Capturing community: The Detroit Muslim Storytelling Project digital archive

Posted by Sara Volmering on

Two Western Michigan University professors are helping to share and preserve stories from an inspiring community project in west Detroit with a new online video archive. Dr. Alisa Perkins, associate professor in comparative religion, and Amy Bocko, assistant professor in the University Libraries, joined forces to create an online archive for the Dream Storytelling Project. The archive features a growing number of video interviews with people involved in community and civic engagement in west Detroit.

Mark Crain and Dream of Detroit volunteers at Summer 2015 Board Up Day. Photo courtesy of Dream of Detroit.

The Dream Storytelling Project, also known as the Detroit Muslim Storytelling Project, is a community-driven initiative to help increase public knowledge of African American Muslim community building in Detroit historically and today. It was initiated in 2019 and is co-led by Mark Crain, executive director of Dream of Detroit and Perkins.

“This community dates back to one of the earliest Black Muslim communities in the nation, with the Nation of Islam,” said Crain during a recent online presentation about the project hosted by WMU’s Center for the Humanities. “We’re connected to a really rich legacy that has just tons of incredible stories worth preserving.”

The storytelling project may also help build bridges between older and younger community members.

“As we’re building toward the future, we know that there can’t be a disconnect between us and the generations who’ve come before. We have to honor their stories. We have to know their stories. We have to share and propagate their stories. And so this project is an effort to do that,” said Crain during the presentation.

Working with Perkins, members of this Detroit community were trained to become community ethnographers and help capture storytellers’ knowledge and experiences in their communities. Nine young people between the ages of 15 and 21 helped select the storytellers, complete background research, and write, conduct and record the interviews. Having members of the community planning and conducting the interviews has been critical to the project’s success.

The project utilizes the principles of community-based participatory research (CBPR). This method engages the people most affected by an issue in a collaborative knowledge production process.

Dr. Alisa Perkins
Comparative Religion

“Following this approach, our project’s leadership and creative team mainly comprises members of the community being represented,” said Perkins. “Our team includes media experts, filmmakers, activists and young people who identify as part of metro-Detroit’s Black Muslim communities or the area’s broader Muslim American community.”

With the support from the Pillars Fund, a $10,000 Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Seed Grant, and a $250,000 Henry Luce Foundation Grant, the team and project scope expanded significantly.

This project expansion led Dr. Perkins and the Dream team to the University Libraries and the creation of an online video archive, as they considered how to preserve and share the video recordings.

The project team intended to utilize clips on their website and eventually for a short documentary in their initial plans. Many of the interviews lasted over 90 minutes, some as long as three hours, with various community members and leaders. Some of the storytellers have passed away since their recording session.

“What didn’t come to light until I talked to Amy was that when we capture these beautiful interviews, it would be a shame to just take a two-minute clip from a three-hour interview and put it on a website. A website is ephemeral, and that would be the end of that,” said Perkins.

Amy Bocko
University Libraries

“I heard about the video oral histories that were being collected,” said Bocko. “What I thought that we could do was serve as a space to preserve, provide access and describe these incredible interviews that have been collected by these [community] ethnographers.”

Bocko and Perkins collaborated to create a video archive for the project in WMU’s institutional repository, ScholarWorks. Not only would an online archive serve as long-term storage, but it would make the recordings easily accessible to the public and allow the Dream team to create robust descriptions to accompany the recordings.

Bocko built the video archive from scratch because it was the first one created in the ScholarWorks platform at WMU.

“I like to describe [ScholarWorks] as a place where we capture both the history and the scholarship and intellectual output of members of our [WMU] community,” said Bocko.

After creating workflows and deciding what features the archive needed to ensure easy access, Bocko and Perkins worked with University Libraries colleagues and a growing team of archivist interns from WMU and other universities to create robust metadata and descriptions for the videos.

After fine-tuning workflows and developing the archive in a test site, the archive went live and has continued to grow as Dream continues interviewing storytellers in the community. The creation of the archive also helped showcase the project’s work to potential funders.

“This project that was just going to be people in the community doing something on a small and ephemeral scale is really turning into a much larger endeavor,” said Perkins. “I believe that the WMU ScholarWorks [archive] and Professor Bocko’s expertise has fueled us tremendously.

“We started out wanting to collect 30 interviews on some iPhones and make a short documentary. And it’s grown into just this incredible archival project that we’re really proud to be a part of and proud to produce,” said Crain.

View the video archive and learn more about the Dream Storytelling Project.

Photo at top of page: Interview with Shaykh Ali Sulieman Ali, Muslim Center, Detroit, August, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tasleem Joseph.