years since. So I sought out Nickellennium participants to find out what it was like to film the documentary, what they’re doing now, and whether the last two decades have left them thoroughly jaded or still hopeful for a brighter future ahead.

“I am not scared, I am not scared of the future,” said an Indian boy named Siddharth. His face is plump as he smiles in his smart navy blue school uniform. A fast-paced, vaguely hip hop dance beat plays in the background. “I like the future.”

But did he like what the future came to be?

When Linda Schafer directed Nickellennium in the late ’90s, a company like Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, might still throw money at a young filmmaker to travel the world—Mexico, India, Zimbabwe, Ireland—and, as Schafer recalled, “go figure out what kids were thinking.” Schafer pitched the idea to Nickelodeon in 1997, and since the offbeat children’s network prided itself on putting kids’ voices at the forefront, Schafer’s vision resonated. The project took nearly two and a half years to pull together, but with her team and a little insight from famed archivist Rick Prelinger, Schafer was able to capture what she estimates are thousands of hours of footage featuring hundreds of kids, in places ranging from Native American reservations, to the streets of Oaxaca, to cosmopolitan cities in Italy.

“When you listen, you find they have a lot to say, and a lot of profound things to say,” Schafer told the Los Angeles Times in December 1999. “It’s not, ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things.’”

Twenty years later, Schafer told Jezebel she is still struck by the clever and imaginative children she met on her journey, like Nicole McLaren Campbell, a Jamaican girl who also stood out to me as I re-watched the documentary. Confidence radiated through the screen as she delivered a passionate speech about education: “My vision is to see technology centers set up so children have the same learning opportunities or can explore new technology, because there are some children in Jamaica who have never even seen a computer.”

“If everybody’s moving ahead, why is the education system still as it is?” she continued, adding: “We need something new to excite children because… we’re really bored.”

“She’s going to run Jamaica someday,” Schafer told Jezebel, her reverence for the schoolgirl-turned-educator and entrepreneur evident.

But Schafer’s time spent interviewing young Millennials wasn’t always amusing. She wanted to leave every locale feeling optimistic, but she met children whose entire communities were decimated by AIDS. She witnessed abject poverty. She even orchestrated a meetup between an Israeli boy and a Palestinian boy, but neither showed; she suspects their parents got cold feet, and she was left feeling wistful for what could have been. “I was profoundly sad when I left Israel and Zimbabwe,” Schafer told me.

“In hindsight… it was too heavy for a lot of younger kids,” Schafer said, noting that she didn’t yet have children when she filmed Nickellennium. “We tried to balance it with some wackiness, but there were a lot of somber, serious kids, and they were interesting.” And they deserved to have their stories told and to be taken seriously.

The timing of my call with Schafer was serendipitous. She revealed that she has been in talks with Viacom to do a reboot of sorts, potentially seeking out the children from the documentary, now adults, many with children of their own. She, too, was curious how the children she spent time with turned out but found it difficult to track people down; much of her personal footage and old notes were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.

She was right: Tracking down a bunch of kids from a documentary is hard. But I managed to find a few.

Emma Dennis-Edwards didn’t expect to receive my direct message on Twitter. After some sleuthing in the YouTube comments section of the Nickellennium documentary, a colleague helped me track down the 32-year-old, London-based actor and writer, who appeared in the documentary alongside her two friends Myles and Keisha.

“I literally can’t even remember doing this,” she wrote. “What the fuck was I talking about?”

She was talking about the perils of war and the importance of trees with the eloquence that only a preteen could. “If you cut down a tree, you can just take out a seed and then plant it back again,” said a very matter-of-fact Dennis-Edward in a Nickelodeon studio 21 years prior, a budding environmentalist. “It’s just as easy as that. It can be so simple.” But, given concerns about the depleting ozone layer and deforestation that dominated environmental discourse the ‘90s, she didn’t even think we’d even have flowers by now.

