On Wednesday, October 26, 2016, Washington College of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law partnered with American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) to present the Community Voice Project. The purpose of this project, as stated by Jeff Rutenbeck, the Dean of American University’s School of Communication, was to “bring together students and community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. Students learn to produce documentary films and digital stories using the latest technologies, and with these new skills they capture and share the voices of people and communities too often left out of the public discourse.”
Essentially, graduate students of the program were asked to produce short documentary films and digital stories to capture the voices of local D.C. residents which otherwise may have been left unseen and unheard. Throughout the course of the presentation, six students’ short productions were displayed, followed by a short speech from the students and the community member he or she worked with, reflecting their experience of putting the stories in production form. The short films were narrated by the community members themselves, allowing the stories to be expressed through the eyes of the storyteller, which made the films very personal.
The opening documentary was “Heritage,” a short film by Shalom Rosenberg, telling the story of Gloria C. Kirk. Ms. Kirk, a mixed-media artist born in D.C., was growing up, she started at a school designated for just African-American students. When segregation ended because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, her father put her in a de-segregated school. She felt ostracized and unwelcome at her new school, so she quickly returned to her old one. After high school, she joined the US military and spent most of her life overseas. During her time abroad, she captured photos of the essence of other people and cultures. She returned to D.C. in 1995 and became a professional, well-published photographer. Her art work reflects her heritage and traditions. She stated that artists should do their best to portray the link from the past to the present to the future. The ending line of the video is, “This is my heritage; this is my story.” After the video ended, Ms. Kirk expressed that she is still adjusting in the United States and she detests the avid racism in our country, but said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to “tell it like it is.”
The second short story was “Katie’s Street,” a short documentary by Katie Davis and produced by Alexis Pazmino. The video began with Ms. Davis explaining the changes to the street she resided on. She told the story of a new neighbor that moved in next her who approached her and asked her who the strange man was leaning against her building. Ms. Davis replied, “Why, that’s Paul – he used to live in your basement, but he moved so you could renovate; perhaps, he missed his view.” The video then showed a house that used to be owned by a Mrs. Glass, and now is a brand-new condominium. Ms. Davis stated that her “memory is [her] map” and for many of us, our “houses are our center – and those who are forced to leave, [the center] still remains.” After the video, Ms. Davis expressed: “It’s very painful to see people leave. I miss Mrs. Glass – I think of Paul all the time.”
The following presentation was “The Fight is On,” a short film by Steve Rosenberg telling the story of a D.C. native, Tom Fong. This presentation started out with Mr. Fong referencing a story told by his grandfather, where his grandfather shared his early experiences in America. His grandfather expressed that “those white devils shocked my soul” . . . “you never even looked twice at them or they would roll your body to the curb,” and, “damn, Chinamen – keep working faster!” Throughout the video, Mr. Fong rapped about the struggles Asian-Americans have endured. Once the film ended Mr. Fong expressed to the audience a more recent exposure of racism regarding his young son. He explained that he is an assistant coach on his son’s football team and one day while he was in Los Angeles, his son, who was a captain of the football team, walked out to the center field for the coin toss at the beginning of a game. The referee looked at Mr. Fong’s young son and said, “Are you Korean?” Immediately offended, the head coach stepped in and said, “He’s American!” To this, the referee replied, “Oh, you must be Japanese-American.” This story left the audience in absolute silence. Mr. Fong expressed that “there is no reason to stand by and allow that type of hate speech; [Americans] cannot just hide behind free-speech.” He went on explaining that “just like the one who yells fire in a crowded area, there are limitations the free-speech.” Currently, Mr. Fong is the chairman of Chinese Consolidated, where he and others bring light to the avid racism against Asian-Americans. He stated, “We won’t take a backseat” and that he hopes is grandfather is smiling, looking down on him because “The Fight is On.”
The next story was told by Vance “Head-Roc” Levy called, “Head-Roc: DC’s Mayor of Hip Hop,” produced by Anna Northrup. This short story showed Head Roc’s rise in DC’s hip hop scene. Most notably in the film, the local hip hop star stated that “D.C. is like a plantation,” meaning that the majority of the population is African-American ruled by a majority white congress. He explained that he brings playfulness into more serious matters. Unfortunately, Head-Roc was unable to be at the presentation and did not get to express his experience with the production of the film.
The fifth presentation was called “Growing Up with CYC,” a story told by Jacob and James Moy and produced by Kelsey Marsh and Vinny Terlizzi, which reflected the brothers’ experience with the Chinese Youth Club (CYC). The video started out with one brother’s conversation with his five-year-old daughter, where he asked her, “Do you know you’re Chinese.” In response, she questioned, “I’m Chinese?” The young girl only recognized herself as an American. The two brothers shared their experiences of blatant racism; for example, one man came up to the brothers and stated that they spoke English very well. The brothers explained that the CYC helped them feel more comfortable in their own skin, allowing the brothers to play basketball and volleyball, and giving them a chance to stay true to their culture, make friends, and helping them “come out of their shell – both network wise and social[ly].” The film ended with one brother stating, “I’m looking forward to when my next daughter realizes that she’s Chinese because she already knows she’s American.”
The final story was “Dear Ms. Shirley,” a short documentary told by Dominic T. Moulden and produced by Matt Cippolone. Mr. Moulden has been a community organizer for thirty years, much like Ms. Shirley, and he explained that “a part of Ms. Shirley’s story is my story.” Mr. Moulden narrated a letter he wrote to Ms. Shirley; the film started out with him asking how she has been, followed by how he appreciated her struggle for justice in D.C. He explained various instances of Ms. Shirley fighting for justice stating that “you move to my neighborhood for diversity, but can’t diversify yours,” the “city installs new lights in the park of your community, but builds a prison in mine,” and “you buy your house – they evict me from my dream home.” He ended the letter with, “Through all these years, [Ms. Shirley], you’re the real face of D.C.” He ended with, “As people, especially minorities, stories are power – stories are about freedom.”
The Community Voice Project allowed a few D.C. residents to speak out and tell a story about their experiences of living and growing up in the nation’s capital. The stories were personal and compassionate, as if they story-teller was sitting across from you in a coffee-shop, telling a story only he or she could convey. Some of the stories were expressed with a flaming passion, which left the room full of empathy as people finally heard and recognized the struggle some D.C. residents had endured.