The first time I went in for a meeting at the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF), I was hungover. I guess it’s been a running theme in my college career—going to class and meetings and workouts hungover, and hoping nobody will notice.
Mr. Kennedy noticed right away, and when I asked him how he could possibly tell, he gave me a wink and said, “Takes one to know one.”
We were fast friends from then on, working on resumés and job applications, cracking jokes and calling debt collectors. We spent two years working together and I never showed up hungover again—we held each other accountable.
In my four years working with CEF, I’ve met with dozens of people, some close to my age, some close to my grandma’s. I’ve built close bonds and found lasting friends, and along the way, witnessed the deep and abiding injustice that characterizes inequality in Durham. At 2 p.m. on Mondays, I sit in a floor-to-ceiling glass box eating sushi. By 3 p.m., I’m in a swivel chair trying to find financial assistance to cover a $75 utility bill that hangs like a dark cloud over the end of the month.
The holiday season is an important time for CEF—a time to raise funds and gain support, both on campus and off. This year, our development team announced a new initiative aimed at doing just that: a CEF partnership with Campus Enterprises.
At some point in my life, I don’t think I would’ve seen a problem with this. Sure, I could have acknowledged that Campus Enterprises was an elitist organization that restricted membership to students able to pay its $7,000 buy-in. Sure, I would’ve been uncomfortable with the idea that 19 year-old kids with money would be in charge of adults with children and utilities bills cleaning dorm rooms for a living. But in the end, I would have justified a partnership, asserting that the end—more money for financial empowerment and community justice—made up for the means.
I can’t see it like that anymore. CEF is an organization fighting against all forms of economic exploitation in Durham and Chapel Hill. It aims to uproot a hierarchy that would allow some to play with money and others to sleep on a bench because they lack it. Pursuing this partnership with an organization entrenched in that hierarchy compromises those values.
And the hypocrisy was built into the partnership. At CE x CEF hosts Devine’s on Thursday night, partygoers were invited to spin a wheel to win a free Maid My Day clean or $20 in GoBringIt credit. The cleaners and the drivers actually executing those services could be coming in to CEF for financial assistance, based on their wages.
According to the CEO and CFO of Campus Enterprises, cleaners for Maid My Day—three adults who signed non-compete contracts in order to work for CE—make $20 per hour, below the average hourly rate across the US. In comparison, the photographers hired by Enterprise Entertainment to work sorority formals—most of whom are Duke students with no dependents—make $30 an hour. The student DJs hired to work these same events make $60 an hour, three times the wage of a cleaner.
Finally, there’s the labor contracted to deliver SushiLove and the Loop to Duke students for GoBringIt—15 drivers from around Durham paid $4.25 an hour plus tips (though CE guarantees at least $11 an hour, paying the difference on slow nights).
The injustice here isn’t just in the low wage for community members, though. It’s in the cut that CE takes from every transaction. If a sorority wants to hire a photographer for their party, they’ll be charged $65 per hour—more than twice the wage that the photographer actually keeps. For a DJ, they’d pay $110 an hour, meaning CE takes a 45% cut of the deal.
And of course, for Maid My Day, the margins are similar. If I wanted to have my off-campus house cleaned, I’d be charged the standard rate of $45. Even if the cleaner took an hour and a half to finish that gig, they’d still only make $30 out of the $45 I paid. The other third of the price goes to the company, for serving as the middleman.
When I asked about these wages, I was given some justification—apparently, the cleaning team gets a bonus every semester of about $100. Meanwhile, the shareholder dividends guaranteed to the active student members of CE are between $1,000-$1,500 per semester, depending on performance.
The success of what is often called a “rewarding experience” or a step to a “dream job at Facebook” hinges on working class labor, exploited and managed by college students. And even then, only a few college students—the company relies on reinforcing classism at Duke in requiring “shareholders” to buy-in for equity. What college student actually has that kind of cash?
According to the CEO and CFO, only one out of their 41 shareholders is Black. When I asked if there were any shareholders from Durham, they told me there were three or four from the triangle. And though CE offered financial aid to six members in its new class of 15 shareholders, one has to wonder—who is being discouraged from applying in the first place?
All of this isn’t to name and shame my peers. But it is to give an answer to those who wonder how so many Duke students will go on to work at Palantir and McKinsey and become complicit in locking children up at the border.
Duke raises us to replicate the elitist, oppressive conditions that got us here in the first place—especially those of us that come from wealth. Duke teaches us to ignore human rights violations and dismiss them as a “necessary evil.” Duke teaches us not just to be complicit but to actively propagate injustice, and then turn around and slap a donation on top to make it all okay.
The CE shareholders of today are the billionaires of tomorrow, the ones convinced they are good people because they participate in “corporate social responsibility” and give 10% of their sales revenue to CEF.
I refuse to replicate that. And I hope that—if not for our own principles, then for our community members’ livelihoods—CEF would too.
In my time working for housing justice in Durham, I have seen people lose cars, homes, and lives to just $200 in hospital bills or electricity fees. With all due respect to my classmates, f*** your buy-in.
Leah Abrams is a Trinity senior and the Editor of the Editorial Page. Her column, “cut the bull,” apparently runs only in the first and last issues of the semester because that’s the only time she can get it together.
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Leah Abrams is a Trinity senior and the Editor of the editorial section. Her column, "cut the bull," runs on alternate Fridays.