“I mean, global warming was a big conversation and we were all really scared,” Dennis-Edwards says now. “Like, I think I really did believe that we were—in 1999 when that was filmed—that we were on the cusp of a global emergency. And it feels like that’s still happening.”

Dennis-Edwards never got to watch her international television debut—her mother didn’t have cable—and her memories of filming are scant. “I will tell you this though, Keisha’s mum did my hair for this interview,” Dennis-Edwards said. “My mum couldn’t braid hair!”

While Dennis-Edwards was in a nice, warm studio in London, Sarah Turner and her twin brother, Clay, were filming outside, in their home state of North Carolina—as it snowed. “We were outside with the sheep,” Sarah recalled over the phone. “And it literally started snowing on us. I only had a t-shirt and a jacket and I was super, super cold. I kept doing these things with my arms to stay warm.”

Clay and Sarah Turner Screenshot:YouTube (Other)

Sarah was 13 or 14 when she and her brother filmed Nickellennium. Of the two, Clay was the chatterbox, rambling about science and presidential aspirations. But Sarah, a quiet homeschooled kid, spent the first year of the new millennium as a teen Ralph Nader supporter, a fact she offered me with a hint of embarrassment in her voice.

Now, at 35, she’s spending her time volunteering for Joe Biden as she watches in horror as covid-19 and police brutality plague headlines, a far cry from the optimism she had as a Green Party teen. “I never would have dreamed in a million years what would be going on right now,” Sarah said. “Especially with a wannabe dictator, racist president. We’re living in scary times, and a pandemic.”

But her twin, Henry Clay Turner, says he long suspected things could get much worse. “I was very pessimistic about how messed up the world was, even then,” Clay told me. “I was acutely aware that things were bad and trending in the wrong direction in terms of justice and human dignity. But I had a child’s hope and understanding for how we could have transformational, important change in the world.”

Hence Clay’s childhood presidential aspirations, which he mentioned during the Nickellennium documentary. He left that dream behind long ago: “I think I realized that’s not how I’m going to do good for the world,” Clay said. “That’s not how important change happens. When you get into any real organizing, and when you start actually start to work with groups of people, and work against bad power structures, you realize what a constricting position being in a place of institutional power really is.”

Clay took his desire to make real change in a different direction: A kid from rural North Carolina who couldn’t read until age 11 due to an eye disorder, he ultimately went to Yale and is currently a civil rights attorney in North Carolina, a token white man at a law firm dominated by Black women, a role he’s perfectly happy to occupy. He has represented survivors in Title IX campus sexual assault cases and has combated police misconduct.

His work with marginalized people has given his life the kind of purpose that he thought as a child electoral politics would provide, but that hasn’t exactly brightened his outlook. He regards his dour predictions of the future in a matter-of-fact way, blunt when he says he doesn’t have much hope for it. But a glimmer of optimism manages to squeeze its way in. I think we’re in a moment that presents a lot of opportunity and openings for some really important, big changes,” Clay admitted. “You can envision things changing for the better relatively quickly.”

But there’s a reluctance to concede to this cheer, and it’s hard to blame him. For his generation—mine, ours—positive change has felt a little like Lucy’s football. How many times will we play the role of Charlie Brown before we get sick of it?

“I think my ideology has changed from wanting to be equal to just wanting those systems to no longer exist,” Dennis-Edwards said. “I think that’s my big hope, that one day the kind of systems that make people with different marginalized identities less-than just don’t exist.”

And Nicole McLaren Campbell, the bright young Jamaican girl who so impressed Schafer, recently rewatched the documentary and marveled at the fact that the covid-19 pandemic has strengthened the same argument she made 20 years prior.

“One of the things I was talking about… was the digital divide, was the fact that we needed to have tech available to everyone and that some students have opportunities others don’t because of the digital divide,” Campbell told Jezebel. Covid-induced remote learning has only made that worse: “One of the most heartbreaking situations in Jamaica and elsewhere is that there are students who don’t have a reliable internet connection.”

