Last week on Wednesday, October 26th, the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University hosted the Community Voice Project’s Screening of Community and Student Digital Stories. This was the culminating event showcasing and celebrating the work of the Community Voice Project’s 2016 Master Class students and the community storytellers they worked with. It also marked the final night of CMSI’s Human Rights Film Series. In attendance were over one hundred people from American University, friends of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and the greater Washington community.

Opening remarks began with School of Communication Dean Jeff Rutenbeck, who emphasized the power of digital storytelling and highlighted great work of the Community Voice Project (CVP). Next, Samir Meghelli, curator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke of the ongoing and important partnership between CVP and the Museum. Lastly, Professor Nina Shapiro-Perl, creative director of the Community Voice Project and professor teaching the master class, provided background on the process of community storytelling and story circles. Professor Shapiro-Perl also served as the evening’s M.C. and introduced each successive digital story and speaker.

Digital stories are five-minute, self- told documentary films about a transformative moment or person in someone’s life. Master Class fellows were trained in the method of digital storytelling. The first part consisted of learning about the process of community storytelling and creating a space for a story circle where fellows shared their own stories. The stories often dealt with abusive parents, finding healing after sexual abuse, creating art and beauty out of destruction, etc. After the story circle, they then wrote a script focusing on an item (such as a family heirloom), a turning point or a moment of change, they went on to create their own personal digital stories using photographs, maps, documents, and in some cases shooting new footage. Once fellows completed their own digital stories, they were then matched with a community member selected by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Master class students then spent several months assisting community storytellers tell their stories.

Wednesday night’s screening featured digital stories of both community members and the fellows’ own stories. The evening’s community storytellers included Gloria Creech Kirk, whose story Heritage highlights her work as a mixed media artist who uses found material and old artifacts of African American families and repurposed them within her powerful art. Ms. Creech Kirk’s story also covers her early life, which includes growing up and going to school in Washington, D.C. during segregation and encountering racist school administrators. She worked with Master Class Fellow Shalom Rosenberg. Next, Katie Davis’ story, Katie’s Street follows the gentrification of one street in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and the loss that comes along with that. Ms. Davis worked with Master Class Fellow Alexis Pazmino.

Tom Fong’s story, The Fight is On tells of the challenges growing up Chinese American in Washington, D.C. and experiencing racism and marginalization from many directions. Mr. Fong worked with Master Class Fellow Steve Rosenberg. Next was Vance “Head-Roc” Levy’s story, Head-Roc: DC’s Mayor of Hip Hop which captures his life as a local artist and celebrity whose music addresses issues of racism and gentrification, both in broad terms and also on the street level. Mr. Levy worked with Master Class Fellow Anna Northrup. Twin brothers Jacob and James Moy, whose story Growing Up with CYC, tells of the journey from childhood to adulthood as Chinese Americans who now see their work as helping the next generation. They worked with Master Class Fellows Kelsey Marsh and Vinny Terlizzi. Finally, Dominic T. Moulden’s story, Dear Miss Shirley, is a letter of thanks to one local activist who has fought to empower others in her community facing discrimination and gentrification. Mr. Moulden worked with Master Class Fellow Matt Cipollone.

In between each community story, Professor Shapiro-Perl invited up to the podium each community member along with their respective Master Class Fellow who discussed the process and experience of working together. It was clear each pair developed a strong bond through this process.

The second part of Wednesday’s screening, featured digital stories by the master class students.  Shalom Rosenberg’s story, Uncle Barry is concerned with issues of coming out as gay in a religious family and finding parallels with other marginalized relatives, and using Jewish ritual items as a source of strength and comfort. Next, Alexis Pazmino’s story My Own Pace is told from her childhood perspective and deals with navigating a challenging parent relationship. Anna Northrup’s story Mama tackles mental illness, alcoholism, and taking care of an ill parent as an adult. Matt Cipollone’s story What I Never Told You is concerned with the changing relationship between two childhood friends after one is severely injured in an accident. Finally, Michael Blain’s story Separation Day chronicles a family broken apart by divorce and the impact it has on the children when they find out.

Creating their own personal digital stories first really helps fellows understand the process, empowers them to better assist their community storyteller, and fosters a sense of empathy when the match is made. All in all, the stories told and screened were quite touching and meaningful as well as diverse in themes and topics. Each story, whether community storyteller or Master Class Fellow, reminded viewers just how important digital storytelling is and how each and every person has a unique story to tell. The evening concluded with closing remarks by Professor Shapiro-Perl, who took questions from the audience. Among the questions answered was where to access these stories: the community storytellers’ digital stories will be available to view online at the Center for Media and Social Impact’s website and at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Following the closing remarks, the Master Class received their certificates of completion, and of course, took a group photo with their storytellers. This was truly an inspiring and wonderful evening at the Malsi Doyle and Michael Forman Theater in American University’s McKinley Building.