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This coming Wednesday evening, October 26th, the Center for Media and Social Impact will host a special community screening of seven digital stories or self-told, short autobiographical films created by community storytellers in collaboration with the 2016 Fellows of the Community Voice Project at American University.  The Fellows program was made possible through the “Who’s a Washingtonian?” grant by the Humanities Council of DC, which provides funding to projects and identifies two distinct demographics that rarely interact and creates a means for getting them to work together on a humanities project. The facilitators program in collaboration with the Community Voice Project’s long-time partner, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, together created these first-person films that explore the impact of neighborhood change on DC residents. The screening marks the fourth and final night of the CMSI’s Human Rights Film Series and will mark the culmination of the work of the 2016 Fellows with their respective community storytellers.

The 2016 Fellows of the Community Voice Project participated in and completed a Master Class this past Spring and Summer taught and facilitated by Creative Director Nina Shapiro-Perl, with additional guidance provided by CMSI Co-Director and SOC Professor, Brigid Maher. Professor Shapiro-Perl, a filmmaker in residence with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Communication at American University has produced and supervised over 75 digital stories and short documentary films with over 25 community organizations. The digital stories give voice to those on the margins of society, those not often not given a voice. The stories cover an array of issues and topics from poverty to homelessness to gentrification to abuse to racial inequality, to gender discrimination and much more. Indeed, every group and every person is different but what emerges is usually something quite beautiful and revealing.

The first part of the Master Class consisted of learning about the process of community storytelling and creating a space for a story circle where fellows shared their own stories. Often times these were personal stories about their lives or the lives of someone they know. Perhaps it was a parent, sibling, spouse, friend, or neighbor. 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. Prof. Shapiro-Perl believes this process helps create empathy with community residents they will soon work with.  Creating a digital story is such a personal endeavor and once people understand how to do this for themselves, they can help others. She also believe this reciprocal process benefits everyone involved: “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.”

Once fellows completed their own digital stories, they were then matched with a community member. The 2016 Master Class Fellows worked with community members selected by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and again covered an array of topics and issues ranging from racial and economic injustice, poverty and homelessness, gentrification, and more. Fellows first sat and listened as the community storytellers shared their stories in their own story circle and then matches were made for the work ahead.. Next, community storytellers worked with their fellows to 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 process is quite rewarding for all those involved.

The screening on October 26th will showcase the work of the community storytellers who were assisted by the fellows. It will also include some of the fellow’s own stories. All are invited for this memorable evening.