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.


5 thoughts on “When/Why/How so Skeptical?

  1. The million dollar questions! I love that you are reflecting on these hard questions. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that a lot of leaders and “take-chargers” who I admired in my younger years really had no idea what they were doing – they just didn’t let that stop them from trying. It doesn’t work all the time, but if they didn’t try at all, they are guaranteed not to succeed. So, “is it right to work at Larkin Street, participate in DukeEngage, or debate the philosophy and ethics behind service?” I don’t see why you can’t do both. And the answer will depend on each individual. Perhaps the starting point should be to figure out why you decided to participate in DukeEngage, and specifically, with the SF project?


  2. I agree with Christine – I think it’s significant that you are asking the critical questions and that you recognize the privilege of the time and the space and the expectation that you will reflect on them. It seems like you’ve already nailed the “Challenge Yourself” part of the program. Now whether that should be the aim or not remains to be seen but I’m not sure you can have or make much change without a challenge. I wonder too if part of the program – or the reason before it – is precisely that in a classroom these kinds of questions are more readily answerable (is that a word) if they come up at all. Discomfort is a challenge and so is uncertainty. Maybe it’s a trust the process type of situation for you and you won’t know exactly how much you got out of it until you look back either from campus or later down the road than that.


  3. It’s about taking action (being there to be of service to others in whatever way you can) not about the results (am I helping? am I hurting? am I qualified? — those are the questions that can keep you from taking action). You don’t know the impact you might be having by teaching a creative writing course two days a week. Even on those days where no one shows up, the fact that you have made it available opens something up. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying I’m a privileged Duke student, what do I know about being a homeless LGBT youth. It’s also an opportunity to create empathy in ways you may have never thought about. And whether it’s immediate or ten years from now, that may change your world. As I get older I’m often surprised by the lessons I’ve learned and where they’ve come from and how much time has sometimes passed between the incident and the awareness. All of you who are participating are helping others, and helping yourselves.


  4. Re Christine: Thanks for your comments. Absolutely, I agree that everyone should try and be the change they want, but I don’t think this blog was a question of whether or not one should try. I hoped to share some skepticism about DukeEngage, and more specifically the program at San Francisco. Each and every one of the students at San Francisco believes in the power of civic engagement, or so I think, and that mindset probably drives a lot of us to participate in this program. We felt some personal connection to serving youth that are homeless and likely identified in the LGBTQ+ community. With that said, as Christy commented, it is integral to recognize the inherent privileges involved in our participation in the program. Oftentimes Duke encourages (and perhaps encouraged you all) to be those “take-chargers” and “change-makers.” But how often do we consider the flip-side of our service, work that society might place on moral high grounds? So Re: Don, I’m not sure that making our service about taking action would help us consider the ugly truths about service. More often than not, Duke students do not get in the “trap of saying I’m a privileged Duke student”, instead it’s been my perception that Duke continues to create new initiatives without “checking”, so to speak, their current projects. How do we establish accountability for students that participate in civic engagement work? Do we stop and consider what we is being said and unsaid by our community partners? When we make our service about actions and being present, we can fall into another trap of doing for the sake of doing. Or, as my blog might point to, working on these projects to absolve some privileged guilt. For me, that was probably part way true. I had barely been involved with the LGBTQ group on campus nor had I done any extensive service to give back to the community. The DukeEngage program was a perfect way to feel like I’m giving back. Of course, you could argue that our intentions don’t really matter. I would probably say that my ideal service would fall in between some of the traps that you and I have mentioned. If we get so wrapped up in doing, doing, doing, then too many cooks get in the kitchen. Likewise, if we’re overly critical, not enough cooks get in the kitchen.


  5. Jeff

    I have now read your post a few times, and struggled internally for the right response. But I do not have the “right” response. I do feel that as a result of DukeEngage and other civic initiatives at Duke, e are a campus that more than most has problematized civic engagement – raised questions about how we do it, why we do it, etc. This is important, but perhaps for you not enough. I am familiar with Larkin Street and our work with them, and it also might be that we learn from our work with them that different training has to be part of the program, or that our DukeEngage students should be doing different tasks, or should not do certain tasks. Though as you know we endeavor to go back to the same community partners each and every year, we also learn what works and what doesn’t. Larkin Street is a complicated place your observations will no doubt impact our work with them. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and openness.
    Eric Mlyn


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