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American Today

In the Community

Community Voice Project Tells Stories of the Anacostia

By Ali Kahn

Interviewers and interviewees gather after the presentation of 'RiverStories'

Students in Nina Shapiro-Perl's course, Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation, pose with community members following the screening of'RiverStories.' (Courtesy of Sharon Metcalf)

Two rivers run through Washington, D.C. The Potomac, famous in history, separates the city from Virginia. The Anacostia, forgotten by history, divides the nation’s capital into parallel universes — one monumental and booming, the other unseen and struggling. You could call it a tale of two cities.

Polluted and degraded, the Anacostia became a monument of environmental neglect. But for those who know the river and all its troubles, the Anacostia has inspired hopes and dreams, culture and community.

And remarkable human stories.

Stories like Rodney Stotts’s. He grew up in southeast D.C., where, often enough, if you happen to be young and black and male, you learn early about life. And loss. When Rodney heard about a group called the Earth Conservation Corps, he signed on as a pioneer member and went to work trying to restore the river and reintroduce wildlife, like the bald eagle. Several years into it, four of his coworkers were murdered—strangled, shot, knifed, and bludgeoned to death. Rodney learned you don’t quit. More than 20 years later, he’s still working on the river and paying forward the break he caught to kids coming up behind him, training new recruits how to restore old rivers — and young lives.

The story of Rodney Stotts and seven other “RiverStories,” captured digitally in words and video and photos, drew a crowd to American University’s Wechsler Theatre for a screening on December 14.

‘Stories from the Inside Out’

These eight stories documented pivotal experiences in the lives of people connected with the Anacostia. They were produced through a unique collaboration between community members and AU students working with Nina Shapiro-Perl in her course, Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation.

“Stories from the inside out,” says Shapiro-Perl, anthropology professor and filmmaker in residence. Because they emerged from the inner lives and memories of these individuals, coaxed into the world by one or two students working closely, intimately, with each community member.

“In their own words and in their own voice, with images and music of their own choosing, they tell us about their lives,” says Shapiro-Perl. “They were assisted by anthropology and film students in my class who had just gone through the somewhat frightening, frustrating, and exhilarating experience of producing their own digital story. The students knew firsthand what it felt like to share their own sometimes buried feelings from the past in a story circle with almost perfect strangers. Or give feedback on another person’s story without overtaking it. Or create a first version of their digital story, only to go back again to get at a deeper truth. This is the method behind making digital stories,” she says. “This is the process that allows us to listen deeply to each other across the divides of neighborhood, class, race, and culture.”

An ambitious project, it began as a partnership between American University and the Anacostia Community Museum, which wanted to document the stories of people of southeast Washington who engage with the river. And as the stories show, many people engage — in many ways.

  • Francis Wheeler recalls growing up black and poor in southeast D.C. with all the riches of a clean river and a bounty of fish.
  • Vaughn Perry found his passion while volunteering with Groundwork Anacostia and connecting young people with their environment.
  • Jamaica-born Sania Rose brings her love of nature to her hands-on efforts to eradicate pollution and restore the river’s beauty.
  • “River rat” Gabe Horchler, law librarian at the Library of Congress, commutes to work each day — on the river, in his boat.
  • Senegal native Kalin Williams is working to build sustainable “transition” communities through her nonprofit Earth’s Visible Energy (E.V.E.).
  • “Ecofeminist” Brenda Lee Richardson got involved in D.C. politics to clean up the Anacostia and her community, finding herself as she rediscovered the river.
  • Bob “Coach” Day, retired foreign service officer, runs the Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling (OARS), a rowing program for at-risk teens.

Many engaging, all dreaming big. Of bridging worlds. Of making connections. Of changing the conversation.

Community members each wrote a story about a transformative experience, which they shared with the students. “We started out going to these story circles and not knowing who we would work with,” says Kady Buchanan, MFA film and electronic media student, who partnered with Rodney Stotts. The students listened. And they asked questions. And then they were matched with a storyteller.

“We wanted to work with Sania because she was just really positive and full of hope and we really liked how she expressed that,” says Sean Furmage, a second-year doctoral student in cultural anthropology. “And that’s what we wanted to capture.”

Bridging Divides

The process was dynamic, and intense. “It was just us two,” says Buchanan. “We met sometimes weekly, sometimes not. We would just write ideas and write ideas, and go over it and over it. I would work on it in class and then bring it back, and then, ‘Let’s try this, and let’s try this.’”

Camille Akeju, director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, says, “We learn as much from the students as they learn from the process. It’s awe-inspiring to see a glow of recognition and appreciation from these students who, through this project, really are having worlds open up to them. It’s a facilitated process, but very spontaneous, too.”

The digital stories are part of the Community Voice Project, an interdisciplinary initiative of faculty and students in the School of Communication’s film and media arts, journalism, and public communication divisions, and the College of Arts and Sciences’ anthropology department.

“Most students in our film program make films about something,” says SOC dean Larry Kirkman. “This is a very different kind of course, and it is quite radical. It’s making films with people. And this really changes students’ relationship to their subjects.”

Shapiro-Perl says that her students “document the stories and amplify the voices of marginalized communities to advance a more inclusive and progressive public policy.” In the process, they cross divides and develop tools to work with others to share common human bonds. And the university “bridges the sometimes difficult divide between itself and the surrounding community.”

Rodney Stotts felt the difference. “Of all the documentaries I’ve done, this one means the most,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”