SOC students, Post cover ethnic communities in D.C.

A group of School of Communication students are collaborating with The Washington Post to publish stories on under-covered ethnic and immigrant communities in D.C.

But the ongoing project, in its fourth year, is now facing funding challenges after its grant from the Surdna Foundation expired in 2011.

In the project, the Community Voice Project, AU students work with communities and nonprofits in the D.C. area, using film and prose to share their stories. Students in SOC Professor Angie Chuang’s “Race, Ethnic and Community Reporting” class publishes its news stories on Post Local.

The Post sent out story ideas in March about under-covered ethnic and immigrant communities in the D.C. area. Chuang’s students research and write the pieces and publish them on the Post Local site throughout the semester.

“These are places where the mainstream media doesn’t spend time in, unless there is a shooting or other crime,” Chuang said. “It is a disservice to only report on a community when there is bad news; you miss out the complex and real stories.”

SOC Professors Nina Shapiro-Perl and Chuang teach the three classes participating in the project. The classes have worked with all types of organizations, from the D.C. Youth Symphony Orchestra to a nonprofit that redistributes furniture to families in need.

More than 200 students have participated in these classes over the years, using prose or film to tell the unheard stories of people and organizations in D.C.

SOC Dean Larry Kirkman started the project in 2008 when he applied and received an initial two-year, $150,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation, whose mission is to foster just and sustainable communities in the United States.

Chuang and Shapiro-Perl then approached Kirkman with their ideas for courses that went along with the project. Kirkman approved the classes, and they used the funding for transportation, filming supplies and digital support.

Chuang’s class also works with New American Media, a coalition of ethnic media organizations, to produce a website with all of the classes’ stories called “D.C. Intersections.” The site is updated at the end of every semester.

NAM and Chuang’s class also co-sponsor the D.C. Metro Area Ethnic Media Awards.

“It is very important to not only recognize the small ethnic media organizations out there who are serving communities, but show that people care about the work they’re doing,” Chuang said.

Shapiro-Perl teaches a spring “Documentary Storytelling” class in which students create a film for a nonprofit.

“During my career as a filmmaker, I met many tremendous social justice organizations that were doing great work, but had no time or money to tell the public who they were,” Shapiro-Perl said.

Shapiro-Perl suggested having students help organizations produce these films as part of a course and Kirkman welcomed the idea.

She also teaches a class every fall called “Community Documentary,” in which students help Anacostia residents, called “community partners,” create their own self-narrated stories for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

Both classes attract juniors, seniors and graduate students from SOC, anthropology students in the College of Arts and Sciences and sometimes other AU schools, and fill up quickly, Chuang said.

Shapiro-Perl said the students who take the class are very dedicated, and many of them end up changing their career path to jobs that involve the skills they learned in class.

Charlene Shovic, who graduated from AU with a master’s degree in anthropology in 2011, came to AU specifically to take Shapiro-Perl’s “Documentary Storytelling” class. She now works in Hawaii, running her own video production business that uses what she learned in the class.

“I have always known there is power in storytelling, and after taking her ‘Documentary Storytelling’ class, I knew this was an area I wanted to work in,” Shovic said.

Now that CVP’s Surdna Foundation grant expired, the project has been looking for new sources of funding to keep it alive. They have secured enough funding to teach the courses next academic year.

“There are so many aspects to this project: amplifying unheard voices in our community; connecting students and community members; connecting people to people across social boundaries of class, race, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation; community service; training a new generation of social documentarians, etc.,” Shapiro-Perl said. “It is painful to think about it ending.”

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