“Do you need help?”

One Sunday afternoon in December, I sat in a circle with fifteen 6- to 9-year-old Girl Scouts as we decided what we would do for the final step of our “Leadership Journey”. The girls had spent the last few months learning how to care for themselves, their families, and their fellow scouts, earning a key for each step along the way. To earn the final key, they had to work together to come up with a plan to care for their community.

As we made our way through a brainstorming worksheet, the girls excitedly talked about ideas for projects at schools, libraries, animal shelters, and parks. They identified potential locations and activities, then we began to discuss the details of each idea. To get the ball rolling, my co-leader put a question out to the group: “What questions should we ask?”

One of the youngest girls in the troop, soft-spoken but always a thoughtful contributor, offered what seemed to be a very basic question: “Do you need help?”

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We often jump straight to the big ideas. We’re rewarded for “innovating”, “solving problems”, and “changing the world”, but less so for slowing down and making a sincere effort to listen and learn from others. Especially in an environment like Duke, where it sometimes feels like there are limitless resources, it can be easy to launch right into a new project intended to care for the community. But sometimes we need to take a cue from a thoughtful 6-year-old and ask some foundational questions rather than simply assuming that our help is needed or, perhaps more importantly, that we know how to help.

I was a Girl Scout from Daisies through Gold Award, an active participant in my church youth group, a “Public Service Scholar” in college, an AmeriCorps member, and then a nonprofit employee. I am no stranger to the “how can we help?” brainstorm and I have at many points in my life jumped too quickly into a project without adequate preparation. These programs and institutions all have the potential to create thoughtful, lasting partnerships, but they also have the potential to do harm when not approached responsibly. Sometimes the harm is quickly apparent in the form of miscommunication or a failed project, but sometimes the harm is deeper and longer-lasting in the form of disempowerment or disruption of an ecosystem. I have “mentored” without fully understanding the social injustices my mentee faced; I have “helped” without exploring potential partners; I have “problem-solved” without investigating the true root of the problem. Along the way, I’ve learned that the question is far more complex than “how can we help?” but instead “who determined the need for help?”, “what power dynamics are at play?”, “with whom can we collaborate?”, “what is the community context?”, “what is the history of the issue?”, and a whole host of other questions.

I appreciate that my role with the Office of Civic Engagement not only makes space for these kinds of questions but requires them. My time here has allowed me to slow down, reflect, and learn from the people around me. In doing so, I try to begin every project just as we began our Girl Scout brainstorm: “What questions should we ask?”