Civic Life Project offers opportunity to engage with community issues

Last year, as the new Hurvis Building was in the final stages of renovations, Lawrence was introduced to a course called the Civic Life Project that would impact not only the newly developed Film Studies department, but also the lives of Lawrentians.

The Civic Life Project was originally created four years ago by Artist-in-Residence and former PBS producers Catherine Tatge and her husband Dominique Lasseur in Connecticut. They created the project for high school students to help engage them in social action through documentary filmmaking.

“We always found ourselves preaching to the converted,” said Tatge. “So we thought, how do we reach an audience who feel like they don’t have much of a voice or much of a say in our democracy? And that’s how Civic Life was born.”

When Tatge came to help develop the new film studies department at the new Hurvis Film Center, she approached former-president Jill Beck and asked if she could introduce this project to undergraduate students.

“They are the perfect audience because, in some way, once they graduate, they are ready to go out into the community,” said Tatge. “And even if they cannot do something immediately, they are already sensitized and have this in the back of their minds and chances are they will be involved in their own communities.”

In the Civic Life Project, the students interact with different community leaders, like Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Oshkosh Corporation Scott Hines, Wisconsin State Assembly Representative Penny Bernard-Schaber and Mayor of Appleton Timothy Hanner, to discuss issues occurring in the community. After hearing these speakers, students are encouraged to pick a topic that appeals to them and create a film that discusses these issues.

During the class, students learn skills that help them become both great filmmakers and citizens, like learning how to be open-minded and empathetic while at the same time learning how to tell a story visually.

“I thought I knew how to talk to people and be empathetic and earn their trust,” said junior and former Civic Life student Nancy Corona. “But a lot of it has to do with how you phrase your questions and being careful how you phrase your questions.”

This year, students participated in a retreat program called “Habits of the Heart” in Björklunden that helped the students to learn and hone these different skills.

“We discussed different ways to interview people while talking about our own experiences,” current Civic Life student and junior Brienne Colston. “We talked about our identities and our place in space, where we come from and how it reflects what we believe, and taking our responses from each other and using them as a vehicle to figure out how we want to interview people who are different from us.”

In addition to building communication and empathy skills, the Civic Life Project also introduces Lawrentians to new career possibilities. Last spring, Tatge took a group of students to Los Angeles to get a taste of the film industry. There, the students met directors, agents and visited famous sets.

“It’s a very risky field to go into but I think what was really enlightening was that everyone we met was clearly passionate and happy with what they’re doing,” said Corona, who had never been exposed to the film industry before taking the course. “It was really eye-opening and it reminded me that if I was passionate and worked hard towards it, it can happen.”

Although the course helps create interest in the already growing film department, the main purpose, according to Tatge, is to create conversation around the community’s issues.

Last year, the Civic Life Project premiered various films to the community at the Fox Valley Technology College that touched on issues such as homophobia, sex trafficking and the education of undocumented students, which was created by Corona.

“The films are conversation pieces,” said Tatge. “What happens is people say ‘Well, I can show these films to my classes and schools,’ and from there the films develop a life of their own.”

By becoming involved in the process of creating films, students are educated about the issues that are occurring in Appleton and are encouraged to get involved. In a school where not many students feel compelled to volunteer or learn about the issues, the Civic Life Project forces Lawrentians to be well informed on these issues.

“I think a big part in why Lawrentians are not involved is because we don’t know Appleton or its issues,” said Colston. “When I came here as a freshman, I thought that Appleton was just a racist place with not a lot of diversity and I didn’t stop to think that it was a real town with a lot of issues, bigger than what you would expect from a small town.”

“As a whole, this generation is very selfish,” said Corona. “We’re very much influenced to think only about ourselves and the aspect of community and not really expecting anything back. The class reminds us that there’s more than just us and there’s more you can do with your education.”

Although the fate of the Civic Life Project course is currently unknown, the course has shown that filmmaking is a great foray to involve Lawrence in the Appleton community. The current Civic Life students are preparing to go into the community and begin their projects and their journey to educating the company.

Even if the Civic Life Project does not continue in the future, the products and labor of these students will still be around to stimulate conversations and learn from each other.

“I’m learning so much from the students. I look at the students as colleagues, not as students,” said Tatge. “It’s interesting to tell a story when it’s not about egos or competition but it’s about passion and eagerness to learn about the community. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

“This is definitely the best class I’ve taken at Lawrence so far,” said Corona.

The Civic Life Project plans on having a screening of their new films next term, but if you want to learn more about the course or about the film studies department, please contact Artist-in-Residence Catherine Tatge.