Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Listening to Community Voices: Documenting the past and present of a neighborhood

Description of Project

CAS 222 (Calvin Media Company) is a project-oriented course that allows students to use their knowledge of video production in the development of audiovisual works for a variety of “clients” (off-campus groups).  The idea is to give students a “real-world” or “professional” experience in the video making business.  During previous semesters, CAS-222 classes were intentionally oriented towards partnerships with community organizations such as The West Michigan Environmental Action Council and the Interurban Transit Partnership: The Rapid.

In the spring term of 2007, CAS 222 dedicated it’s class project to the audiovisual documentation of a group of residents living in the south east side of Grand Rapids; they make up the South East Community Association (SECA).  The class oversaw the production of a short documentary about the hopes and struggles of this Grand Rapids community.  The course began with a meeting with Sarah Smith, a SECA representative, who shared the need the Association had for capturing their voices in a professional media.  The class responded by documenting the testimony of residents concerning the history and development of the south east community since its early years as the main African American working class area until its current status as one of the most deprived neighborhoods in our city.

We consider particularly relevant the fact that SECA is located in an area with a demographic significantly different from the average Calvin College student.  Students  benefitted from the interaction with the residents.  The work of videotaping the material documented also challenged their capacity to adapt and critically approach a social reality different from their own.  The South East neighborhood, according to the latest census, has one of the highest rates of violence, the lowest percentages of property ownership, and one of the highest rates of unemployment.  It is paradoxical that important Grand Rapids personalities, such as former president Gerald R. Ford, attended high school in this neighborhood.  To embrace these social contradictions and make a cohesive discourse that honors the residents’ voices and experiences while facing the currently harsh social reality was a challenge that will help mature not only students’ technical skills but their thinking as well. No well-rounded liberal arts education can be complete without this kind of immediate learning experience.

We agreed with SECA that students would interview half a dozen residents of the community, chosen by the association considering their particular knowledge and authority on the history and present circumstances of the neighborhood.  The unedited interviews would be given to them for their own possible future use.  From this material, students will produce a short documentary summarizing their findings.  The class was organized in a way that will allow every student to interact with the residents before, during, and after the production.  Each student was in charge of producing one interview requiring of them the arrangement of location settings and scheduling.  Each student also interviewed  his/her resident, which required closer research and interaction.  In the technical aspects, the students rotated their crew positions (cinematography, sound, and lighting).  We decided that all interviews needed to take place on location.  The residents were interviewed in their homes, front yards, during a walk through their streets, at the local churches, and in the Community Association office.


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