It’s not just the digital divide that concerns Campbell. It’s the impact of social media on teenagers, it’s the economic stratification of society, it’s greed, it’s the lack of community and trust. “The village isn’t there,” Campbell said.

In its largely positive review of the documentary, Variety said, “Of course our future will not be so cleverly edited or set to a hip-hop beat, but this mostly feel-good special should at least allay any immediate fears of impending doom at the hands of the next generation.” But as it turns out, it was less a matter of impending doom at the hands of the next generation, than the doom they would soon inherit.

“I think we’re in a moment that presents a lot of opportunity and openings for some really important, big changes.”

It would be inaccurate and deeply cynical to describe the last two decades as never-ending despair: there have been gains worth celebrating. The rights of LGBTQ people worldwide have expanded; abortion was legalized in Ireland; and, regardless of political persuasion or subsequent disillusionment, the United States elected its first Black president—a fantasy that was relegated to action movies in the time of Nickellennium. One of the interviewees, a young Asian-American girl, laments that she would love to be president of the United States, but she’s certain that nobody would want to elect someone who looks like her. Twenty years later, the prospect is far more believable—and the current Democratic Vice Presidential candidate is a Black South Asian woman.

But these wins have come alongside a creeping sense of doom, fostered by suffocating austerity and geopolitical strife while the planet boils. I was especially struck by a Nickellennium segment in which Palestinian children and Israeli children were interviewed about violence in the region—separately, despite the director’s efforts. The Israeli children came across as relatively sheltered, perplexed as to why there is so much animosity, while the Palestinian children spoke in detail about the terrors they experience at the hands of Israeli police, and how they’ve been made to feel othered in the only home they know. But there was collective, mutual angst toward the “grown-ups” they found responsible for the tension that divides them. Twenty years later, children now could be having this same conversation, unchanged.

Inter-generational squabbles have been increasingly petty of late, but it’s safe to say Millennials will be responsible for fixing the destruction that the previous generations have foisted upon us. The economic uncertainty, environmental calamity, and social unease that has defined the young adult years of those featured in the documentary have followed them into adulthood, and solutions to such massive problems feel far off.

The knowledge of hindsight is why rewatching this documentary was, at times, grim. Maybe these children have enjoyed individual successes, but as a generation, they’ve been failed. Not because there aren’t flying cars (or widespread nudity, as River would have intended), but because Millennials earn 20 percent less than Boomers—despite being better-educated—thanks to stagnant wages. Because they’ve been set back from back-to-back global economic crises. Because they’re saddled with debt. Because child care costs make the very prospect of starting a family a pipe dream. Because bringing a child into the world means reckoning with the fact that their kin will suffer in the upcoming climate crisis, which politicians still aren’t treating as an urgent, life-shattering matter.

When asked if society has progressed or regressed since Nickellennium aired, Campbell’s rapid-fire, spirited demeanor dampened. She hesitated, mulling over what she would say next.

“The fact that I have to think about that is really bad,” Campbell said. “You want to answer that with a hands-down ‘yes’ but… I don’t know.”

There’s one thing she was certain about, however: “It doesn’t feel good right now.”

There’s some optimism to be had, in the numbers of young people who support bold climate action, in Millennial support of unions and labor-organizing after decades of falling out of favor. But finding light in the malaise of decades’ worth of chaos, insecurity, and false promises is an ongoing challenge.

But it’s a challenge Schafer is positive Millennials can take on.

“I’ve worked with every generation, and I feel like [millennials] are the most interesting and exciting,” Schafer said. “They’re a lively bunch, and they have a unique blend of skills. Where they go, I guess nobody knows. But if you look at Nickellennium as a barometer…”

She trailed off, but the implication was clear: There’s some hope yet.

This piece has been edited to clarify that Clay Turner’s reading difficulties stemmed from an eye disorder.

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