Seeking out and gathering these untold stories of our community is the mission of the Community Voice Project at the Center for Media & Social Impact. Since 2008, the Community Voice Project has produced over 80 films and digital stories. These stories, created in collaboration with over 25 community organizations, have brought voice and visibility of underserved groups to the public while providing students and community members with transformative and practical experiences. Working in partnership with community organizations, the Community Voice Project produces short documentary films and digital stories to capture the voices of community residents too often unseen and unheard.
Trained AU students and fellows of the Center for Media & Social Impact work with community storytellers to help them create short autobiographical films about key moments in their lives called “digital stories.” Here, community storytellers become first-time filmmakers speaking about transformational moments in their lives—in their own words, in their own voice, through their own photographs and images. Drawing on people’s lived experiences of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnic discrimination, sexual assault, drugs and homelessness—all seemingly quite different, the digital stories capture the finest aspects of our humanity even when those aspects are often memories filled with pain and suffering that arises from alienation and aloneness.
Community Voice Fellows Program
Facilitators Training Master Class
The Community Voice Project works with local community partners in a program that trains highly skilled storytellers to become Digital Storytelling Facilitators. During Master Class sessions in Digital Storytelling, facilitated by American University’s Film & Media Arts division within the School of Communication, selected students train to become facilitators in the art and method of digital storytelling in the community. Over the course of 10 months, these students — the Community Voice Project Fellows — work with Washington, D.C. residents who are facing change. By participating in this project, students and community members collaborate and learn from each other.
Community Voice Project Videos
2017 Fellows' Community Stories
2016: Stories of Strength
These films were made in partnership with ONE DC, an organization that aims to exercise political strength to create and preserve racial and economic equity in Shaw and the District. It seeks to create a community in DC that is equitable for all.
These films were made in partnership with DC Doors, a grassroots initiative that provides housing to the homeless immigrant population in the District of Columbia. It seeks to accomplish this goal by providing transitional and permanent housing and comprehensive supportive services in a culturally competent and sensitive manner to families and single females.
2015: Stories of Strength
Twelve Years that Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963-1975
Change was in the air, some of it unsettling and threatening. Against a national background of Lyndon Johnson’s “great society,” anti-war protests, black power, feminism, and emerging gay rights, the Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibition focuses on events, people and challenges that transformed the city between 1963 and 1975. These six films were made in association with the exhibition.
A film made in partnership with Ayuda, a local organization that serves immigrants in the Washington, DC area by providing legal, social, and language access services.
By my senior year at AU, I was already in love with anthropology, but the documentary storytelling class offered a new framework for thinking about the task of anthropologists, who are at their basis collectors of stories. It heightened my awareness of the importance of asking questions about people's lives in any setting, as that is the most intimate way to learn about another human being and also the world. The class also provided me with tools that I use in my work as an international youth educator, in which my goal is to encourage children to ask questions and tell their own stories.
- Kara Newhouse,
The Documentary Storytelling class is the reason I am at American University. After taking the class, I am more convinced than ever that there is a way to use the power of the story as a tool to humanize "the other." This power, I believe, exists not only for the story-listener, but also the story-teller. The class allowed me the space, training, and the opportunity to do just that in my project.
- Charlene Shovic
MA, Public Anthropology
In the past year I have become extremely interested in photography and film as tools for storytelling and social change. I was expecting to contribute to my group's film, as an anthropologist -- using my interviewing and proposal skills, building a storyline, meeting individuals and helping them tell their story. But I was also assisting with setting up the shoot, positioning the camera, scouting locations, creating the storyline, piecing video clips together and helping with transitions. Taking "Documentary Storytelling" has been a wonderful experience!
- Viktoria Ivanova,
Junior, BA in Anthropology
Activists like Paco Fabian (from Good Jobs Nation) and Robin Carnos (from Warriors at Ease) work to reverse the loss of humanity. Although their methods look as externally different as soldiers and fast food workers, they similarly empower the people they work with to reclaim their dignity and sense of personal wholeness.
- Curt Devine,
BA, International Media, AU '14
Dr. Shapiro-Perl has an amazing knack for bringing a student's vision and cause to life on the screen. She has the skills, passion, training and the faith that things will work out even when the chances of that happening seem slim. She tells it like it is, providing helpful feedback, critical direction in the creative process and the calm determination to ensure that students succeed in their projects. She's a gifted teacher, careful listener and skillful facilitator -- without which this course would not be what it is!
- Christina Arnold
MA 2010, Public Administration
The documentary storytelling class was the perfect opportunity to combine my different interests into one project. It allowed me to develop new skills and work with a lot of amazing people, all for a good cause. The film...let me work on something fun and creative while knowing it would have a positive impact on the real world. It is the kind of project that gives you back everything you put into it.
- Casey Nitsch
MA 2011, Philosophy and Social Policy
Since I have been working in anthropology for a few years, I am very aware of the power we hold as researchers studying vulnerable populations. In interviewing the subject of our film, I was aware that (Chris) has the power to tell his story, but not the power to portray his story. The trust he has put in us is amazing to think about.
- Samantha Adamson,
Masters student in Public Anthropology
I feel very lucky to have been born and raised in the United States and am forever grateful to my parents who started a new life in a different country where they didn't understand the language.
