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How DukeEngage made me a socialist

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DukeEngage gets a lot of flack for its voluntourism, performative altruism and minimally impactful yet costly presence. Critics of international development programs might compare it to a Peace Corp-esque form of soft imperialism. However, with almost 5,000 participants since its conception, DukeEngage can serve as a unifying experience for many Duke students. We all have unique stories and perspectives on how our respective programs challenged us: some students cried every week, some changed their major from economics to public policy, others suffered from the culture shock of realizing that poverty has larger impacts than not being able to join Greek life. My program had a different impact on me: it made me a socialist.

I spent last summer participating in DukeEngage San Francisco, working with the nonprofit organization Larkin Street Youth Services that works to end youth homelessness. The problem of homelessness in San Francisco is large, visible and pervasive. Each morning on our walk to work we would pass through the Tenderloin district, which has one of the highest concentrations of people experiencing homelessness in the country. Snuggled amidst the picturesque city of San Francisco, this neighborhood was a constant reminder of the shocking wealth inequality in the city and the bay area. 

In my workplace, I was surrounded by people who worked tirelessly to fight youth homelessness. They attacked the issue from multiple angles, addressing factors ranging from trauma to education to employment. Larkin’s results for pulling youth out of homelessness are impressive, but in a city like San Francisco, the problem of homelessness seems impossible to permanently combat. In several of my public policy classes, we refer to such issues as “wicked problems,” in that there is no complete solution due to the complexity of factors involved. Even if you were to give a person a living space and a job, there’s a chance they are not able to keep that job. Even if they keep that job, low wages and high cost of living mean that they are only one medical event away from returning to homelessness. The path to self-sufficiency not only requires immense resources and commitment from the individual, but ongoing community support, and continual investment by government agencies. There just isn’t a feasible solution for everyone.

The longer I worked at Larkin Street, and the more conversations I had with the staff and people who used their resources, the more I understood that the solution to this problem is fairly simple. To get rid of homelessness, provide everyone with a home. No barriers, no prerequisites, no payment. When I first heard this suggestion, I was taken aback. I wondered why I rarely thought of that as the primary and singular solution to solving homelessness. Why had my public policy classes suggested incrementalist programs of rent subsidies, free college education or more rehabilitative prison sentencing? Why was the thought of giving people experiencing homelessness a home without conditions of employment or sobriety considered radical?

I realized that summer that most people are completely content with the reality of other people experiencing homelessness—and poverty in general. They are content under the assumption that these people deserve to be experiencing homelessness. I noticed that volunteers and supporters at Larkin Street liked Larkin’s higher education programs, and were always interested in hearing more about those in particular. I frequently heard comments that suggested someone had to have a college degree to get a job that paid enough to live in San Francisco. These people recognized that life in the city was unaffordable for the majority of residents, but had no intention of changing it, and were completely content to exclude a class of people who they didn’t even realize were necessary to their own privileged existence. They were satisfied with the mere opportunity for what they saw as a select and talented few to work their way up the ladder to a better life. 

My concept of poverty was similar to this for most of my life. I learned about charity and altruism in the context of the Catholic church. We were taught to donate our money and time to aid people less fortunate than us, and to be grateful for how fortunate we were. Poverty was an inevitable thing that always existed, and through grace and kindness we could make impoverished peoples’ lives incrementally better. We rarely questioned why poverty continued to exist, and what our own roles in aiding inequality were.

When I started to understand and study societal issues in high school, I saw how unjust our systems were. My classes in college on race theory opened my eyes to how deeply embedded racial inequality was in our society, and in everyday institutions. But I was still limited in my perspective. Every solution I was taught or exposed to worked within a larger system that requires individuals to earn their right to survive in our society. My thinking, my frame of reference, my baseline for solutions all operated under the frame of capitalism, both economically and culturally. The solutions I learned were not intended to better people’s humanity, only their productivity. 

After my DukeEngage experience, my worldview changed immensely. I noticed how ingrained the individualist mindset is in America, and how it coexists with people dedicated to helping others. I saw how ads for donating and supporting social causes center around the character of a person—if a person is hardworking then they don’t deserve to be experiencing hardship.  It was the same narratives I saw used by nonprofits last summer to fundraise and advocate for change, because they knew people would only help those experiencing homelessness if they would later be productive to society.

A lot of students leave DukeEngage feeling fortunate for their lives in the United States, and for their immense privilege, newly contextualized. I left DukeEngage feeling deeply unfortunate to live in such an individualistic and disparate society, despite our wealth and potential for something greater. Many proponents of individualism care about the wellbeing of others, but their good intentions are trapped within rigid ideas of what gives value to a person’s life.

I don’t think I am capable of being a true socialist. I have benefited immensely from capitalism in most aspects of my life, and I continue to do so at Duke. This current wave of democratic socialism is a good opportunity to channel my empathy into a form of positive change, with little to no detriment to my life. But more important than the policy itself, there comes a necessary and driving cultural change. It involves us seeing inherent value in people’s lives, and expanding what we view as a human right. It requires communication, sharing of knowledge, and experiences that bring us closer to communities removed from us—and a genuine desire for change.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity junior. His column typically runs on alternate Mondays.

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