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Our role in justice

Far too often conversations on campus regarding issues of homelessness and poverty take the shape of discussions where universities and its students are viewed as outside observers of the real trials, tribulations and struggles faced by individuals, rather than as key components of their construction. This constant abstraction not only avoids the issue of Duke’s complicity—the institution and students—in the creation of inequality, but also removes the humanity of those struggling within these systems and treats inequity as a predetermined condition rather than an actively constructed reality. 

In Durham, Duke makes visible contributions to these structural inequalities. We see this in Durham’s gentrification, exacerbated by Duke’s close, often self-interested, involvement in Durham’s real estate and economic development priorities; in the university’s hesitance to provide all workers a livable wage; and in the the defunding of the Bull City Connector, a fare-free bus route between downtown and Duke Hospital that transported staff and Durham residents to and from the hospital. 

Our time here is not simply a means to an end. We came to Duke to learn about the world and equip ourselves with the tools to change that world for the better. We expect to emerge from Duke as active and engaged members of the community, but too often forget that we have the power along the way to make that difference as well. Our time here can have an actual impact on the university’s exploitation of those who live around it and work for it. 

Community organizers and advocacy groups have long pushed Duke to change its practices. However, student advocacy has been an essential complement in catalyzing administrative action. Indeed, Duke pays outsized attention to student opinion. For that reason, we have the potential to radically alter this institution. We must, however, learn how to wield this power effectively, while also confronting the ways we have misused it.

In an effort to act on these words, Duke Partnership for Service and the Community Empowerment Fund are co-hosting Duke’s second annual Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (HHAW) from Nov. 12 through Nov. 16. HHAW serves as an annual education and reflection space on the economic inequality that surrounds us, as well as an opportunity to critically evaluate its causes and our own role in working to dismantle it. Through advocacy, education and fundraising, we hope to draw attention toward hunger, homelessness and poverty in Durham and across the nation on a campus in an honest and constructive way. Events this week will range from a conversation with Professor Rebecca Bach about her engagement with anti-poverty work in San Francisco to fundraisers and supply drives for local shelters. The full list of events for the week is available at dukenhhaw.weebly.com. While we ask that you participate in events to support our community partners and build your own awareness of these issues, the overarching purpose of this week is to listen and to learn from those around us facing marginalization and oppression and to understand how we can best be of support. This is the first step in forming relationships and coalitions that are able to fight for justice effectively and persistently.

Poverty and inequity are not distant abstractions. They are tangible realities in our community and elsewhere; thus, as Duke students and the frequent beneficiaries of these inequalities and in recognition of our membership in larger communities, it is our obligation to actively work in solidarity with those facing injustice to fight against the systems that have created it.

This column was written by the executive committee for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The executive committee is composed of Trinity junior Charlie Daniels, Trinity sophomores Molly Monsour and Hira Shah, and Trinity first-years Sophie Dalldorf and Gabrielle Marushack.

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