#BlackLivesMatter and the Role of Civic Engagement in the Fight for Racial Justice in Higher Education


Patrisse Cullors speaks at Page Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 28.
Patrisse Cullors speaks at Page Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

“… It takes courage.” These are the words that echo most strongly in my head as I reflect on Patrisse Cullors’ charge to our group of civically engaged faculty. Cullors, co-founder of the influential #BlackLivesMatter movement, stopped at Duke mid-way through her college campus speaking tour promoting the work of #BLM, such as resistance to police violence and ending mass incarceration of people of color. And upon the invitation of the DOCE, Cullors, along with Toronto-based fellow activist Future, joined the Faculty Advisory Board and several invited faculty on October 28 for a frank conversation on the role of universities in the fight for social justice.

Bob Korstad, labor historian and chair of the faculty board, opened the conversation with remarks on the ways university students and faculty have contributed to social reform in the U.S. since the 1930s. Over lunch, we discussed the role of higher education in today’s social movements: both the inherent strengths of the university context – such as the potential for transformative learning and youth mobilization – as well as the challenges of these spaces, such as the slow pace of change, historic inequalities in the university system, underrepresentation of faculty and students of color, and more.

In addition to challenging the university structure, a key takeaway was the need to shift campus culture. While it takes everyone, from students to administration, Cullors argued that with their long-term presence on the campus, faculty need to assume greater responsibility in contributing to those culture shifts. Several faculty raised the challenge of a tenure and promotion system which leaves little room for activism and engagement in creating social change. As such, to engage in the support of marginalized students can put one’s career at risk. Cullors picked up on this – “You all are the first group of faculty that has invited me to join them [on this speaking tour],” Cullors noted. “… [That] takes courage.”

Patrisse Cullors and faculty members discuss #BlackLivesMatter.

But our acts of courage cannot end with our one sit-down lunch with a nationally famous activist. Later in the evening, in her public address to a capacity crowd at Page Auditorium, Cullors was adamant that if Duke wanted to help dismantle the race and class hierarchies of the U.S., it would have to cease to exist. “Institutions like Duke were built on the backs of anti-black racism, the genocide of indigenous people,” she said. “And the first place institutions like Duke must go to is, what have we done to contribute? How has our existence actually allowed for the death of black people? We have to be honest about that, and most of us don’t want to be.”

These critiques leave us with big questions. Is ethical civic engagement possible in Durham in light of our university’s history? How do Cullors’ critiques challenge our motives and methods for civic engagement? While questions of ethics, methods, and motivations are time-old debates for civic engagement in higher education, Cullors’ message underscores that amid the events of racism and homophobia on our campus and racial tensions around the country , these questions ought to take on renewed urgency for us. As these events reveal so clearly, Duke has significant work to do in order to become a just, equitable, and safe space for all of its students, staff, and faculty.

Looking back to Cullors’ words at the DOCE conversation, “it takes courage;” we must choose courage in the face of these questions that so many do not want to face. We are well poised to do so in civic engagement, for our work, in all of its various forms, allows for the chance to critically reflect on our involvement on our campus, in Durham, and in the wider North Carolina community. At its best, civic engagement does not shy away from the tough questions of the role of low wage labor in the university’s founding, or the historically fraught relationship between Duke and Durham. Instead, through service and scholarship that transcends textbooks and classrooms, we can engage the protests, election booths, and community organizations that are addressing these questions in real time.

Our one day with Patrisse Cullors yielded greatly fruitful conversation, but the work of that day was just the beginning for us. We must take the broad question of that day about universities in general, and ask, what is the role of our university in the fight for justice? More specifically, what will be the role of civic engagement in transforming our universities to more just and safe places for students of all races, classes, sexual orientations, gender identities, and abilities? As Cullors challenged us to ask ourselves, what will we do to save black lives? We look forward to continuing these very important conversations in the months and years to come.