Everyone has a story.

January 26, 2011

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Everyone has a story.

Shay Curry was raised by prostitutes and shot a man, but has since redeemed herself by helping ex-offenders find their way.

Pollie Dodge is almost 100 with crippling arthritis, but she beats a mean African drum.

Those are two of the tales captured by students in UAB's Digital Community Studies program, which teaches budding filmmakers to find and reveal a personal story that can change an entire community by its telling.

"It really transformed many things for me - what I thought I could achieve, how I thought about storytelling and what that story can do for a community," said 21-year-old UAB student Anna Lloyd, who filmed Dodge's story with fellow student Doug Franks.

Lloyd and several DCS students were able to revisit their film subjects and interview them again for StoryCorps, a national oral history project that is visiting Birmingham through the end of January. StoryCorps' mobile booth tours the country and collects interviews from everyday people that are archived in the Library of Congress. Its stories are spotlighted weekly on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

When StoryCorps' plan to come to Birmingham and interview its citizens became known, the group's website and phone lines were bombarded; all 60 time slots for interviews were reserved in less than 10 minutes. The organization's offer to give UAB students 15 slots to tell their stories was unprecedented.

"The students gobbled those slots up," said Rosie O'Beirne, co-director of the Digital Community Studies program.

"The experiences of everyday people can inform us of the larger trends. We tend to rely on outside experts, but StoryCorps and DCS share a philosophy that people are experts in their own lives and their own experiences," said DCS co-director Michele Forman. "When StoryCorps heard about our goals, they gave us a significant number of slots."

UAB student Logan Talbot's film "Whole-way House" spotlighted Curry's better-than-fiction story. He was excited to be able to talk to her again.

"I was interested in finding those details I didn't get in the film," he said. "In the mobile booth we sat down and had a dinner conversation - a dysfunctional family dinner conversation."

Lloyd felt Dodge's story needed to be immortalized. When she first heard the woman play the African drum, she was entranced. It's not every day you see a 90-plus-year-old woman pound on a drum like a 20-year-old.

"I was thrilled because I know she has a story worth documenting," she said.

The DCS program takes curious students and transforms them into storytellers with a camera. When they enter the program, they are first taught to be good listeners, O'Beirne said. Then, the stories come seamlessly, she said. "You meet so many people you normally wouldn't meet based on the question, "What is your story?"

So, what makes a good story?

"We Southerners love stories," Forman said with a smile. "Some of the best stories are the ones right around us - those who face all sorts of challenges and meet them with courage and downright craziness." 

O'Beirne agreed: "All stories reveal something about the individual and their community."