I feel it is my responsibility to help those who were not as lucky as I was. It has taken a while to figure out how to do this, but I am beginning to understand that storytelling is a very strong tool which can be used to help others. I studied writing because I wanted to tell my stories and now, as I study video, I want to tell others' stories.
- Jazmin Garcia,
Masters student in Film and Video
Documentary Storytelling combines the efforts of anthropologists, sociologists and filmmakers, providing a unique opportunity to help a section of our community without a voice. Dr. Shapiro-Perl has created a course that encourages dialogue between students from different disciplines, giving me feedback, questions and thoughts that I would never have experienced among film students alone.
- Alex Morrison
MFA 2010, Film & Electronic Media
Nina's class presented a perfect opportunity to follow a meaningful, real life project from start to finish, working with a client throughout. Nina's approach engages the heart in both the interview and in client relations, which expanded my filmmaking toolkit in a meaningful way. Working with cultural anthropology graduate students was stimulating and, again, gave me a new frame of reference for this important work.
- Lois Lipman
MFA, Film & Media Arts
It is strange but I feel like this class has made me into more of a person. I find myself being more real with people. I listen rather than talk. We all struggle. No one is alone in suffering. This class is one of the best at American and it should be a requirement. I am glad I could experience it before I left for the real world.
- Elaina Kimes,
Film and Media Arts 2015
The digital story format seems to be a great tool in dismantling preconceived notions and that is very exciting. ...As Lambert describes it, "the digital story is a visual folk song sung to keep the stories of humans alive and in circulation." Above all, I most enjoyed having a class that was not about the technical producing, but about being alive.
- Teighe Thornson,
graduate student, Film & Media Arts
When we listen to community members' stories of the roots, love, beauty and home that they have, find, and feel in Southeast, it does more than simply contest the dominant images of Southeast as a "dangerous ghetto." It allows for a reimagining of this part of the city - its past and its future.
- Sean Furmage,
PhD candidate Anthropology
FROM THE FOUNDER
“In a world of uncertainty, insecurity, anonymity, and mean-spiritedness, our partner organizations create safe places where healing and connectedness become the norm rather than the exception. My students’ films provide these community organizations with new ways of communicating their work using media they might otherwise not afford, while providing students with documentary filmmaking experience in the real world. It’s a rich partnership in the truest sense of the word.”
– Nina Shapiro-Perl, Creative Director, Community Voice Project
Brigid Maher is a tenured, associate professor of Film and Media Arts. She is the Director of the Community Voice Project and Senior Fellow at the Center for Media and Social Impact and Director of the Film and Media Arts Division at American University.
Her latest documentary, The Mama Sherpas, is currently screening across the country and follows nurse-midwives, the doctors they work with, and their patients, over the course of two years. The documentary provides an intimate glimpse into what midwives can bring to the birthing process in the hospital system. The film is executively produced by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein ( The Business of Being Born ) and distributed by Bond/360.
Maher’s creative work concentrates on national and international women’s issues with a particular focus on the Middle East and more recently women’s health. Maher’s previous award winning documentary, Veiled Voices , followed three Muslim religious leaders in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon and screened on over 150 public televisions stations across the United States with multiple national satellite broadcasts. The film was also featured in numerous international film festivals, including Al Jazeera Documentary Film Festival and the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival and is distributed by Arab Film Distribution.
In 2005, she taught and worked in Lebanon as a Fulbright Senior Scholar where she filmed a festival award winning fiction short, AWOL, shot on location in in the Bekaa Valley and distributed by Third World Newsreel. Before that she wrote, directed and produced the feature film Adrift in the Heartland, shot in the West Bank and Chicago. Her films have screened at international film festivals throughout the United States.
Maher’s scholarly writing focuses on the interplay between traditional film and new media theories. Her additional award-winning film work has shown in festivals in the U.S. and abroad. Her writings have been published by Cilect, the International Digital Media Arts Conference Journal and featured in the D|N|A Anthology.
Maher’s contribution to the academy further includes her previous role as the co-executive editor of the online Journal for Digital Media Arts and Practice, and as current president of the International Digital Media Arts Association and Conference Vice President for the University Film and Video Association.
Brigid can be reached at bmaher [at] american [dot] edu
Voices from our community partners:
While the Anacostia Community Museum worked with one of the artists particularly closely, Charles "Coco" Bayron, visiting him a number of times and conducting an oral history interview, it was not until he had the opportunity to author his own story that he directly connected his art of tattooing to a critical need to the preserving family memory and identity in the face of ongoing loss.
- Sharon Reinckens,
Smithsonian Anacostia Community
Working with Dr. Shapiro-Perl and her students was a remarkable experience, and provided M.O.M.I.E's with a unique, supportive space, to celebrate our families and reinforce the powerful stories they carry. Reinforcing and celebrating identity through the teaching, sharing, and presentation of current and past history is at the heart of M.O.M.I.E's work. This digital storytelling project with parents was tremendous because it connected our children and youth with their family history and allowed them to literally take something concrete away with them that can be passed for generations to come!
- Chitra Subramanian,
The partnership with the Smith Center was a natural fit. The students were professional, respectful, and eager to learn about cancer and work with our cancer patients. Friendships were built, lessons were shared, and the project culminated with four amazing deep and professional digital stories that have had and will have a lasting impression on our community and the individuals involved.
- Kiersten Gallagher,
Cancer Support Program Director,
Smith Center for Healing and the Arts