The Community Voice Project: A Conversation with Nina Shapiro-Perl

Since 2008, AU Filmmaker-in-Residence Nina Shapiro-Perl has directed the Community Voice Project – a community storytelling initiative that connects AU anthropology students with film students, giving them the opportunity to collaborate on authentic work on behalf of DC communities.

We talked with Dr. Shapiro-Perl about how the project came to be, and we reached out to a couple of her students to learn about their experiences.

The vision behind the Community Voice Project

Nina Shapiro-Perl has a long history as an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. For 20 years, she worked with the Service Employees International Union, documenting the stories of low-wage workers around the country.

“In the course of my work, I found that many social justice organizations and community organizations really needed well-made documentary materials to tell their stories to the public – to post on their websites, to use for fundraising. And yet they had no money or expertise to do that, or the time to make the films,” Nina said. “On the other hand, I knew anthropology students were always looking for ways to bring their research interests out to the public.”

The idea for the Community Voice project sprung from Nina’s desire to bridge those gaps, uniting students and organizations in common interest. “My idea was that students would be working in the greater Washington community to capture the stories of what I call the ‘unseen’ and ‘unheard’ – people that are left out and erased from the public discourse all too often. Not always, but often,” Nina said. “Immigrants, people of color, poor people, gay people, and others.”

Her goal was to train students in making short documentary films and short, self-told films called digital stories, taking viewers into the lived experience of people we don’t often hear from.

“What happens in this process, at its best, is that both the community members and the students themselves are changed by the experience,” she said.

What the course looks like for students

The Community Voice Project has evolved since 2008 and now has a larger focus on digital storytelling. Students work to help create short, four- or five-minute digital films, written and directed by the community members themselves.

To prepare, students spend the first four weeks of the semester creating a digital story about their own lives, featuring a moment of transformation.

“The students have to go to a deep place emotionally in thinking about their life. It’s very, very hard to do it,” Nina said. “The reason I have them do this is that for the next ten weeks of the class, they are going to be helping a community member tell a story of transformation. My students need to learn how hard it is, and they need to understand the responsibility attached to it.”

Her anthropology and filmmaking students partner with community organizations to help tell individual stories.

“It’s a beautiful and unfiltered way to hear from people who are often in the shadows,” she said. “You remove even the filter of the documentary filmmaker and the anthropologist. Instead of imagining what that person is really trying to say, the person tells it themselves.”

While anthropology students aren’t required to have film experience to enroll in the class, Nina has found that many students do bring some digital filmmaking skills with them. There is also a range of resources – from a skillful teaching assistant to resources in the library– available to offer support. Film students arrive in the class with a specific set of filmmaking skills, and they team up with anthropology students on projects.

“Anthropology students have much to teach film students, too. Technical skills aren’t everything,” Nina said. “Anthropology students are extremely well-trained and bring so much understanding and texture to the class. It’s by no means a one-way exchange.”

The impact of the Community Voice Project

Since the Project’s inception, students have produced dozens of films and digital stories in collaboration with over 30 community organizations, and they’ve left with new skills for applying their anthropology training to real-world problems.

“Students have created more than 75 films focused on the ‘other Washington,’ not of political, glamorous, high-profile Washington, but of working class, impoverished, homeless Washington,” Nina said.

When the films are new, organizations put them on their websites, using them for fundraising and to open community meetings. All the work has been archived digitally and is accessible to the public here:

The Community Voice Project is part of the School of Communication’s Center for Media and Social Impact, so films have a wider audience and distribution.

Films by featured students

  • Bridget Klein produced a story for Nina’s class in conjunction with the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, called “Mitchell’s Story.” Nina said, “It’s a remarkable short film done by a Deaf student of mine about a homeless man who was Deaf. When the Council showed it at a fundraising breakfast, you could hear a pin drop. People were just stunned by it. You don’t see things like that. The insight into what it means to be homeless, but not filtered through another person. The subject himself talking. It was also extraordinary because the student who worked with him was Deaf herself.” 

Bridget Klein collaborated with the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place to create a short film about Mitchell

  • Kyriakos Iliadis took Nina’s course in Fall 2015. His project was a collaborative effort with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum for an exhibition titled “Twelve Years that Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963- 1975”. Kyriakos worked with a community member to help create a digital story about her experience growing up in Washington. He said, “This course is a great model of public anthropology because the product produced is something that benefits all collaborators. The goal of the class is not just to write a term paper that probably you and your professor will only read, but instead to apply your skills as a social scientist to create something that can be shared and disseminated for the benefit of the community.”

Kyriakos Iliadis assisted Cecilia Johnson on her digital story.

  • Tabria Lee-Noonan also took the course during the fall 2015 semester. Her personal project was about the death of her grandmother who raised her, and the feeling of being surrounded by family the night of her loss. She said, “This class was significant in many ways for me. It made me explore the idea of vulnerability, which is something I’ve never done in an academic context, and that which I’m terrified of on a personal level. It was an experience that made me question the ways in which we share our vulnerability, how we can control the message to convey exactly what we mean, and how to create the impact we wish to have.”

Tabria assisted Rosalind Styles on her digital story.


The MAPA program is committed to helping students find ways to connect with meaningful issues through authentic work. Find out more about the master’s degree in public anthropology.