This past Tuesday, DOCE Director Megan Granda participated in a panel, hosted by Duke Student Government (DSG) and the University Center Activities and Events (UCAE), called “Connecting Communities.” The panel focused on the ways Duke students can connect with the Durham community. The panel was hosted by Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and DOCE faculty advisory board member; the panelists were Megan Granda, Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Vice President for Durham and Regional Affairs (DARA) Phail Wynn, and Duke Partnership for Service President Kat Fraile, a Duke senior.
The panel conversation was introduced by Steve Schewel. Schewel, a visiting assistant professor for the Hart Leadership Program, is founder of the Independent newspaper and is active in Durham politics. In his address, Schewel commented on the number of outreach accomplished by Duke undergraduates and offered advice for students looking to broaden their civic impacts.
Mayor Bell asserted that there are several qualities Duke can offer Durham: intelligence, passion, energy, and commitment. How, one student audience member asked, can students be sure that their service is actually helping, and not doing more harm than good? It seemed to be a question the panelists had grappled with. Dr. Wynn spoke of DARA’s attempts to ensure continuity by working with community partners and by funding fellowships for graduating seniors to work for community partners. Dr. Granda pointed out that faculty and staff are often the bridge – although students come and go every four years, faculty and staff have longer appointments – and are often community members themselves. In programs such as those run by DARA, students are often the ones actually fulfilling service and working with the community – but the continuity is provided by the staff and faculty who work closely with community partners to arrange these service projects year after year.
Another overarching theme of the panel was the sheer amount of service being performed locally, nationally, and globally by Duke students. As Dr. Wynn pointed out, there are 2000 registered nonprofits in Durham and 8300 in the Triangle region – all with only 35 different missions. It’s a natural – and probably very American – instinct for citizens to want to build something new, to solve society’s problems through entrepreneurship. However, the question remains whether all these individual efforts are as effective or efficient as they could be. Fraile asserted that at Duke, a confounding issue is that students want to be leaders – many would much rather be president of a very small group than simply a member of a larger group. Again, this fragmentation means that efforts may be duplicated and that civic engagement at Duke may not always be as deliberative or as efficient as it could be.
Mayor Bell spoke optimistically about Duke’s effects and its potential. While students may only be in Durham for four years, he said, “Each of you can have a transformative effect on some facet of the community.” He spoke of how the relationship between Duke and Durham has strengthened over different Duke administrations, and how, while Duke doesn’t make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) like many Northeastern schools, its revitalization efforts have substituted for those in many ways.
A major priority of the DOCE is to help coordinate and incubate Duke’s efforts to continue to strengthen its relationship with Durham. An important ingredient in this effort will be more conversations like this one – convening students, staff, faculty, and community partners to honestly and thoughtfully assess the strengths and weaknesses of Duke’s community engagement. We look forward to convening and participating in more conversations like this in the future, and we commend DSG for organizing this forum.