On December 13, 2018, the partnership between the LVAIC DOC 150 course, led by professor Aggie Bazaz, Introduction to Documentary Storymaking, and The Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity (ACED) was celebrated with a gathering of community organizers, artists, poets, musicians, dancers, teachers, face-painters, youth voices, and a screening of the films produced in DOC 150.
This partnership was a natural fit to pursue ACED’s mission, which is to address racial and economic inequities currently occurring in the development of the City of Allentown. According to Jess Denke, ACED organizer, “There is a precedent within the City of Allentown to provide development narratives of unqualified success, achievement, and growth. These narratives leave out the stories of many people who have lost resources, feel disconnected, or have been displaced.” Jess also notes that “having documentary films that describe the process and current goals of our group can help ACED grow our community, communicate community needs, and represent these needs to City Council in order to challenge the idea that development is meeting the needs of all Allentown residents.”
Over the course of the fall semester, DOC 150 became a space through which students could enact documentary principles in ways that would support ACED’s work to lift up community voices and experiences in effort to inform policy decisions. Through the course, students were provided several opportunities to deep-dive into the issues affecting Allentown in its development efforts. They heard from ACED organizers, read articles, watched documentaries, and spoke with community members to learn more about housing, zoning, and policy decisions within the city. Remarkably, students dove with great enthusiasm into this work, even though half the class lived as far away as Easton.
Students worked diligently to shoot and edit short profiles of community members as a way of practicing their documentary production skills. In one project, the class edited interviews and ambient visual material that class’s TA, Doc Storymaking alumnus Drew Swedberg, had shot. This material captured four community members’ experiences of the development efforts throughout the city. Students worked in groups of 2-3 to produce individual edits and then a jury that included Drew and myself voted on the strongest edit which was then selected to screen at a public ACED event in October. That video can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/296471654
For their final projects, students worked in teams of 4 to pursue stories of relevance to ACED’s efforts. These included: a profile of an intentional, mixed-income community at Overlook Park; a profile of ACED itself and its mission; a profile of the young bikers who enact their freedom and vision for the city through the streets every week; and a profile of Gigi Randolph, a community activist who speaks out against rampant development that is destroying the social fabric of
neighborhoods she has known for nearly all her life.
The December 13th event also included political action: after each performance or screening, an ACED organizer would introduce an issue or effort, point the audience to a place in the room where they could take action—sign a petition, register their personal perspective, send a postcard to City Council, etc. It was an evening that brought together a wide array of perspectives, leveraged those perspectives into action, and met, says Jess Denke, ACED’s mission of “complicating the stories told about development.” Students were awed and moved, with one student noting in a reflection that “around 100 people saw the documentary,” and that this was the student’s first time ever screening a film to a crowd of that size and to a crowd that was not largely comprised of his own friends.
Zac Cohen, candidate for a Lehigh County Judge seat, attended the event and afterwards wrote on Facebook: “The Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity sure knows how to throw a great Party for the People. Inspiring poetry by Justice Davis, impassioned speech about inclusionary zoning, short films on the City of Allentown, William Allen Hip Hop and Step performances, music, art–wow!” Members of the Allentown Police Department also attended, as did organizers with various groups throughout the city. That is to say, the stories and experiences that were shared by all the artists and performers that night reached an audience that can take those voices into their own work, into their own advocacy, into their own channels to seats of power, and lift up those community voices to push Allentown towards development efforts that are dialogical rather than destructive.
This partnership, led by professor Aggie Bazaz and sponsored in part by the LVEHC, allowed a tremendous opportunity for the participants to enact what Mari Castañeda hails as the promise of community-academic praxis of civic engagement, the leveraging of “resources at the college (human and otherwise) […] for community and civic engagement” to achieve transformative outcomes. The films produced through this collaboration will eventually be available for viewing on the forthcoming LVEHC Digital Archive.