The only way to understand someone else's life is to live it.
That's the premise behind documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks's World of Jenks, which returns for a second season tonight at 11 p.m. on MTV. Jenks spent one year living with three young people he calls extraordinary and inspiring—one with autism, another who battled cancer, and one who's using dance to combat violence in his community. The result: a raw, intimate look at daily struggles and victories, and what it means to be a young person today.
"When we were traveling around I'd sometimes feel tired or anxious, or get in a bad mood, and then I'd realize that these three were going through really tough circumstances—and you'd hardly ever hear them complain," Jenks says. "It was very humbling."
World of Jenks introduces viewers to D-Real, a 21-year-old born and raised in Oakland, Calif., one of America's most violent cities. Chad, also 21, is autistic and coping with high school graduation, making big life decisions, and his relationship with his first girlfriend. And then there's Kaylin, 24, who's battled an aggressive cancer that threatens to return as she moves across the country and loses her health insurance.
U.S. News talked to Jenks, 26, about what he learned from the young people he followed, and what we can, too.
Your goal is to showcase the lives of inspirational young people. Why?
Part of it is just how I grew up. My dad works for the United Nations and my mom is a nurse practitioner for a healthcare center in the 'hood. During our dinner conversations, my dad would talk about genocide in Africa, and my mom would talk about some poor immigrant who couldn't afford a basic shot that would save her life. And I was sitting there going, 'Oh my God, this is happening?' That played a big role in me being curious about people who have unfortunate struggles.
How is the second season of World of Jenks different from the first?
In season one, I lived in 12 different subcultures—with an animal rescuer, a young woman who was homeless, and a high school football star who was physically abused by his parents when he was younger. It was an amazing experience and I'm proud of it, but at the end of every episode, people wanted to see more—yet we were on to the next subject and world. We realized the format would be much better if we were able to dig deeper and live with three people on and off for an entire year, and really get to understand their lives.
D-Real is using dance to change his community. Tell us about him and why he's inspiring.
We found him on YouTube—he has an amazing video called "Dancing With the Rain," which has 3 or 4 million hits. The backstory is that he was dancing on a street corner that day because, the day before, his brother had been shot and killed. And as an African-American male in that community, oftentimes you're not expected to grieve properly, so it's like you can't cry or confide in anyone. You put the face of whoever died on your shirt with an RIP, and that's it. Now he's doing dance battles around Oakland to promote peace, and he also has a newborn son.
What's Chad like, and what can viewers expect from him this season?
He's just the funniest guy in the world. He has autism, and I followed him during season one, too. I knew he had a big year coming up: He was aging out of his incredible school, which had been his second home for so many years. That was terrifying to him. One challenge for a lot of young people with autism is finding a job that works for them. He's really social and makes people laugh, and one thought was that he should be working on an assembly line. That's a fine job for plenty of people, but it was really sad to think of him doing that. He ended up getting a job at an Italian restaurant, which was perfect because he loves Italian culture.
[See An All-Out Assault on Autism.]