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Students in the new course Unseen and Unheard: Documentary Storytelling in the Other Washington filmed non-profits such as Brainfood, shown, at work.

Community Voice Project

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.

Still from

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.

Oppressive working conditions and the weight of poverty faced by fast food workers is invisible to many of us.

So too is war, and the trauma many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with day to day, in obscurity.

But seeing and hearing their stories helps make their experience significant.

In five new documentary film portraits, these stories come to life.

As part of the Community Voice Project, (CVP) now in its sixth year, student filmmakers document the lives of two veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, bravely finding their way out of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the practices of yoga and meditation. And, student filmmakers tell the stories of fast food workers, working for food chains inside the Pentagon, the Air and Space Museum and the Ronald Reagan Building—who join together to raise wages, benefits and for a voice on the job.

These latest 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.

In six years, teams of film and anthropology students in Nina Shapiro-Perl’s courses: “Documentary Storytelling for Social Change,” and “Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation,” have produced 31 short films and 27 digital stories that tell nuanced narratives of people’s lived experience in their communities. 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 proving 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 is to provide 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 and the Project is working to grow its financial support. A digital library of the students’ work can be found at http://www.american.edu/soc/communityvoice, to serve as a model for other university and non-profit collaborations throughout the country.

Community Voice Project Faculty

Nina Shapiro-Perl

Nina Shapiro-Perl, PhD, is an award-winning producer and director with 30 years of experience in television and video production, many of them spent documenting the lives of working people across the United States for the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union. Through the Eye of the Needle, her latest film, documents the art and story of Holocaust survivor and artist Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. It premiered at the Washington 2011 Jewish Film Festival, winning the Audience Favorite Award for Documentary and has since won numerous awards including a 2012 CINE for Documentary. artandremembrance.org

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.