Engaging through advocacy at Duke

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Artifacts of Professor Bob Korstad’s class on activism at Duke

College students are not necessarily known for being politically engaged, and perhaps for good reason. According to the US Census Bureau, only 38 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the 2012 presidential election. That election was consistent with those of the last fifty years – with young people voting at rates 15 to 20 percent below those of older cohorts. This disengagement may only worsen. North Carolina’s recently-enacted voter ID requirements, set to take effect in 2016, could make it more difficult for college students to register and vote, some have argued.

Whether or not Duke students’ voting rates match those of young people nationally, the numbers above don’t reflect the depth and breadth of cause-based and political advocacy opportunities available at Duke. On our Advocate page, we list 32 courses and 70 student-run organizations involving advocacy. Some of Duke’s most active and vibrant programs, from the Pauli Murray Project to the Women’s Center, allow Duke students, faculty and staff to engage through advocacy.

The same page features a video interview with Jacob Tobia, a Trinity 2014 graduate who called advocacy for various causes at Duke the “lab component” of his self-designed degree in human rights advocacy and leadership. Through his Clinton Global Initiative University Commitment to Action, Tobia advocated to fight LGBT homelessness. Other students used their CGI U Commitments to advocate for various causes – for example, two students worked with patients and health care workers in Swaziland to help fight against the stigma of mental illness. Another individual used his commitment to work with communities in North Carolina, advocating for a multi-use path to encourage physical activity and greener transportation.

Many faculty members and students have brought their research findings forward to inform political debates. In the past week, student (and our CGI U representative) Jay Sullivan co-authored, with Public Policy Professor David Schanzer, an op-ed for the New York Times, “Cancel the Midterms.” On Tuesday, local public radio station WUNC featured Professor Missy Cummings, who has translated her research on drone technology into recommendations for U.S. drone policy. Every day, major news networks feature Duke scholars not just sharing their research publicly but also translating its policy implications.

Duke students have a rich history of advocacy. This fact became clear recently, when the DOCE inherited a box of materials from our faculty advisory board chair, Professor Robert Korstad. In 1994, Korstad taught an undergraduate course, Student Activism and Social Change. The box is stuffed full of syllabi, papers, class notes – as well as floppy disks and cassette tapes containing interviews with past participants in social movements at Duke. That year, Korstad even organized a conference, “Working for Social Change: A Duke Tradition.”

A flyer for the event sets the political stage of the time:

Change is in the air: black South Africans are going to the polls, market economies are emerging in Eastern Europe and Russia, a Democratic president sits in the White House, and a woman heads Duke University. But change does not come easy, whether in international relations, domestic politics, or student life. War, poverty, violence, and other social problems threaten our hopes for a better world. Such critical times demand that we reflect on where we have been if we are to know where we have been if we are to know where we are going…

Twenty years and several political party shifts later, it strikes me that, with a few details changed, most of that paragraph still holds true today. In a time of constant social change – and threats of those changes being reversed again, very quickly, colleges and universities hold an important role, as a link between young and older generations, and their power should not be ignored or underestimated.

For Duke students, political advocacy can sometimes take more radical forms of protest – like in the case of the Ph.D students who recently staged a hunger strike to raise awareness for Kobani, an area being attacked by ISIS militants. The most well-known of these protests, the Silent Vigil, occurred early in April, 1968. (A Duke Magazine article detailing the protest, which was included in Korstad’s materials, can be found online here.)

The Silent Vigil began the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with a march to demand that all Duke workers be paid at least the federal minimum wage and that workers be granted collective bargaining power. On the first day of the protest, 450 students occupied the home of Duke President Douglas M. Knight, refusing to leave until he coalesced to their demands. The students remained in President Knight’s home for two days, until the president left the house and the students moved to the main quad. The crowd continued to grow, with 2000 students eventually camping on the quad and folk singers Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and David Harris making an appearance. The protest was ultimately successful after low-paid employees went on strike and Wright Tisdale, chairman of the board of trustees, made a public statement acknowledging that Duke needed to do more to support its non-academic employees.

As the Duke Magazine article points out, the protest was successful on a practical level but it also changed Duke’s political consciousness and its public perception. Most of the students who participated in the protest had never previously participated in political demonstrations. For many participants, the protest marked the beginning of a lifetime of political engagement.

Duke has a rich history of engaging through advocacy, as Korstad’s research shows. Today, Duke students shrug off facile dismissals of millennials as unengaged, unaware or uninterested, and they work with engaged faculty, staff and alumni to change perceptions and policies regarding key issues locally, nationally and globally. Duke provides many ways to engage through advocacy, and our community members take full advantage of those opportunities.