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An Urban Humanities Initiative

Tale of Two Cities: Documenting our Divides

Denise Ward-Brown and Helen Headrick

The events of August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., are now at the epicenter of the political, , geographic and economic history of the St. Louis area. In response, the course “Tale of Two Cities: Documenting Our Divides” uses art as activism. It brings together students from across campuses to engage with local community organizations. Students create documentary videos that use street events, meetings and interviews to capture the immediacy of the current historical moment.

Guest lectures from Washington University faculty members, local professionals and community leaders and a partnership with the Higher Education Channel (HEC-TV) guides students through the history of St. Louis, ethics, and best practices for community engagement, as well as the basics of storytelling and video production.

Video has the potential to create shifts in possibilities, not only with an observer/audience relationship, but also in an individual videographer’s understanding of their world. Dissemination through media can build an activated audience. “Tale of Two Cities” allows students to use video as a problem-solving tool, to engage in self-directed research that moves them beyond the facts to an active production of understanding and meaning. Alignment, distortion, bias, privilege, and dismissiveness are often the foundation of explicit and implicit unconscious language. Creating discourse with the medium of the moving image and sound may change the questions, shift cultural ideas and provide platforms for inventive solutions.

The “Tale of Two Cities” course is designed so that history, theory and academic analysis will be balanced with community engagement and virtual dissemination. Successful completion of this course involves researching and creating short videos with a distinct perspective. Topics can include personal and/or institutional issues of a “divided city” that are exacerbated by race, gender, economic status, sexual orientation, age and/or geography. The focus of art as activism in “Tale of Two Cities” is to raise awareness and to advocate for change.

“Tale of Two Cities: Documenting Our Divides” was taught in the fall of 2015 and 2016 by Associate Professor Denise Ward-Brown of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. The course will be offered again in the Spring 2018 semester.

Upcoming event, “Tale of Two Cities: Documenting Our Divides,” screening student videos, April 30, 2018.

Denise Ward-Brown is an Associate Professor of Art in the College of Art in Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts.

Helen Headrick works with St. Louis’ Higher Education Channel Television (HEC-TV) as an educational opportunities coordinator and associate producer.


Below see student work from the Fall 2015 course of “Tale of Two Cities: Documenting our Divides”