Back to Community Voice Project Home

Digital Storytelling with the Community

This is but one of the newly minted short autobiographical films called digital stories, made by first-time community filmmakers. Using their own words, their own voice, personal photographs, artwork, video clips, and music of their choosing, they share with us a transformational moment in their lives.

The digital stories collected here– now 44 in number—show what’s possible

Calling himself “an engineer who does art,” Uzikee has been creating public art in Washington for over forty years.

Calling himself “an engineer who does art,” Uzikee has been creating public art in Washington for over forty years. Credit: David Reische.

when students and community members create something together and cross the sometimes-difficult divide between the university and the larger community.

As part of American University’s Community Voice Project, a community storytelling initiative created and led by Filmmaker in Residence Nina Shapiro-Perl, students have assisted residents of Greater Washington think about their lives, focus on a particular transformational event, gaining new insights that they bravely share with families, friends and wider audiences.

Now, the teaching of digital storytelling is moving beyond Professor Shapiro-Perl’s classroom to train an advanced group of students and alumni as facilitators of digital storytelling in the community. This expansion is part of bringing the Community Voice Project into American University’s Center for Media and social Impact (CMSI). With the added reach and resources of 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.

Digital storytelling can take us into the lived experience of community residents not often heard from. In their own words, these stories help break down a sense of “Otherness” from both sides, changing the storyteller and the witness in the process. In its place are people, in all their complexity, with nuanced narratives of segregation, poverty and illness interwoven with beauty, spirituality, connection and hope.

This is the transformative potential of the digital story –both in its capacity to effect personal and social change. It allows us to listen deeply to each other, across the divides of neighborhood, class, race and culture, allowing us to connect as people.

Course Description

Juniors, seniors and graduate students from the disciplines of Communication and Anthropology will learn to produce their own digital stories and then assist community members in the production of their own digital stories. The digital story, a new form of documentary, is a three-to-four minute mini- biography where in place of the professional writer, director, producer and editor, the storyteller becomes the filmmaker and uses personal photographs, family documents, community archives, and his/her own-recorded voice to create a short digital film about one’s life. This course draws on the perspectives and methods from documentary filmmaking and the discipline of anthropology with particular focus on the medium and methodology of digital storytelling.

2016: Stories of Strength

One DC

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.

DC Doors

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.

2014: Stories of Struggle and Overcoming

Six films created by parents of students attending M.O.M.I.E’s TLC to share with their children

Four films created by cancer survivors associated with the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts

2012: Community Artists

In the fall of 2012 students worked with musicians, photographers, and dancers – all who are called to give back to their community.

2011: River Stories

In Fall 2011, a new group of students partnered with the Anacostia Community Museum, which wanted to document the stories of people of southeast Washington who engage with the Anacostia river.

2010: Community Artists

In Fall 2010, film and anthropology students from American University’s School of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences, working with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, assisted community artists in Southeast Washington to create their own original digital stories.