~Made possible by the generous support of the Hilaria & Alec Baldwin Foundation~
Lena McKnight was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Harlem, New York. Lena attended the New York City Public School until 10th grade. After Lena decided to leave high school, she struggled with finding a passion to help her continue her education. She attended the Touro College in New York City where she got certified in audio engineering. It wasn’t until Lena got involved with Abyssinian Development Corporation’s YouthBuild, that she found her balance. Lena worked towards gaining her High School Equivalency Diploma and a construction trade.
YouthBuild gave Lena the opportunity to serve her community because one of the main components of the program was community work. Lena was able to plan and implement programs and projects that allowed her to give back to the Harlem community and later on start her own projects.
Lena graduated from ADC’s YouthBuild in 2011 and was chosen to travel to Arica, Chile for six weeks to help rebuild homes in the community. When Lena returned she knew that she wanted to do more and be more involved in people’s lives. Lena enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College and graduated from BMCC in 2015. She then transferred to City College of New York, where she became a Theater Major and Sociology Minor. At City College, Lena became a Member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, Epsilon Tau Chapter and served as chapter president. Lena graduated in 2017 with a Bachelors in Theater and a minor in Sociology.
Lena began working with Youth because she believed they are the ones who will be taking care of us when we get older. She worked with the Harlem Children Zone as a 10th grade Student Advocate. Lena wanted to work with that specific grade because that was the grade she dropped out and she wanted to be able to influence the Youth to do better than she had. Lena enjoys giving back to her community and puts on community projects to help connect people with resources and mental health resources.
After working with the Harlem Children Zone for two years, Lena was given an opportunity to become an Outreach Coordinator for Serviceworks with Abyssinian, where she learned the foundation of putting together community events on a larger scale. Lena has currently done more than 10 projects while working with Serviceworks her focus was feeding those in need, giving out female hygiene products, clothes, games days, spreading mental health awareness and, most importantly, connecting and uniting the Harlem community to come together to stop the violence.
In 2021, Lena decided to relocate to Los Angeles, California. She wanted to focus more on the arts to be able to tell the stories of her community. Lena was able to land a job at Single Room Occupancy Housing where she serves as a case manager for the homeless on Skid Row. Lena enjoys being able to learn the differences between the east coast and the west coast communities. Working with SRO housing has helped Lena learn about the mental health crisis and ways
she would like to give back to the homeless community. While working as a case manager, Lena earned a scholarship from the 10 ARTS Foundation to attend the 15-week online filming program at the New York Film Academy. It wasn’t until she attended the program she knew she made the right choice by moving to the west coast.
Lena believes that faith in God, her self-confidence and the support of family and friends helped her accomplish her goals. Lena has started to build her own non-profit in 2018. Who Am EyE To You which focuses on mental health for women and men and bringing resources to those who may need them. Lena is currently holding her 4th annual Women empowerment Event (Women Can Run the World) on Sunday, March 27, 2022, and is launching her Men event in June 2022. Lena is looking forward to what’s next in her life and feels the sky’s the limit. Lena learned to live by her mantra “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable if you really want to grow”.
Lena spoke with NYFA about her journey to NYFA and her dreams for the future. Check out the conversation below:
New York Film Academy (NYFA): When did you first hear about the New York Film Academy and when did you know you wanted to study here?
Lena McKnight (LM): I heard about NYFA back in 2017 when I was looking up Black Female writers working in television. I looked up different writers and searched what schools they went to. I remember I was watching an episode of Insecure and thinking about who created the show. So I looked up information on Issa Rae and the places she studied at, one of which was NYFA.
NYFA stood out to me. I liked the fact that things were hands-on and you spend more time with equipment then just learning the fundamentals in a classroom. I also liked that it was a community and offered in three states (New York City, Florida, and California). I like that you students are able to have a sense of community and be near real production studios.
I was graduating from The City College of New York in 2017 and learned the master program was only offered in Los Angeles. I felt defeated for a second, but 4 years later, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was able to move to Los Angeles while working remotely.
Moving to Los Angeles has been something I have been planning to do for 4 years. I wanted to separate myself from the community service work I was doing in NYC and do something in a different city. I wanted to focus more on being able to bring the story and experience to film. Upon learning of the demands of the NYFA graduate program, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to enroll. But thanks to my advisor Joey Zangardi-Dixon, who stayed in touch with me via email answering all my questions, I was able to look into the workshop programs NYFA offered. That’s what really made me want to attend any NYFA filmmaking program that was being offered. I liked that Joey was working with me, being patient, and giving me resources to help with my enrollment into a workshop program that fit my needs and interests.
NYFA: How was your experience at NYFA?
LM: My experience at NYFA has helped shape what I want to do within film. I can admit I was a bit nervous about the program being online. I learned I am a hands-on learner and work better when I am in person with an instructor. However, the support of the professors and being able to have one-on-one meetings with them has made my experience totally different. I didn’t think I was going to learn as much as I did. But the support of ensuring I had a computer to be able to complete my work was the highlight of it all. I really respect how helpful everyone was within my cohort. No one made anyone feel as if they didn’t belong in the program. I like how open everyone was with sharing their knowledge within film. It was great to have experienced people and people who were new to filmmaking. We were even able to start a Whatsapp group to help each other out and to stay in contact with everyone. I also enjoyed the examples the professors used to help with understanding our projects. If it wasn’t for the willingness of the professor’s meeting with me inspite of the time difference, I don’t think I would have been able to gain the experience I was hoping for.
NYFA: How has your perspective changed since attending NYFA?
LM: Now that I completed the 15-week online NYFA program, it makes me want to work on my projects that I have been saying I want to do. I was a theater major and I didn’t think I would fall in love with film until I held my first camera. It made me realize my love for directing and screenwriting. I learned the difference of what you can create on film, that live shows can’t show. I also learned to respect the time that’s put in when it comes to production for film. If I didn’t attend this program, I don’t think I would have had the push and courage to create anything. I now feel confident that I am just getting started and will do well.
NYFA: Do you hope to continue in the arts?
LM: Yes, my dream is to become a screenwriter, director and actress. I am looking to further my studies in film and plan to create my bibles for the three projects I am passionate about. I want to be able to open a non-profit for inner city families to express themselves through the arts.
NYFA: What do you hope to do with the knowledge that NYFA provided you?
LM: NYFA has made me realize my passion and helped me figure out what about filming I enjoy. I was able to understand where my enjoyment was (screenwriting, directing and acting). I made connections and got advice from professors and classmates. I am looking for a master program in film that I am hoping to start by Fall 2022.
The 10 ARTS Foundation and NYFA are extremely grateful to the Hilaria & Alec Baldwin Foundation for their generous support in making Lena’s dreams come true!
NYFA congratulates Lena McKnight on all that she has accomplished throughout the years and at NYFA! We are excited to see more of her work!