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Empowering students to dive into the District of Columbia in ways most never get to, unearthing the stories of communities and people often overlooked in the heart of the nation's capital.

Empowering students to dive into the District of Columbia in ways most never get to, unearthing the stories of communities and people often overlooked in the heart of the nation's capital.

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One of the 500,00 American veterans suffering from PTSD after serving several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laura Pratt tells her story of slow but promising recovery through the practice of yoga and meditation.

Sometimes greatness is right before our eyes –in our parents and grandparents whose stories we've never really heard before…. In the latest offering of digital stories from the Community Voice Project, parents of children attending M.O.M.I.E's TLC, an after-school learning program for children in Greater Washington, create short autobiographical films about key moments in their lives, to pass down to their children. They are joined with four other community storytellers -- cancer survivors and caregivers, associated with the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. Though seemingly different, all ten digital stories capture the finest aspects of our humanity even when those aspects are often memories filled with pain and suffering that arise from alienation and aloneness. 

Since 2008, teams of film and anthropology students in Nina Shapiro-Perl's courses "Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation," and "Documentary Storytelling for Social Change," and have produced 37 digital stories and 31 short films that tell nuanced narratives of people's lived experience in their communities in Greater Washington. Journalism students in Angie Chuang's course, "Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting," have produced more than 75 stories rooted in a dozen DC metro area communities reporting on demographic change, gentrification and more. Together these stories bring voice and visibility of underserved groups to the public while providing students and community members with transformative and practical experiences.

The Project was a natural addition for the School of Communication at American University, applying the school's value of human rights to its mission of offering an unsurpassed education to its students.

"Through the Community Voice Project, these dedicated faculty bring together students and community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. Students learn to produce documentary films, digital stories, and reported stories using the latest technologies, and with these new skills they capture and share the voices and of people and communities too often left out of the public discourse," says School of Communication Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck.

Launched with an initial two-year, $150,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation, the Project is working to grow its financial support. A digital library of the students' work can be found at, to serve as a model for other university and non-profit collaborations throughout the country.

These digital stories and films are part of a cross–disciplinary collaboration between American University's School of Communication and the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology to document the voices and empower the people and communities of Greater Washington. Working in partnership with community organizations, the Community Voice Project produces short documentary films, digital stories, and reported stories to capture the voices of community residents too often unseen and unheard.

Community Voice Project Faculty

Nina Shapiro-Perl

Nina Shapiro-Perl, Nina Shapiro-Perl is an award-winning producer and director who currently holds the position of Filmmaker-in-Residence at American University, where she teaches and leads the Community Voice Project. Before joining the faculty of American University, she worked for twenty years directing the Video Services Department and Greenhouse Cultural Program of the Service Employees International Union. Nina earned her doctorate from the University of Connecticut as a social anthropologist. Her first job outside academia was as a writer and producer at Maryland Public Television. Her latest film, "Through the Eye of the Needle" documents the art and story of Holocaust survivor and artist Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. It premiered at the Washington Jewish Film Festival where it won the Audience Favorite Award for Documentary. It has since won numerous awards including a 2012 CINE Golden Eagle for Documentary.

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang brings her experience as a race and ethnicity reporter at The Oregonian to help students find and cover the clusters of immigrants and long-time D.C. residents in her Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting class.