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Video class keeps eye to community


Students in Steve Harp’s documentary video class last quarter broke down scenes of digital film they have shot and tried to figure out the best way to tell a manylayered story. Still, these students were not just concerned with moving images they can work with in a classroom. They focused on what happened on the outside in the lives of two communities they have gotten to know through this class. During the quarter, students completed short videos for two community-based, not-for-profit organizations: Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC) and Cambodian Association of Illinois. Harp’s class, which has been offered at DePaul four times since 2000, is one of many community-based service learning classes the Steans Center helped develop that encourages learning based on real-life, in-the-field experience. 

Service learning 

Harp says he learned about service learning before he even taught this class through presentations and workshops offered by the Steans Center. He notes that teaching a service learning class is different than teaching other classes. “In some classes, we may say ‘here’s the video camera, here’s how to make it work, here are some exercises you need to do.’ In this class, the focus is more on mastering skills by putting them into practice.” “I am more of an advocate for students in this kind of class,” he adds. “In traditional situations, I might say ‘here are the skills that need to be mastered. In the end, I have to ask: ‘could you master these things?’ Here, what we are really working toward is fulfilling a service for a particular community group. What I’ve found is that this is a way to work with an organization that is doing good work – and to produce something about that organization.” 

How students benefit 

In the course of their service learning experience, Harp says that students are introduced to a complex community they might not otherwise have a chance to learn about. Last quarter, the rich and triumphant stories of two communities offered a dynamic living history for students to film. 


Located on Chicago’s west side in the economically challenged community of Lawndale, LCDC has grown into a leader in the realm of neighborhood-based housing development and also offers a range of programs to community residents. In the Albany Park neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, the Cambodian Association of Illinois has emerged as a vital source of support for generations of people affected by the genocide in Cambodia in the early 1970s. The organization serves more than 7,000 refugee and immigrant Cambodians in the Chicago area. Students in the class not only had a chance to learn about these communities, they worked with these organizations to complete films that express a vision of that community. Harp says students engaged in a collaborative process through which they have learned how to work with community-based groups whose stories are the subject of these videos. Sangini Brahmbhatt, a senior in graphic design who worked on the LCDC video, suggested there is value to understanding how to meet the needs of an organization in a professional way while learning new skills. “It’s really about knowing what they want,” she says, “and what we can provide.” In this case, she said, the video will include interviews and other segments that focus on the group’s real estate, education and community organizing efforts. Brahmbhatt echoed the thoughts of many others when asked about the benefits of the class.​​

Video Class: Value to the community 

“It’s a great learning experience,” she says. “Seeing how a neighborhood is evolving and changing, observing people in their environment – you can’t get that inside a classroom.” For community groups working with the class, these short videos can be used as a tool to help tell their story.

Brady Harden, Executive Director of Inner Voice, which provides services to the homeless in Chicago, says his organization has used a video made by DePaul students in a number of ways. Harden says that Inner Voice showed the video at a recent fundraising event and that it will also become part of the organization’s website. “I also pop in the video when I meet people for the first time at Inner Voice,” he says. “It’s detailed enough to cover the issue of the homeless and our response to it, but also tells our story without boring anybody.” Meanwhile, Kristen Oxendale, Resource Development Manager for LCDC, says the growing organization would like to use the film for marketing purposes. “The only video we have for our organization was done in 1992,” she says. “It’s not something we can use anymore. We’re hoping to use the video students made to help us do volunteer recruiting, inform funders about what we do and for other purposes.” Harp suggests the videos can benefit participating organizations in a number of ways. “The obvious benefit is that they get this product that costs them nothing but a little bit of time,” he says. “I also think it helps break down barriers between community groups and what some would call ‘the ivory tower’ of the academic world.” Aside from the final product, Harp says he has been pleased to see how students have met the challenge of reaching out to new communities and establishing a dialogue with local organizations. “I’ve been happy with the way students have responded,” he says. “There’s a real connection between what they are doing and the needs of these groups. I think the class has helped students to kind of open up – and think about what’s outside of their experience.”