Civic Lives series: Lessons learned

Recently, the DOCE started a new film series, “Civic Lives at Duke,” highlighting the ways students, faculty, staff, and alumni practice civic engagement at Duke and in the larger community.  So far we’ve conducted 9 interviews with 10 engaged Duke community members, and there are more coming soon. The first video, featuring staff member Pat James, has been posted on our homepage, and more will be posted in the next few weeks. It’s been a diverse group of public scholars, social entrepreneurs, political activists, and engaged community members – but despite this diversity, there have been some commonalities in what many of our participants have observed about civic engagement at Duke.

The civic engagement landscape at Duke is often overwhelming. Duke’s system is purposely decentralized. There are many advantages to this system – it’s less bureaucratic and there are more opportunities to collaborate on issues. Yet collaboration is also difficult because many people simply don’t know who else at the university is working on similar projects. Many of our participants have called for a comprehensive inventory of civic engagement at Duke.

Civic engagement encompasses many activities. The DOCE’s view of civic engagement is shown on Duke’s Civic Engagement homepage, where we break it into five actions: serve, advocate, innovate, research, and (coming soon!) develop. While many people see civic engagement as equivalent to community service, our interviewees engaged in many other activities that also fell into this larger category.

There is a desire for more engagement with Durham. One of the DOCE’s long-term goals is to create a mechanism to more explicitly and easily connect Duke scholarship and research with the Durham community. While Duke has many active programs connecting with the Durham community, it is often more difficult for scholars to figure out ways to engage in Durham.

Engagement is not simply an extracurricular activity. One question we asked participants was how they were engaged in their personal and professional (or academic)  lives. For several of the people we interviewed, there was also a third component – their public personas.  To me, their answers were striking – none of them saw a division between their professional or academic lives and their personal lives. Several participants talked about how religious faith inspired their actions. Many saw civic engagement as something that inspired their professional plans, affected the ways they interacted with people in their lives, and shaped how they spent their spare time. All our participants felt that on a systemic level, simply going out and volunteering on an extracurricular level would not be enough to make a meaningful difference.

Duke is a very supportive environment for engagement… There are myriad opportunities for civic engagement at Duke – there are multiple programs and initiatives, resources for students and faculty to participate in service learning, and an overall ethos of community service. “Knowledge in the service of society” is encoded in Duke’s strategic plan, after all, and all our participants commented in some way on Duke’s active and engaged community service landscape.

…but participants often crave more reflection. What does it mean when students spend hours tutoring Durham public school students every year, but then don’t vote in local elections that directly impact those schools? Is Duke’s civic engagement addressing systemic inequalities, or are participants just treating the symptoms of those inequalities? What are the ethics of engagement in other countries? Many of our interview subjects expressed the wish that, in this decentralized system, there was more room for these discussions.

We’ve enjoyed all of these interviews – they’ve been enlightening and fun, and we’re very excited to share them. Keep an eye on our website for more videos from this series!