Driving through rural Orange County, North Carolina, a retired elementary school principal tries to explain to Adrienne Harreveld what poverty looks like in the town of Cheeks. In this community just twenty minutes west of Duke, Harreveld saw the effects of long-entrenched poverty. The town’s schools are low-performing, poverty level is in the double digits and community partnerships are non-existent.
Harreveld, a 2014 Trinity graduate and current research coordinator for the Duke/UNC Initiative on Poverty and Inequality, is researching the historical trends of unemployment in Durham. She is working with Professor Robert Korstad (DOCE’s faculty advisory board chair) and Professor Jim Leloudis of UNC to create a research model that will help connect local universities to the greater Durham community in an effort to reduce poverty. “I was shocked by how the university talks about ‘the community’ when I first came to Duke. Students feel like members of Duke, not citizens of Durham,” Harreveld said. “[The Duke/UNC Initiative on Poverty and Inequality] is trying to build a network of universities to create a sustainability model for community engagement.”
In Durham, known for its high economic growth, new industries and one of the U.S.’s highest per-capita Ph.D. rates (and of course good food), over a quarter of children live in poverty. What caused this gap and what can Duke do to help? When a community is faced with poverty, how does the community respond? To answer these questions and to help reduce the town-gown divide, Harreveld and the Duke/UNC Initiative on Poverty and Inequality are working with Durham Mayor Bill Bell on his poverty reduction initiative. Harreveld is focused on building community partnerships and bringing attention to the small grass roots organizations that traditionally might not get recognition.
There are many opportunities for Duke students to get involved in the project and the greater Durham community. Harreveld says, “Students are in an interesting position because the mayor’s Poverty Initiative just launched this summer; everyone has been involved since the get-go.” Forty undergraduates, representing many majors at Duke and UNC, are helping to build an analysis that will help identify the deep historical roots of poverty, structural factors such as education and racism that can increase poverty and the systemic causes of poverty beyond individual choice.
In the History of Poverty class, co-taught by Professors Korstad and Leloudis, students are stepping out of Duke’s “ivory tower” and entering the Durham community. By establishing a collaborative partnership, resources and ideas between the university and community are mutually exchanged to help foster change. This class marks one of the first times that Duke students are directly interacting with Durham’s government. “I think it should be required of all students,” Harreveld said. “Through their volunteer work, students realize that they do in fact live in a city while they’re also gaining some useful research analysis skills. The mayor has found our work incredibly helpful.”
Currently, the project is focusing on surveying the community and getting the input of Durham citizens. Students working on the initiative helped create the survey, will administer it upon completion and will join task forces to address the problems the survey identifies. This project is an initiative of Duke’s new Consortium on Social Equity and has no end date. “There is a lot of momentum around the work that we’re doing,” Harreveld says. “I’m constantly shocked by what I am finding.”