Like approximately 400 other upperclassmen students, I arrived on campus this August 15 days before classes began to be an Orientation Leader (OL) for incoming first years. As OLs, we were required to show up a week before first year students moved in to attend a laundry list of in-person training sessions. Over that time period, the OLs-in-training learned everything you could put into a crash course on being a student at Duke – from riding the wave of safe alcohol consumption to the ins and outs of accessing mental health resources on campus. Out of all the training sessions we sat through, however, there is one that struck a chord with me that’s continued to weigh on my mind long after I oriented new students.
This particular training session was led by the Office of Durham and Community Affairs (DCA). As a student studying public policy, several of my classes and involvements have crossed paths with the DCA office before, so I was fairly familiar with their elevator pitch detailing the importance of student involvement in the Durham community. What I wasn’t familiar with was their large-group activity or the responses that it would elicit from the 400 other OLs-in-training that sat in Page auditorium alongside me.
I’ll set the stage. The session moderators from the DCA office walked the group through a powerpoint detailing qualities of ethical community engagement, citing Duke’s long muddied history with the city of Durham and advice on ways to engage more deeply to burst the infamous “Duke Bubble.” Subsequently, the moderators posted a code that led OLs to a word bubble generator website. They posed the following question to the jam-packed auditorium: “What’s your favorite part of Durham?” Undeniably, this was a softball question that looked for students to identify bright spots of their adventures in the city, and one might expect responses to include things like the Durham Farmers Market, Pincho Loco, or late night Cookout runs.
And while those places did make an appearance, they were not the star of the show. To my immediate surprise that quickly turned to an unsettling queasiness, a word popped up on screen. Want a hint as to what that word was? Here’s one: It has eight letters, is often preceded by “roll,” and if you’re a Duke undergraduate you’ve definitely heard it many times leading up to a Wednesday or Saturday night.
If you guessed “Shooters,” kudos to you! If you’re less familiar with the undergraduate party scene, Shooters is the name of the cowboy-themed night club right off of East Campus that has existed for decades. As quickly as “Shooters” appeared on the screen, the word began to exponentially expand; seconds passed and Shooters dominated the word bubble. Admittedly, it was a bit of a “haha” moment, as if we were all in on an inside joke, but the starkness of the word only became more apparent as people verbally encouraged their friends to also submit “Shooters” so it could be just a little bigger. I saw more than one OL-in-training take a pic of the word bubble to use as their daily BeReal.
After working at the Community Empowerment Fund, a Durham-based nonprofit, for the duration of the summer, I couldn’t help but wince at the thinly veiled problematic reality of the glaring word dominating the screen. Even within a self-selecting group of upperclassmen Duke students eager to take on the task of introducing new students to Duke and Durham, we couldn’t collectively be serious enough in a moment of learning to recognize the merits of the city where we have all lived for at least a year of our lives. Instead, we disrespected the expertise of the practitioners leading the session and exemplified the widespread complacency of the Duke student body when it comes to educating ourselves and acknowledging our role as both Duke students and temporary residents of Durham.
I’m not saying there isn’t merit to supporting your small-business female-owned nightclub, but I also think we must recognize that Durham exists in a myriad of capacities beyond Saturday night Shooters. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way exempt from this critique, as I too struggle to break free of the “Duke Bubble” phenomenon without a car to ease my ventures off campus. When coupled with midterm stressors and neverending curricular commitments, I thoroughly understand the desire to relax and tune out for a night out on the town, a mere 5 minute walk from East campus. There is no problem in this act; the problem lies when rolling Shoots is the only avenue of interaction with Durham, as the city is far more than a playground to party in during weekend rendezvous.
Just as important to understand: Durham is not a run-down place in need of ‘saving’ by ambitious Duke students looking for a resume booster. As a city with a large Black and Latinx population, a mixture of volunteerism and privileged pity towards those who have historically been marginalized is not needed or desired by anyone–a fact embodied to me through heartleft, honest conversations with Durham community members I had over the past summer. This ongoing dynamic and its ramifications has been eloquently examined by my colleague, columnist and Durham resident Sonia Green, in her piece titled “What’s a criminal?”
Needless to say, complacency isn’t sexy. In this piece, I am not seeking to lecture and be a broken record of sunshine, rainbows, and butterflies, but I am asking you to consider the following questions: With our 4-year time limit in Durham being integral to how we interact with the city, how do we mobilize our agency as Duke students to give and not take from the communities who’ve inhabited Durham for generations? As students attending a university with a privileged position in the local economy and politics, what responsibility falls on us to work towards reparations and dispelling the long-held trope of the ignorant, uncaring Duke student–a negative stereotype the OLs-in-training leaned into full-heartedly when answering the innocent question: “What’s your favorite part of Durham?”
If you’re looking to roll beyond Shoots and think through these questions, there are a variety of pathways available to you to pursue. You can reach out to Duke Partnership for Service, the student-run group that oversees all of the service organizations on campus. You can learn about Duke’s place within Durham from a variety of perspectives through programming sponsored by the Office of Durham and Community Affairs. With bookbagging currently open for the spring semester, you can enroll in a service-learning or Hart Leadership course that centers asset-based engagement models. In tandem with these action items, you can “Roll Shoots” every Saturday night–or even every Wednesday night–with a mind and heart more intentional towards the Durham community that lies beyond Duke’s gothic gates.
Chloe Decker is Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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