Recess writer Adrienne Harreveld spoke with the incoming director of the Center for Documentary Studies, Wesley Hogan, about her past work, her decision to come to Duke and her vision for CDS.
Recess: Why did you make the decision to leave your position at Virginia State to come direct the CDS program?
Wesley Hogan: I was at Virginia State—a historically black school—and it was a great opportunity to come ten years ago because they had the Center for Race Relations, a really unusual thing at the time. It was a university-based organization that tried to link up the university and the community. This institute was doing a really good job of bridging that gap. Students could apply for fellowships to look at academic questions around race relations. They also had community-based programs where they would go into K-12 schools and do work with local religious organizations and community centers to try to facilitate more positive interracial dialogue.
The part of Virginia where the university is incredibly divided is on a hilltop. The north side of the hilltop is an almost entirely white community. The other side is almost entirely black and it’s a different municipality; there are very few personal relationships that stretch the [two sides]. The institute was trying to bring together different stakeholders in the communities that surrounded the university. I hadn’t seen this at Duke when I was a grad student there and I hadn't seen it when I was an undergraduate at Penn. I was drawn to that work of bridging—taking my academic knowledge and skillsets but using them to help build bridges to people in the community.
Out of that came A Quality Education is a Civil Right project. Another SNCC person that has had a big impact on me was Bob Moses. He was doing a math literacy project based in Jackson, Mississippi. We had him come set up a meeting between the university math teachers and eleven surrounding [Virginia] counties. We had people in the university work with young students after schools. They were getting the students at both the college and high school level and the students were getting a lot of leadership development. There were so many ways for people to hook in; the whole power company couldn't find enough adults to pass their lineman test, an 8th grade math level test, and so they kicked in a bunch of money to fund this afterschool program.
What excited me so much about that work, and what I was drawn to in CDS as well, was finding ways to connect university-based work with communities that are in search of innovative solutions to issues that they are struggling with. Another really important SNCC person said to me, “You know you never want to go into a community and ‘help.’” I learned this verb “to accompany.” How do you accompany a community on its path in a way that is helpful rather than patronizing? So the work that I was doing here was really great. I have four kids too, so I was really happy to be lodged in a community.
So, I was not very likely to be interested [in working at CDS], but a friend of mine who works for the Center started poking at me to check it out. I have this drive that I have to do once a month that’s five hours round trip, and the only way to stay sane is to listen to podcasts. I started putting a podcast on my iPod, which was The Center, a bunch of programs from CDS. The first one I heard was a young doctor from Duke Medical Center talking about a project that he did. I literally pulled my car over and wrote down a huge number of ideas for my own work here. I loved that mural project, I was really excited by the youth radio voices program, the farmworker stuff. I was drawn in and I applied.
My kids would have been mortified by this, but I would walk up to random people on West Campus and be like, “Tell me what you know about CDS.” When I found people who knew something, they were genuine. They were excited. I don’t know if you’ve seen that work in the Allen building that some CDS certificate students have done, but it’s just extraordinary. That level of work by undergraduates and by continuing education students…I don’t know, girl, it just got me out of my seat! And that’s how it evolved.
R: I know that VSU is an Historically Black University and Duke does things to promote its relationship with NCCU—we are able to take classes at NCCU and things like that—do you think the Center can play a role in promoting this relationship, especially since you’ve worked at an HBCU before?
WH: You know, I asked about that. So, two things. One, the 50th anniversary of SNCC happened in 2010 in Raleigh, and my husband that year was on a fellowship at the John Hope Franklin Institute. He brought the Black Student Alliance at Duke together and he invited a lot of HBCU students down. All of them went to this SNCC conference together. How can we bring more students together on a more regular basis to talk about issues about race and race relations and higher education? I think people were so well-meaning, but when you go back to your home institution, you fall back in your pattern, so historically it has been hard to sustain long-term institutional relationships. Especially for students, the experiences at those educational institutions are so different. And then two, do you know Tim Tyson, Professor Tyson?
R: Yeah, of course.
WH: He has also done an interesting experiment where he has taught a course downtown.
R: Yeah, I think it’s at the American Tobacco Campus. The class is open to the community, correct?
WH: Yeah, have you taken the class?
R: No, but I have friends who have.
WH: So for him, the jury is still out on which combination of students and [location] would work best for the exchanges he wanted to promote, but I’m compelled by that idea, that you would have students in the classroom. I would love to nurture connections around issues that are pertinent to Durham residents. Figuring out exactly how to do this is a good challenge, but I would have to get my feet on the ground before I jump in.
R: So on the same note, I know your academic work has focused on student activism. Do you have an interest in nurturing more student activism at Duke or connecting student activism to CDS?
