Invested Citizenship: Why I engage with my communities and you should too

Guest post by Katie Colleran | Associate Director, Center for Leadership Development and Social Action

In college, when presented with the opportunity to write a thesis on any topic, I turned to the volunteer work that had been such a pivotal part of my experience. During a conversation with a man who had been formerly homeless, he made the statement that Vermont was the best place to be homeless. I was fascinated by this and set off on a journey to discover if it was true. Along the way, I interviewed some incredible people, but also learned lessons about civic engagement and structures that have shaped the way I live my life now.

I have lived in six different states and one of the first things I do in each place, after getting a library card, is to seek out community agencies to volunteer with. Since my motivation is to understand the intricacies of a community, I tend to seek out organizations that focus on a wide range of issues. Two that people might be familiar with are United Way and Activate Good. I serve as a project lead with these agencies, getting on the ground in different neighborhoods and helping the volunteers who show up for my project to see the bigger societal systems at play. One of the biggest lessons I have learned over the years is how little people tend to know about their own communities. Never be afraid to speak to your neighbors or connect with community organizations. One of the first steps to creating positive change where you live is to know what needs to be changed and what does not.

Never be afraid to speak to your neighbors or connect with community organizations. One of the first steps to creating positive change where you live is to know what needs to be changed and what does not.

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I led a 6-week project that focused on homelessness. We volunteered together, but we also met with community organizers, non-profit managers, and people who were actually experiencing homelessness to discuss the root causes of this issue and how we could better address them as people who lived in the community. Instead of just masses living on the streets, the people who were homeless began to take on a name and a face for that group. I remember spending an evening with Operation Nightwatch, starting with assuring my nervous volunteers that you could speak to people who were homeless about the same things you speak to non-homeless people about. Simple apprehensions are sometimes the biggest obstacles to community investment. As the night wore on, friendships were made over Monopoly and barriers were broken down. The people my volunteers had met would now be on their minds when they were voting in local elections or explaining to a friend why not to just ignore someone living on the street. As a part of these volunteer groups, I challenge my own assumptions about what a community is and experience my homes in a way I never could if I stayed on the sidelines.

I have been in Durham for over four years now. I think one of my favorite parts of my community work in Durham has been that it ties so closely back to the work I do at Duke. I am able to bring a community perspective to my students, to help them understand the ways in which Durham is their community too and how they can contribute to it. One of the components of the Duke University Leadership Framework is Citizenship. In my Center, we challenge students to think of the communities that they are a part of and how they can contribute positively to those communities. For many students at Duke, they do not consider Durham their community and sometimes when they venture into Durham to volunteer, it is very much on their own agenda. As someone who has actually taken time to get to know various communities in Durham, I can help connect them with opportunities and resources to know more.

In my college thesis, I did end up finding that Vermont, due to its size and number of resources, is able to meet many of the needs of its homeless population. I would have never known that if I had not taken the time to get on the ground and have the conversations. I think sometimes many of us believe we cannot effect change because we do not know what things need to be changed, or how they can be. I have made a commitment to discovering what those things are and I hope you will too in whatever ways you can.