Why and How We Engage

by Eric Mlyn, Ph.D | Associate Vice Provost for Civic Engagement and Executive Director of DukeEngage

You have read in this space before about the work that Leslie Parkins and the Duke Office of Civic Engagement have been organizing to help us complete our civic action plan. I have attended nearly all of the sessions and thus have heard from more than a hundred members of the Duke community – students, faculty and staff – as they have reflected on the current state of civic engagement at Duke.  This has been very edifying for me and allowed me the opportunity to reflect on where things stand here at Duke and what changes we might hope to accomplish.

Two things are of particular note. First, I think that we as a community should take great pride in how much we problematize the work of civic engagement here at Duke. Questions concerning how we do this work ethically and in true partnership with communities pervade all that we do in civic engagement at Duke. Whether it is the FOCUS cluster Knowledge in the Service of Society for first-year students or the new Certificate in Civic Engagement and Social Change, we start by asking the question:  Should higher education bring its resources to local, national and international communities, when it almost always does so from a position of power and privilege? And we proceed from there to ask: If we are to do this work, how can we bring our best selves to it and mitigate all of the potential negative consequences of what we do?

This links to a second point that has become increasingly clear as I do this kind of work longer and longer – and that is that this work is incredibly hard to do. I’m proud that we at Duke have never taken that reality as an excuse to rest on our laurels or to make excuses for the flaws in our efforts or for not reaching our fullest aspirations. Work outside of the confines of our classrooms is almost invariably touched by the unanticipated or unknown, with people who are different than us in places not like our own homes. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why we do this work – because we are able to learn deeply from it while at the same time making real contributions to the communities that we serve. As  with so many things, where there is high risk there can be high reward, which is why we carry on and persevere.

We, of course, do not yet know what will emerge from all of the outreach that we have done around the civic action planning, but I would be surprised if something didn’t come out of it that emphasized a recommitment to the ethical underpinnings of our work. I have already heard this voiced by many members of our community – who both do the hard work of problematizing our work and continue to aspire to do it better.