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Doing the difficult work

guest column

Whether in the classroom or in the common room, critical conversations about poverty rarely happen at Duke. When you are surrounded by stone walls, glass boxes, and manicured lawns, it can be easy to insulate yourself in their comforting presence. 

We’ve come here from all over the world for four years to dive into our passions, whatever they may be. We’re busy learning from the most accomplished scholars in the world, working on groundbreaking research, and forming lifelong relationships. In the busyness of our four years here, we don’t often concern ourselves with, say, the realities of hunger and homelessness in Durham or on-campus. Yet, our education is intended to make us thoughtful and engaged citizens of the world—how can we do so if we ignore the lived experiences of our fellow students and community members? Regardless of our chosen studies and activities, we all must grapple with the inequalities that exist in our community.

We can no longer remain detached from these issues. The city of Durham experiences persistent inequality that exacerbates issues of hunger, homelessness, and poverty for predominantly poorer communities of color. While we enjoy safe and high-quality housing on campus, gentrification—aided by the university—is displacing families from their homes. 

During Thanksgiving and winter breaks many students will return to their homes, while other students will be unable to afford the plane ticket. Moreover, many Durham residents will find themselves sleeping without shelter. While funding for research is made abundantly available to students, the university resists the attempts of on-campus workers  to attain fairer compensation. Duke and Durham together have helped to generate $1.7 billion over 15 years for the city’s downtown while the citywide poverty rate  increased by 4 percent. We are the beneficiaries of this inequality. We are implicated in its persistence.

As students, we must fulfill our obligation to keep the University honest, and work toward the betterment of our Duke & Durham communities. Bryan Stevenson, a notable civil rights advocate, once said, “Our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity.” In an effort to act on these words, Duke Partnership for Service and the Duke Coalition for Alleviating Poverty are hosting Duke’s first Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. 

Through advocacy, education and fundraising, we hope to draw attention toward hunger, homelessness, and poverty in Durham and across the nation  on a campus where conversations about these issues are largely absent. Over 25 events will take place this week, with support from more than 20 student organizations and institutional departments. Whether you plan to attend former head of Urban Ministries’ Lloyd Schmeidler’s talk, the screening of “Whose Streets?” in the Griffith Theatre or the Homelessness Providers in Durham’s panel, we hope these events will generate new and critical conversations on campus. 

Even if you spend your days studying genetics or mastering the violin, we hope that you will engage in citizenship throughout this week and beyond it. This difficult work of caring for our neighbors and asking what each of us individually can do will make our community more just. It is not easy, but with any luck, this week will push us toward solidarity with our neighbors who survive and live meaningful lives in the face of hunger, homelessness and poverty. 

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity sophomore and Trey Walk is a Trinity junior. This piece is written on behalf of the executive committee for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. 


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