Every year, hundreds of Duke students participate in DukeEngage Academy, a set of workshops and classes intended to prepare students for their DukeEngage service. This year, for the first time, DukeEngage teamed up with local Durham nonprofit The Monti to add a new spin to the traditional program.
The Monti is a Durham-based nonprofit organization with an unconventional cause: rather than fighting social injustice, The Monti and its founder, Jeff Polish, seek to spread the art of storytelling. The organization accomplishes this by employing members of the Durham community, as well as guests and celebrities, to come and tell stories that Polish deems socially relevant or otherwise impactful.
“I invite people to come and tell stories on a given theme,” Polish said, describing the original format of The Monti’s shows.
Stories can range from humorous to heartbreaking, depending on the theme of the show; while some shows involve whimsical topics, Polish recently curated a show on race and racial identity, which he described as highly difficult and provocative.
“That took a lot of courage, a lot of thought, and I didn’t know if I was up for it because it’s such a charged topic,” Polish said.
Since it was first established in 2008, The Monti has been engaging the community in topics in the same vein, and the nonprofit has since earned a reputation for engaging community members in thoughtful discourse about subjects that can be difficult to discuss in day-to-day social settings. DukeEngage Academy states on its website that it attempts to “provide the groundwork and tools for effective civic engagement, safety and self-care” and provide students with the ability to reflect on their place in the world. The Academy similarly attempts to instigate conversations about sensitive topics that are relevant to Duke students' service trips. The Monti is therefore a well-suited partner for DukeEngage, as its fundamental goal is to provide an avenue for people to communicate within and between communities.
“It’s about the community telling stories to the community. I want the storytellers and the audience to have the same feelings I have when I am touched by an honest and real experience,” Polish said in a statement on The Monti’s website.
The collaboration served multiple purposes for DukeEngage, many of which were practical. Polish identifies one of the crucial components of The Monti’s work as reinforcing the lessons taught at the Academy.
“Everybody will listen to a story," Polish said. "We’re wired to listen to stories, to absorb information when it’s couched into a compelling narrative."
Meredith Casper, DukeEngage’s assistant director for training & student development, worked with Polish to incorporate The Monti into DukeEngage Academy. Casper felt that The Monti helped to drive home lessons that students learn at the Academy, from broad principles to practical advice that can help a student avoid getting their personal belongings stolen, as one storyteller recounted in their story.
“We all benefit from examples,” Casper said. “You can say a statement or principle or policy or procedure, but when we talk about the why and the how, an example through a story serves as a powerful tool for learning.”
Apart from helping the Academy communicate practical advice, Polish worked with DukeEngage staff to help academy leaders—students who formerly participated in DukeEngage and who have returned to help teach future participants—communicate the personal impact that their DukeEngage experiences had on them.
“Sometimes it’s hard for students to say what their biggest takeaway was from the summer," Casper said. "Our student program and our collaboration with The Monti are a way for us to provide some reentry programming that helps students continue to reflect and continue to process what those lessons are."
This reflection is invaluable to both the Academy leaders telling the stories and to the students hearing them; while the student can learn valuable lessons from previous DukeEngage participants, leaders cab reflect on lessons learned from their time abroad by working with The Monti to consolidate their experiences into a cohesive story.
“I think it’s a very powerful reentry resource for students who are still processing their experience,” Casper said.
However, Polish warned that students should be careful to avoid ‘voluntourism,’ a word used to describe service done abroad which may be ineffectual, misguided or even narcissistic and is especially used to refer to short-term volunteering by citizens of wealthy countries in poorer regions. In the context of DukeEngage, Polish feels that voluntourism is most crucially addressed in the perspectives of student volunteers as they reflect on their experiences abroad.
“When people are telling stories about their DukeEngage experience they should be personal stories, not about the poor kid that they met and that they tried to inspire to do something great. That’s the kid’s story, not the student’s story. I want to make sure that the stories are about personal transformations, not somebody else’s,” Polish explained.
In essence, voluntourism is as much in the mind as it is in the actions of volunteers; if students fail to adequately reflect on the context of their service and understand its impacts, then they fail to truly grow from their experiences.
However, although it may be easy to fall into a "voluntourism" pattern of thinking, there is also immense potential for personal growth through the same experiences in the form of reflection. By being aware of the dangers of treating their trip as voluntourism, attempting to understand how their service fits into the dynamics of a community, and understanding the mutual impacts that they and the communities they serve have on each other, students can make their DukeEngage experiences meaningful and impactful.
“Sometimes a personal transformation is learning to understand the great needs in this world, and realizing that you may have lived in a sheltered bubble, and on the other side of that bubble are people who have different realities from your own, and realizing that there are things you can do to help communities," Polish said.
DukeEngage trips are an excellent way to expose students to these realities, and while DukeEngage provides a huge number of materials to follow up on programs, including reflection materials, house courses and service opportunities, there is nothing to guarantee that students will walk away from their trips and never look back again. Students who do so may fail to understand the importance of their DukeEngage experiences fully, thereby minimizing the effects of a great opportunity for growth.
“We’re a co-curricular program, which… is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness,"
Casper said. "Students need to make the connections for themselves on how it’s going to impact their personal and professional development."
One of the best opportunities for returning DukeEngage students is being a leader at the Academy, especially in light of their current collaboration with The Monti. Leaders who elected to participate in The Monti’s storytelling workshops were given an excellent opportunity for important reflection on their service abroad.
By working with the academy leaders that did choose to participate in further reflection with The Monti, and whose stories were selected for the academy, Polish helped to both ground some students’ lofty goals and inspire students who were less confident in their abilities. In short, The Monti helped DukeEngage temper both optimism and pessimism with a healthy dose of realism.
“One story was selected to show that, despite her feelings of inadequacy, she had a lot to give to the community,” Polish said. “When she threw herself into the situation, she realized that she had a lot more to offer than she thought.”
Other stories can communicate harsher, but equally as necessary truths.
“‘Don’t be such an a**hole’, ‘show some humility’, and ‘take your malaria medication’,” Polish said, recalling the themes of a few of the stories that were shared.
Both Polish and Casper considered the collaboration successful, and DukeEngage staff and students alike received it positively. Pending feedback following the summer, The Monti and DukeEngage will likely collaborate again next year.
“I think that we’ll absolutely continue the program, I think that we enjoyed working together… and I think we learned a lot this year, about how to streamline it and how to best make use of and select the stories," Casper said.
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