When/Why/How so Skeptical?

Jeff Feng

June 26, 2016

I’ve been skeptical of DukeEngage. Those Chronicle articles about the ethics of the program seemed pretty spot on for me. For all the resources Duke has fueled into this summer of civic engagement, are we really prepared to do this work? I, for one, have never worked with people that are homeless. So no, absolutely not, I did not know how to tutor students with developmental impairments or do intakes for many young people facing severe mental illnesses. Yet Duke is upfront about that and sports its nifty tagline, “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” Wait a minute… civic engagement is supposed to assist and empower communities to seek the change they want.  Here we have Duke telling us that the summer’s supposed to be about us? It always seemed to me they were sending a mixed message.

Maybe I and some other folks have gotten on a slippery slope. The other interns and I are here, on DukeEngage San Francisco, working with nonprofits that assist youth that are homeless. On the surface level, that sounds pretty good. “Hey,” you might clamor, “you’re not corporate; you’re not after the little guys. You’re making a difference.” But what are we getting into by attributing moral values to the work that we do? Is it better to take a marketing internship or work here?  Is it right to preach restorative justice or adopt a more punitive stance, or even strike a compromise? Am I doing this for myself or kids who are persecuted for being LGBTQ, homeless, both, or more?

The thing is… I don’t know. Working at Larkin Street Youth Services has been a roller coaster of positives, negatives, and everything in between. The youth that come in are either the same age as me, or a few years older. With Larkin’s continuum of service, youth are able to seek out the services they want on their own terms, whether that be through housing, employment, or educational assistance. I’ve been simultaneously learning and providing general counseling or tutoring for the youth. There are days when I wonder if I am causing more harm than help as a relatively untrained intern. I couldn’t tell you if what I’m thinking or doing is right or wrong, if I’m actually “Challeng[ing] [my]self. Chang[ing] [my] world.” Maybe there are better questions to ask myself without spinning out of control.

But what I do know is the privilege to even ask these questions. To write this blog post. To rely on my family, friends, and fellow DukeEngage participants for emotional support. To reflect on the morality of my thoughts and actions. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I teach a creative writing course. Some days, I have a couple students, and then over days, no one shows up. On those empty days, I doodle on my paper, and mope about the fact that no one wants to write; that I spent time putting together lesson plans for nothing. The youth have far more on their minds than attending a creative writing course. They need to think about surviving the streets, finding their next meal, and finding jobs and affordable housing in a city and society that largely looks down at them. So, is it right to work at Larkin Street, participate in DukeEngage, or debate the philosophy and ethics behind service? Get back to me, because that’s as difficult and confusing as this blog post.