WWU students, faculty working to educate the public on the plight of the homeless

A service-learning project that began with students offering backpacks to the homeless has evolved into a full-blown film festival and educational campaign.

While brainstorming ideas for a service-learning project in 2014, Associate Professor of Communication Studies Tara Perry and a student teaching assistant landed on the idea of filling backpacks with supplies and giving them to people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham. The project sparked a fire in Perry.

“Homelessness is something we should all know and care about,” Perry said. “If every single person, even just people here at Western, wanted to do something about it, can you imagine what that would look like?”

There are 719 people living without a home in Whatcom County this year according to the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. So, how does a community come together to combat homelessness? They do it through education, Perry said.

For the last two years, Perry has been incorporating and her #endhomelessnesswwu service-learning project and awareness in Communication courses. Through reading, research, collaboration and community outreach, students learn about and educate others on the systematic issue of homelessness.

“My passion for the issue of homelessness began with this student’s suggestion of backpacks and the whole idea is about reaching out and learning more about people experiencing homelessness,” Perry said.

As part of their effort to engage with the community and educate people, students in Perry’s organizational communication course flyered in Red Square on Thursday, Nov. 3. Their homemade, crumpled cardboard signs listed facts, suggestions and quotes about homelessness, which they used to broadcast their message and spark conversation.

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the conversation will continue at a Social Justice Film Festival in Communications Facility 115 from 5:15-7:15. Student, faculty and community members will debut mini-documentaries focusing on overarching themes of social justice.

This quarter, students in Organizational Communication 228 and Documentary Filmmaking 400 created mini-documentaries about people experiencing homelessness and the resources available in the community as part of the newly reimagined service-learning opportunity.

“What makes this film festival unique is the intergenerational focus – our youngest filmmakers are 11 and our eldest are about 50,” Perry explained. The film festival is about homelessness but it is also about social justice projects that impact everyone.

In addition to the student films, there will be documentaries about feminism, peace and student voices of young 11 to 14-year-olds from Harbor Island, Bahamas, whom Perry taught filmmaking. Perry will also preview her documentary, “Beyond Selfless,” and the Journalism department’s Stephen Howie and Maria Mcleod will preview their documentary on peacemaking.

“Service learning is the best way to learn about diversity and issues that you can be a part of because it allows you to take the material you are learning in class and apply it in the real world,” Perry said. “And this film festival is another way to carry out educational awareness.”

Senior Ashlee Stormo has been working alongside Perry as part of an independent study course to plan the film festival and will be showing her own documentary on feminism.

“The students have gone about their films in such creative ways,” Stormo said. “They are learning about empathy through working on the projects about homelessness because they are being exposed to topics that haven’t been exposed to before.”

Three of the five student films explore what different organizations are doing about homelessness, how they can work together and people can get involved, while the others take a look at Western students experiencing homelessness and LGBTQ youth.

“I wanted to incorporate film into this class because I am a Communication professor and artist. You can bring issues to life through film,” Perry said. "It is important to teach students how to create documentaries to spread awareness about marginalized groups."

Over the summer, Perry worked with community partners from Bellingham’s Opportunity Council, Spicer Dent Productions and Western’s Center for Service Learning toward sustainable and long-lasting projects and solutions to homelessness. They engaged in conversation with people experiencing homelessness and asked the community what they needed most. The answer? Spread awareness.

This year’s film festival is a result of ongoing conversation and collaboration.

“We transitioned from backpacks to learning about how to build relationships and learning what it means to have these relationships with the homeless community,” Perry said. “Anything I do now is going to be about educational awareness.”

For more information on Perry's project or the work of her students, view one of the short films her class has made on the topic by clicking here.