Skip to main content

American Today


Students Collect Voices of Washington

By Sally Acharya

The story of Washington, D.C., is more than the story of Capitol Hill and K Street. There are hundreds of stories to tell, as students in two innovative courses discovered as they got to know the Washington of immigrants and senior citizens, day laborers and high-school students, shoe repairmen and kabob makers.

Professor Angie Chuang sent students in her class Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting into communities from Langley Park, Maryland, to Falls Church, Virginia, and from Anacostia to Columbia Heights in search of the rich human stories that would bring to life these everyday places on the map of metro Washington.

Filmmaker in residence Nina Shapiro-Perl’s Documentary Storytelling course teamed up anthropology and film students to help small nonprofit organizations tell their stories through the words of the people they serve.

These innovative courses have given rise to AU’s Center for Community Voices, which is linking the School of Communication, Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the University Library in pursuit of a common goal: finding innovative ways to capture and document the voices of Washington, D.C., of the “working people’s Washington,” says Shapiro-Perl.

A recent panel offered a glimpse of this interdisciplinary future for AU students as experts from several disciplines discussed the borders between film, journalism, and anthropology, and viewed  student work.

Exploring the gray areas between these seemingly different subjects were AU professors Sabiyha Prince, anthropology; Shapiro-Perl, film; and Angie Chuang, journalism. They were joined by Lynette Clemetson, managing editor of The Root and a former reporter for the New York Times and Newsweek.

“Anthropology is about storytelling,” noted Prince, who works to “peel away layers of stereotypes that cloud our views of historically subordinated people,” and make room for her subject’s unmediated voices.

Chuang and Shapiro-Perl’s students are trying to achieve the same objective: creating space for ordinary people’s voices to be heard.

For example, graduate student Edwin Mah spent hours with a Guatemalan mother and her middle-school son in Wheaton, Maryland, to capture the mother’s pride in learning English and her son’s emotions as he translated for her.

Mah’s experience mirrored that of many journalists and anthropologists: his work’s success depended on his ability to get close to his subjects and gain their trust. But is there a fine line between getting too close to be objective and remaining too distant to be effective? If so, is it different for a scholar and a journalist?

If a journalist gets too close, “it can be hard to tell the truth,” Clemetson said. “That’s why it’s easier to write novels than memoirs.” Both Clemetson and Prince noted the challenge of cultivating a relationship that will inevitably be temporary.

The discussion about disciplinary boundaries will continue as the Center for Community Voices evolves. The center’s goal is to bring together the tools of digital media, insights of public anthropology, and techniques for sharing and archiving digital knowledge. The center will also help participating nonprofits grow by sharing resources, techniques, and the work itself, with the organizations, notes SOC dean Larry Kirkman, who has been instrumental in spearheading the center’s formation.

Class work will be posted online where the communities and nonprofits that worked with a class can access it and use some of the students’ work, such as videos, and future students can learn from work that preceded them.