WH: I would be thrilled to do that. My big passion is youth leadership development geared toward social change. Young people have a fresh approach that breaks through a lot of old ways of seeing things. Developing people’s sense of their capacity is exciting for me. I would love to find ways to do that at Duke. [Listening’s] the best way for me to learn, just asking people questions about their lives and listening for hours. I would love to find more ways for college and high school students to connect and positively impact their world. The students took the algebra project I talked about earlier that and ran with it. They took on the issue of voting rights for former felons in Virginia and got it on a Republican Governor’s agenda. He hasn’t changed the policy yet [for felons personally appealing to the Governor for voting rights], but we have done something. A lot of people say the way marijuana laws have been enforced have affected an entire generation of black Virginians, so that was an issue that wasn’t so much on the adults’ minds, but the students put it there. They put it on the state NAACP’s radar.
R: I know that the MFA program is different from the Certificate Program and the Continuing Education program, where people in the MFA program have much more experience with documentary arts. It is an “experimental” documentary program, so I was wondering—your background is in oral histories—what are your thoughts on what the CDS undergrad curriculum should be?
WH: I’m approaching this as pretty intense experiential learning the first few months I’m on the job. Let me just start with the MFA program. Seeing the work of their first thesis gallery for their first graduating class, I was blown away. I come out of a very traditional oral history background and I love oral history—for me an untold story impoverishes all of us—so getting those stories out there is a very essential part of living in a democratic society. I think we need to understand each other and ask questions of one another.
Having said that, a lot of the students in the MFA program have taken a really different set of approaches to what you could more broadly call the documentary arts. I saw some beautiful abstract art that was not narrative-based that raised questions for me about my kids. It was a long gif of cars on a freeway. It was trying to get us to think about the carbon footprint issue and what are we doing in our cars all the time. A lot of this was what the viewer brought to the exhibit and that’s open to interpretation. That’s much more wide than I’m used to. The MFA program brings a lot of different dynamism and richness to the debate about why documentary arts are important. Looking at their work and appreciating and understanding their own background and creativity is essential for me to grow personally as an artist and academic.
I wouldn't say I would want to have different channels of CDS. I will say that it is really hard for someone outside of CDS to understand all of the complexities that CDS is. To really give it its full to do you have to talk about how it has one foot in the community and one foot in the academy and that gives it a lot of energy, but it looks differently whether you’re in Istanbul or East Durham. How does CDS face outward?
And to tie in the continuing ed piece, most universities don’t really prioritize continuing ed; they don’t really see adults in the community as a really valuable component of university learning. Unless you’re a professor or a student, you aren’t a true part of the university. I think that’s a huge missed opportunity. Sorry to go back to SNCC again, but they learned so much of their important stuff from 45-year old women who had never gotten past third grade about their community and how to bring people together. What I really like about CDS’s commitment to continuing ed is that it has really found a way to harvest those adults in the community and their life wisdom. I see all three components that you mentioned as integral. People have to come to terms with complexity, that two ideas that may not overtly correlate can exist at once.
R: Well that’s what people say about the “Experimental Documentary” program. Add in the certificate and continuing ed and it’s just a hot mess.
WH: True, finding ways of opening up conversation that clearly communicates a purpose is difficult.
R: One you get the CDS messaging down pat, do you have an idea of how exactly you’ll promote it?
WH: Yeah, word of mouth is really important. This is especially true of community members, but it can’t be the only way. How we approach undergrads will probably be different from how we approach the community. For undergrads we can show how much the documentary arts offers them regardless of their major. I would approach that population very differently than the adult that’s working two part time jobs and has children and doesn't know how to fit one more thing on his/her plate but is dying to make a video.
R: So this is something you want to promote pretty much everywhere, that CDS is a tool for everyone?
WH: I don’t know about everyone, but just take the state example and what’s happened in the legislature in the past four years. A lot of that is because the legislature is just so disconnected from the stories of everyday North Carolinians. A lot of everyday North Carolinians don’t know the story. It would be really hard to look that five-year-old in the face and be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna cut that Medicaid you were depending on from the federal government because big government is bad.” Not everyone should be a documentarian, but there is something everyone can learn when it comes to listening to other peoples’ stories: how to ask a question, to look at an image or to watch a film.
R: So I have to say, a lot of students that heard your talk on Nonviolence vs. Unviolence are really excited for you to get to campus.
WH: That’s good to hear, girl. It’s a rare opportunity when you can bring together your deep-seated academic interest with your skillset…the mission of CDS is insane! It’s like, here is what we are going to do and we are going to do it in the interest of promoting social and ecological justice. Who in academia is allowed to say that? Not only do they say it and own it, but they also have a 30 million dollar endowment for bringing it to fruition, which is very striking and unusual. I feel like it’s a great privilege. There was nothing like this at Duke when I was a graduate student there. I’m excited to get to Durham and to get everything rolling.