Sometimes greatness is before our eyes and we don’t see it. We don’t see the caregivers who tend to our sick or disabled or the teachers who inspire children feeling alone or disheartened. We don’t hear the voices of the immigrants who build our roadways and clean our offices and faced great odds to get here. We don’t know the artists and musicians, who struggle to support themselves, yet are compelled to create and give back to the community. Sometimes, we don’t even see the greatness within our own families.
Seeking out and gathering these untold stories of our community is the mission of the Community Voice Project of American University. Since 2008, the Community Voice Project, directed by Filmmaker in Residence Nina Shapiro-Perl, has produced 75 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. The CVP’s latest work can be found here: Digital Storytelling: Fall 2015.
Now, this exciting community storytelling initiative expands its base by becoming part of American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact – a fertile incubator of special programs dedicated to using media to effect positive social change.
With the added reach and resources of the CMSI and a grant from the DC Humanities Council, the Community Voice Project has focused its sights on expanding digital storytelling in the DC community.
Now, trained AU students and fellows of the Center for Media and 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.
The Community Voice Project is a natural addition to the School of Communication’s CMSI, applying the school’s value of human rights to its mission of offering an unsurpassed education to its students.
“Through the Community Voice Project, these dedicated faculty bring together students and community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. Students learn to produce documentary films and digital stories using the latest technologies, and with these new skills they capture and share the voices of people and communities too often left out of the public discourse,” says School of Communication Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck.
The CVP was launched with an initial two-year, $150,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation, and the Project is working to grow its financial support. A digital library of the students’ work can be found below, to serve as a model for other university and non-profit collaborations throughout the country.
These digital stories and films are part of a cross–disciplinary collaboration between American University’s School of Communication and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Anthropology to document the voices and empower the people and communities of Greater Washington. 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.
Stories by Issue
Featured Story: The Art of RE:membering
Melani Douglass revisits a tragic incident in her past, which threatened to seize her ability to feel whole. Through her art, Douglass found the strength to become at peace with her life. by Melani Douglass, in collaboration with Akele Coffey and Olivia Robinson.
Featured Story: A Digital Story By Marialuz Johnson
As her father’s strength and memory wanes in his final years, Marialuz recalls her father’s dream for his daughter and how she weaves his wishes with her own personal and professional calling to become a doula. In collaboration with Kathleen McLaughlin and Evan Mileusnic.
Education & Youth
Featured Story: Doing Big Things with Small Boats
The Alexandria Seaport Foundation offers paid work-based apprentice programs in boatbuilding to help disadvantaged youths develop the discipline, self confidence, workshop and social skills necessary to compete their GED and find a job. Produced by Ryan Baker, Lois Lipman, and Mira-Sophie Potten.
Poverty & Homelessness
Featured Story: Mitchell’s Story
A deaf homeless man in DC tells us how he survives. Produced by Bridget Klein in conjunction with the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place.
Race & Ethnicity
Featured Story: The Only People In Town
“The film validates the significant educational work completed in and out of the classroom by the students and instructor.”
Organization: Anacostia Community Museum. Filmmakers: Dana Fleitman, Keisey Dickey, Tony Gualtieri, Ouida Maedel
Environment & Health
Featured Story: Warriors at Ease
“Every war has its after-war” writes Pulitzer Prize-winner David Finkel in Thank You For Your Service. And so it is with war medic, Chris Giddinge, who movingly tells of his journey to heal himself and other service members through the practice of yoga nidra. Filmmakers: Samantha Adamson, Geet Jeswani, Keenan Holmes.
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 DIRECTOR
“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
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
Community Voice Fellows Program
Facilitators Training Master Class
This year the CVP will continue its work with an existing partner, the Anacostia Community Museum, to engage in a new program to train highly skilled storytellers to become Digital Storytelling Facilitators. During Master Class sessions in Digital Storytelling, conducted by Professor Shapiro-Perl, selected students will train to become facilitators in the art and method of digital storytelling in the community. Over the course of 10 months, selected students will work with members of communities facing change, such as Anacostia and other communities East of the River. In participating in this project, students and community members whose paths might rarely cross, will collaborate and learn from each other. Digital storytelling is the bridge.