“Us and them”: How we discuss engagement in Durham


As the DOCE begins its new initiative to identify and support scholarly engagement in Durham, we have participated in a number of conversations such as last week’s Connecting Communities panel. Even in these initial discussions, a few facts have become clear. For one, the Duke community is already engaging in Durham in many ways – through service, scholarly research, and political advocacy, to name a few. While most people recognize the stereotype that Duke is simply “serving” or “helping” the “needy” City of Durham, most also realize that the stereotype is dated and largely untrue. While it’s difficult to quantify all the ways the Duke community engages in Durham, it’s clear that the connections are numerous. Many of those partnerships fall under the umbrella of the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs (DARA). As Duke Partnership for Service President Katherine Fraille pointed out at the “Connecting Communities” panel, the fact that Duke has an office dedicated to its relationship with Durham says volumes about its intentions. DARA’s programs connect students directly with community organizations, and it is a strong reflection of the intentionality with which Duke approaches its regional roles.

Thanks to DARA and numerous other programs at Duke, the civic engagement model has moved beyond that dated stereotype. Yet while Duke’s actions and attitudes toward Duke have evolved, the way we, as a campus, speak about Durham may not always represent this more symbiotic relationship. It has become clear that, too often in casual conversation, “we” and “us” refer to Duke and “they” and “them” refer to Durham. In some ways, it’s a matter of practicality – a quick way to distinguish the communities to which we’re referring. But it also seems to reflect deeper prevailing attitudes of the gated agrarian campus, keeping privileged out-of-state students from experiencing the realities of Southern urban life. This is another outdated stereotype: although “privileged” to have gained admission to an elite university, half of Duke students receive some sort of financial aid, and students, faculty, and staff come from every part of the world. The campus has expanded farther into downtown Durham, and Duke has invested significantly in neighborhood improvements. Yet we speak about connecting “communities,” plural, as though Duke is not an important part of the Durham community.

Many Duke faculty and staff not only work in Durham but live and raise families in the city. We pay taxes for city and county services such as public schooling, trash pickup, and road maintenance. We own or rent property, and as long-term residents we have some investment in the city’s future. For students, it’s not so clear-cut. Only 14.9 percent of the class of 2012 (the latest year listed) has stayed in North Carolina. In contrast, nearly a quarter ended up moving to New York. It is clear that Duke students love Duke, but in just four years they might not be able to form such meaningful bonds with the city in which their university is located.

As a native North Carolinian, senior Jacob Tobia is in the minority of Duke students. It speaks to Duke’s prestige that its students come from all over the country and the world, but  that fact may also contribute to the disconnect that the Duke community may feel toward their temporary home. To Tobia, who is from Raleigh, it quickly became clear that many students did not consider themselves Durham community members: “I shouldn’t have any dissidence between my identity as a Duke student and my identity as a North Carolinian, but the reality is that when I got on campus my freshman year and people were kind of making fun of hush puppies, I did… When I hear people laughing about it or joking about it or sort of saying, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get out,’ you know, it makes it hard to be a North Carolinian and a Duke student.” This disconnect has a strong impact, since students, who can register to vote in Durham, may choose not to participate in local or state elections.

As our understanding of the ways we practice civic engagement continues to evolve, it will be important to consider Duke’s role in the Triangle region. As one of the largest employers in the state, Duke’s presence is undoubtedly beneficial for the city and region. The university boosts the economy, provides advanced health care, and has a population that engages in many ways, locally, nationally, and globally. The university’s success is intertwined with the region’s success. A healthy, vibrant city can attract students to the area and boost alumni engagement after graduation. At the same time, Duke will inevitably be affected by the state of education, poverty, and crime in the surrounding area. If Duke is to realistically look at the state of civic engagement, it will be important to realize that Duke and Durham are not completely separate communities. In working with, and not for, Durham, we are investing in the future of this common community.

Duke students live in one of the best food cities in the South, in a region experiencing a business boom in the technology and medical fields. The region also offers a vibrant arts scene and an opportunity for students to serve on local boards, engage in local politics, and partner with the community through DARA’s many programs. At the same time, many of the pressing issues Duke students travel across the world to ameliorate also exist just a few blocks from their dorm rooms. Those who choose not to fully experience what Durham has to offer are missing out on a major part of the Duke experience.