In these past few weeks, Duke has taken some big steps. We elected a promising and qualified new DSG president—who also happens to be our campus’s third consecutive woman president and the second woman of color in three years. Feminist applause all around (of course, under the rules of feminism, you can clap whatever you like). On top of that, we’ve had like eight snow days. AND, on a personal note, I recently conquered K-Ville and was able to spend a whole 60 percent of a night in a tent before bailing and sleeping under a radiator in a Crowell common room.
Yet, perhaps most interesting to me in these past few weeks is the What I Be Project. The campaign was a vocal and powerful answer to Duke’s culture of constantly pretending that we have our s--- together when we absolutely do not. In my opinion, this project is undeniably good for Duke’s campus—spurring discussion, confirming that sharing insecurities and weaknesses is normal and getting multiple people over 300 likes on their profile pictures (I never dreamed I’d gain so much from my Duke experience).
All jokes aside, there is a lot to gain from campaigns like the What I Be Project. To me, participating in the What I Be Project has been very similar to my experience on Common Ground. For those living under a rock, Common Ground is Duke’s retreat on race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status and other facets of identity. At least in my experience, CG served as basic boot camp on social justice for many students who otherwise might never have learned about such issues in their college career. Much like the What I Be Project, CG encourages self-awareness and fosters acceptance. Both projects do and have done undeniable good for this campus.
But to me, perhaps the most important similarity is that both projects enable students to express their insecurities, identities and past experiences, in a safe but, at least somewhat, public space. This provides an amazing opportunity for people, whose experiences and feelings have left them feeling invalidated, unimportant or silenced, to be heard and appreciated.
Yet, as the What I Be Project gains clout on campus, and as another troupe of students returns from Common Ground, I’ve begun to worry. I worry because there is a danger whenever people share intimate details of their lives—a danger that, although they will be appreciated and their stories will be heard, these people will be understood and defined as only their past experiences.
When someone shares something important about their life—whether it be on Common Ground, through a photo campaign on Facebook or outside of some formalized means of sharing—it is human nature to want to be close to that person. To give them comfort and support. Yet what can be difficult on programs like Common Ground and through campaigns such as What I Be is to give that support in a helpful, non-minimizing way—in a way that does not define those people by their experiences.
To use a CG buzz-phrase, I’m speaking from personal experience here. When I shared experiences of my own on Common Ground, for the most part, I felt supported and accepted. Hugs were exchanged. But I felt as if some people only valued me for the negative experiences I’d had. These people only became interested in talking to me after learning of these experiences. They were, however, not particularly interested in befriending me—as if they already knew enough after I’d shared a few small facets of my life. I was called “amazing”—but only because some s---ty stuff had happened to me. Now, I know I’m amazing, but that’s not why.
When Common Ground was over, I left with new friends, experiences and lessons under my belt—but in a way, I also felt used and, at the risk of sounding like an angsty 14-year-old, misunderstood. Similarly, reactions to my participation in the What I Be Project have been generally amazing. Some peoples’ reactions, though, have left me feeling as if all that matters to them are the few things I’ve shared. I felt like these people assumed they knew me and my life simply by reading a few words written on my face.
I don’t mean to disparage Common Ground or the What I Be Project in any way. I think both are great and necessary, and, from what I understand, the Common Ground I knew is very different from Common Ground now.
What I am trying to do is encourage you to delve deeper. Whether you heard testimonials on Common Ground, know someone in the What I Be Project or maybe a friend just shared an important part of their life with you, don’t be satisfied with only knowing that small piece of that person. Sharing our experiences with others is a means to connect—so act like it. Get to know the people who shared on your Common Ground—and those who didn’t share. Use the What I Be Project to start a conversation with participants and non-participants alike, but don’t let it end there.
To make the most out of your experiences—Common Ground, What I Be or just life in general—you have to put in the time and effort to get to know others around you. And not just their stories, but their context. So I implore you: Be ravenous in your pursuit of understanding others. I assure you, it’s well worth it.
Lillie Reed is a Trinity senior. Her column is part of the weekly Socialites feature and normally runs every other Wednesday. Send Lillie a message on Twitter @LillieReed.