Sowing the Seeds for Community Impact

At their End-of-Semester Showcase, Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI) displays a backdrop proclaiming their motto: “Do good, be humble, and have fun!” The presentations that follow exemplify this mindset, as graduate students from across Duke University share about their client-centered projects to build the capacity of local partner organizations. Looking back on the past semester, the students all reflect on how much they were able to learn from their partners and teammates and how much they enjoyed the opportunity to hone their skills outside of the classroom.

DISI, a student-led organization, convenes interdisciplinary graduate student teams that provide pro bono consulting services to social organizations. One such project from the Spring 2018 semester was a collaboration with Working Landscapes, a nonprofit rural development organization whose mission is to build more sustainable livelihoods in the Warren County, NC region through stewardship of their natural and cultural assets. Partner organizations like Working Landscapes submit applications to DISI prior to the start of the semester, identifying their goals and desired deliverables for the partnership. By working with DISI, Working Landscapes co-founder and executive director Carla Norwood sought to better quantify the impact and target the work of her organization.

Once matched with Working Landscapes, project manager Regan Fink and the rest of her team visited their client in Warrenton, NC, to learn all about the work of the organization and to discuss Norwood’s vision and objectives. Together they devised a two-part project to (a) more efficiently track the organization’s work and impact and (b) better capture the quality of life in Warren County.

Norwood provided her overall vision, but the simultaneously exciting and challenging aspect of the project was that it was up to the DISI team to turn her vision into concrete results and deliverables, which is where the unique benefits of interdisciplinary graduate student teams come into play. As project manager, Fink appreciated the many perspectives brought to the table by her team. “One of my teammates had recently taken a public policy class on quality of life indicators and knew the right resources and right people to contact. Another teammate was coming from the business school and had a lot of knowledge and expertise in Excel work. It was a great collaboration of students with various skills who are all very passionate about the work and excited about the project.”

Fink, an AmeriCorps alum and current dual-degree candidate for environmental management and business (MEM/MBA), was drawn to DISI immediately upon coming to Duke for grad school. Rather than participating in one-off volunteer work days, Fink hoped to find an option for more sustained community engagement and DISI’s unique approach appealed to her. “I visited the website and checked out the projects they were doing and I was impressed by the ways in which they were truly taking advantage of students to contribute to the local community in a substantial way,” she says. She also appreciates that DISI provides a space to build relationships outside of one’s academic program, as the executive board makes a deliberate effort to create a positive social atmosphere for team members. Since she enjoyed her experience as a project innovator in the fall, Fink applied to be a project manager in the spring so that she could continue to gain new skills and knowledge in a meaningful context.

After breaking ground on the plans set forth in their initial meeting, Fink’s team had a mid-semester update with Working Landscapes in which they were able to share their progress and Norwood was able to provide additional ideas and perspective. They then met again at the end of the semester to walk through all of the deliverables and share the resources that they had developed to ultimately help build the organization’s capacity.

As she reflects on the final product, Fink emphasizes the contributions and support present at all levels of the project.  After highlighting the unique skills of her teammates, Fink also shares that “Carla was a wonderful client, great to work with and very receptive to talking through all of our ideas, and the DISI exec board provided a lot of help and support to make the overall experience a great one.”

At the End-of-Semester Showcase, this team spirit is palpable. In attendance are Norwood, Fink, and the rest of the project team, along with team members and community partners for eight other equally enthusiastic teams who clearly reflect the DISI motto to “do good, be humble, and have fun.”



** Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI) is currently accepting applications for Fall 2018 Project Managers and Project Innovators, as well as candidates to join the 2018-2019 Executive Board. Learn more here.**