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Mi Gente’s demands miss the point

In reply to Mi Gente

On Jan. 26, The Chronicle reported that Duke’s Latino organization, “Mi Gente,” decided to end its successful collaborative relationship with Duke’s Office of Admissions to recruit Latinos and issued “demands” on Duke’s administration. Rather than undermine the progress it has made recruiting Latinos through the success of LSRW (Latino Student Recruitment Weekend), I might suggest that the leadership of Mi Gente consider a different approach in order to advance its cause.

As a Latino undergrad proud of his heritage, I cannot help but to reflect back upon those three brutal months of my senior year of high school—January through March—in which the be-all, end-all of all human existence seemed to hang in the balance as my application to Duke endured the unbridled carnage of the college admissions process. To think that Duke chose a 3.94 GPA IB student over any one of the valedictorians or salutatorians of America’s 37,000 public and private high schools to fill one of only 705 highly coveted admission slots humbles me even to this day, which begs the question: other than the 4.5+ GPA AP/IB class presidents with 2350+ SAT scores, were any of my fellow Latino undergrads here at Duke immune to that trauma, that is, if they can remember back that far?

Now as a junior, that period seems so long ago, but perhaps it feels that way only because the sheer anguish of gaining acceptance to such a highly esteemed university as Duke can be equated to the amnesia associated with surviving a plane crash. I share this thought with my brothers and sisters of Mi Gente only to remind them of the privilege we each have been given to attend such a great educational institution and moreover the added privilege we, as Latinos, receive when we are invited to attend LSRW before the notices of acceptance to Duke are released, a gracious gesture of cooperation that transcends the sacred process of acceptance notification to which everyone else in the universe is subject. Yet, for some, a transformation of attitude seemed to take place after acceptance. As we become part of the Duke community, we seem to lose sight of what the LSRW Latino recruitment process accomplishes. Before summarily terminating such a fruitful initiative, I challenge any of my Latino brethren to find another university of such high esteem and selectivity that provides such a unique privilege to any other group, minority or otherwise.

Surely, I understand the pains and frustrations expressed by my fellow Latinos and some—not all—of the “requests” are reasonable and worth discussing. As a member and leader of Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, also known as La Unidad Latina (“The Unity Latina”), one of our greatest challenges each year is to grow the membership of our brotherhood here at Duke to the degree that LUL exists at many of the 70 other universities throughout the U.S. I am the first to admit that the fallout associated with attitudes toward segregation and minority representation continues to be a major challenge here at Duke, but it is not a challenge unique to our community. Yet, it is also worth noting that despite our criticism of progress, the number of Latino undergraduates has increased by 57 percent since announcing the Class of 2017, a remarkable achievement which did not happen by accident, but rather, in no small part to the collaborative efforts of the administration and Mi Gente.

Despite these frustrations, it makes absolutely no sense for Mi Gente to foster divisiveness by terminating such a successful collaboration, one that embodies understanding and cooperation, and replacing it with a list of “demands”, for such a gesture accomplishes nothing other than diminish Latino recruitment efforts and erect barriers to understanding and cooperation with our administration partners. Let’s do a reality check. One day, in one form or another, we will all become leaders of organizations and communities, perhaps even countries. Yet, when we decide to become entrenched in our ideology, which is the easier path, we begin to lose sight of the single most important personal attribute that can break through the barriers which seem to define us by our differences—our ability to build relationships.

True leadership is not about dictating demands; rather, it is an attribute that first requires empathy and understanding—to do the hard work and to meet our counterparts where they are, to ask questions, to listen and to propose solutions—long before passing judgment or exercising the nuclear option. Therefore, I ask Mi Gente’s leadership these questions: Apart from a written request issued more than 10 years ago, on how many occasions has Mi Gente’s leadership personally reached out to Duke’s leadership, not to send letters and issue demands, but rather, to build a relationship, to gain a better understanding from where their decisions, or indecisions, come? When was the last time we invited President Brodhead to lunch or dinner simply to get to know him better and for him to learn about the richness of our culture? What does this effort cost us? What do we have to gain by it? What do we stand to gain by terminating LSRW, which has accomplished nothing less than enrich our Duke community with diversity?

Having lived now to the ripe old age of 21, so far, one thing I have learned in life is that progress seldom comes from issuing ultimatums. No one ever wins those battles. Rather, success comes from building relationships and finding common ground. Build consensus, and yes, as much as it may hurt, accept compromise. We must maintain focus on our long-term strategic vision, something that will require cooperation and commitment long after we, as today’s Latino student leaders, have graduated from Duke and assumed our leadership roles in society. There is an old saying: “Focus on the donut, not on the hole.”

Michael Courtney is a Trinity junior.

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