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Digital Storytelling

Featured Video


A Digital Story by Marialuz Johnson


In collaboration with Kathleen McLaughlin and Evan Mileusnic


Digital Storytelling with the Community

In these short autobiographical films called digital stories, first-time community filmmakers use their own words, their own voice, personal photographs, artwork, video clips, and music of their choosing, to tell us about a transformational moment in their lives.

The digital stories collected here--- now 37 in number-- show what’s possible when students and community members create something together and cross the sometimes-difficult divide between the university and the larger community.

For four years now, anthropology and film students in the course Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation, have assisted residents of Greater Washington -- from public artists to residents along the Anacostia River—in telling their stories.

New stories from fall 2014 have just been added: They are the work of:

  • Six parents of children in M.O.M.I.E’s TLC, an extraordinary afterschool learning program for urban children that includes lessons on great persons in history facing enormous odds who went on to change the world. In these new short films, parents create stories from their own lives to pass down to their children. Their stories remind us that sometimes greatness is right before our eyes – in our parents and grandparents whose stories we’ve never really heard before.
  • Four cancer survivors and caregivers associated with the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. They create deeply moving films about their journeys with cancer that align with the work of the Smith Center to help ‘create the conditions for healing.’ Through the act of making these short autobiographical films, the storytellers re-frame their stories and gain new insights that they bravely share with families, friends and wider audiences.

We call the latest series “Stories of Struggle and Overcoming.” As one student said: “Each time I work like this, I feel myself changing. My storyteller’s acceptance of leukemia and her finding peace amidst all the things that have happened to her, has given me strength.” These stories are part of a community storytelling initiative where over the past four years, we have featured public artists from Southeast Washington who are called to give back to their community. Partnering with the Anacostia Community Museum, one student wrote in her journal, “the community member I’m working with brings healing in areas where people are oppressed. … These artists use art to challenge power.” In a second project with the Museum, we created a series we called RiverStories, documenting community members’ engagement with the Anacostia River. One community member said she never had an opportunity to tell her story and understand her lifelong commitment to environmental work. The student she worked with wrote: “…working on the story … helped our community member find a connection between her own life of struggle and the healing power of the River… (She came) to see the River as a source of healing for people who have been forsaken.”

(You can see all the digital stories on the links below.)

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
Community Artists 2012

Community Artists, 2012

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

Community Voice Project Riverstories screening with students and community

RiverStories, 2011

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. View videos

Community Voice Project students work with members of the community to help them tell their own stories.

Community Artists, 2010

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. View videos