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USC students focus on the community through writing

Students in "Writing 340: Writing in the Community"
Students in “Writing 340: Writing in the Community” work on iMovie to prepare their documentary films on local service groups. Photo/Dietmar Quistorf

Since starting at USC, senior theatre major Najee Ritter wanted to find a way to give back to his community.

“I realized how fortunate I am to be at USC and wanted to reach out to other people,” Ritter said.

When a roommate told him about “Writing 340: Writing in the Community,” his interest was piqued. The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences class is based on the standard upper-division writing course required of all USC students. It pushes them to take storytelling outside the classroom by making a documentary about local service groups, highlighting community life around USC.

Now in its fifth year, the course continues to collaborate with diverse groups. Past films have profiled a group for mothers dealing with delinquent teens; a housing facility for ex-cons; a group of Native American students at a continuation school; and an after-school program at Crenshaw High rewarding academic performance with “fades,” a popular haircut. The films are designed to tell the stories of local people, sometimes even serving as promotional tools for the groups themselves.

Ritter works with Community for Education, made up of parent volunteers looking to promote education in their neighborhood. Doing so has taken them to city council meetings to promote their cause, where Ritter stepped out from behind the camera and spoke on their behalf.

“Everyone in my group believes in their mission,” Ritter said. “You can see how much they really appreciate the help and assistance and to have other people advocating for them.”

The course forces students out of the ivory tower of academia, said professor Stephanie Bower, who founded it along with professor John Murray, both of The Writing Program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Initially inspired by the narrative format of radio programs like This American Life, the course has evolved to be a composition, documentary storytelling class and a service project all rolled into one.

Bower noted that the design of the class was to foster a genuine sense of collaboration between students and advocacy groups working near USC.

“The goal is to be a partnership,” she said. “Not that we’re making a video about you but making one with you.”

Murray added that the course is often a cathartic outlet for some of the  interviewees. The videos, which are screened on campus at the end of the semester, give them a chance to talk about their lives and experiences. “They feel their concerns aren’t isolated to their corner of the world,” Murray said.

When the community partners were invited to a screening of the films last year, Murray said many of them were tearing up. “You sort of forget how many of these people have never had someone sit down and ask them their perspectives, never mind had their views up on a movie screen.”

Amalia Molina, director of Families of the Incarcerated, said her group has worked with the class for several years. The nonprofit organization hosts a class for mothers with troubled teens. Molina said she has used one of the past videos to educate people on the needs of parents.

She agreed that the class has a two-way benefit. Many of the students hadn’t been exposed to how crime affects the families she works with, she said, so it was a real-world educational experience. In addition, many of the parents who are interviewed appreciated the students’ interest.

“I think it’s good for them,” she said. “They feel good because nobody listens to them. The students are trying to understand the issues and be sympathetic.”

Resources for Human Development is one of the newer groups to be involved with the course. The organization offers a broad range of human services, said regional director Aqeela Sherrills, and is dedicated to reducing violence, especially gang violence.

Sherrills, one of the orchestrators of the Watts gang peace treaty, is helping to organize a two-day celebration of the treaty’s 20th anniversary. One group of students interviewed him and other key nonviolence figures about their role in the treaty.

“It’s going to be an invaluable tool,” Sherrills said of the video. “Normally you have to pay for that type of service … the students are willing to get an education about what’s happening in their neighborhood, and they’re producing a historical document we can use and [that can] be used by partnering agencies.”

Matt Gray, one of the students who interviewed Sherrills, said that the treaty anniversary celebration happens to fall the week after his group’s project is due. Still, a number of them are talking about attending anyway.

“What’s unique for USC, is here is a course that has you go out and work with the community,” Gray said. “You have to go out and learn more about this area you go to school in. It encourages community service.”

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