Inaccessibility of Civic Engagement

Guest post by Rasheca Logendran, T’20

In the busy first 5 minutes of my class I hastily scribbled on the large piece of paper that served as the whiteboard in my makeshift classroom a question for our icebreaker activity. It was another June day at the Freedom Project, and as a volunteer teacher I had asked my students to list what they were thankful for. As I took attendance– Kendra who was thankful for friends, Johnny who was thankful for parents, Destinee who was thankful for kit-kats, I came to my final student. Kayla resolutely stated “Ms.Lo, I’m thankful for food stamps,” followed by typical middle-school wit mixed with some wisdom, “but I’m sure you don’t know what food stamps even are.”

Kayla was correct. I could theoretically explain what food stamps were but I had no lived experience to speak to the matter. Although I could recognize the hardships faced by students like Kayla and try my best within the classroom setting to empower them and be an empathetic teacher, my motivational “you can do it” speeches always made me feel uneasy.  As a community outsider, it was easy for me to use common tropes like “hard work always pays off” but since I wasn’t representative of the students I was working with, there was no validation in my words of encouragement.

I could only try my best, but I knew these students deserved better. These students deserved to have volunteers that better represented them.

But, before we can look to representation in a volunteer workforce, first we need to address the inaccessibility of civic engagement activities. From my conversations with classmates at Duke and my experiences working with nonprofits, I’ve come to realized that civic engagement is wrapped up in privilege. Having the resources–namely the time and the money– to give back to the community serves as a true barrier for people interested in civic engagement work.

Many public service internships, which college students like me are interested in for summer opportunities, are unpaid. Internships at the World Health Organization, the Clinton Foundation, and local Public Defenders officers are all unpaid. In fact, even the summer internship I had teaching in the MS Delta was unpaid. When looking to careers, jobs in the nonprofit sector are known for their low pay. Even teachers, which I would consider to be a career based on civic engagement, are paid less than comparably educated professionals.

Although I have no real solution to this institutional problem of the financial barriers of civic engagement, on a micro-level institutions at Duke can definitely take actions to engage more people in civic engagement opportunities and make these opportunities more accessible. DukeEngage and the Hart Fellowship both provide fully paid experiences to students to pursue community engagement work, but these offers are competitive and limited. By expanding grants to students to pursue these low or unpaid community engagement efforts and by providing more institutional support to students who are looking to engage in careers that fall outside of the “pre-professional” bounds of the typical Duke student, this university can try to make civic engagement more equitable.

Only once we’ve addressed the equity issues can we work towards the issue of representation. By making service opportunities more equitable, ideally, students who are the most qualified for these civic engagement positions will be able to serve. By providing more financial and institutional support for civic engagement roles, we expand the expertise and knowledge base available and increase the overall legitimacy of civic engagement. By lowering the barriers of entry to civic engagement, the students I worked with over that summer will hopefully be able to have representation.  Students will be able to reap the currently untapped benefits of having a volunteer teacher who will truly be able to engage and dive into the cultural complexities that students face.