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In the hype

“Be careful what you do. It just might change you.”

Even now, I can feel the peaking suspense bubbling up in the packed auditorium.

Those closing statements by Eric Mlyn at this past summer’s DukeEngage orientation session still ring in my head.

But the suspense has reached new heights. According to a Sept. 23 Chronicle article, “DukeEngage director Mlyn to lead through 2016,” DukeEngage has now become the most cited reason for why students wish to come to Duke University. That’s right, the stereotypical basketball rationale has become a little outdated (too bad we won a national championship).

Forty-five years ago, a North Carolina program comparable to DukeEngage generated a similar level of hype. Robert Korstad and James Leloudis in their 2010 work “To Right These Wrongs” describe the story of this initiative during a time when poverty issues were at the forefront of North Carolina politics. Over the summers of 1964 and 1965, more than 300 college students spread out across North Carolina in an effort to “defeat poverty” and “uplift the poor.” In the first application phase, more than 500 students vied for the coveted initial 100 slots. Those finalists would become the “foot soldiers” of the North Carolina Fund, a leading antipoverty program during the 1960s.

Governor Terry Sanford, also a former Duke president, established the Fund in 1963. This was in response to the debilitating poverty statistics that surfaced around the time Sanford took office. Factory workers earned some of the lowest industrial wages in the nation; 37 percent of residents had incomes below the federal poverty line; half of all students dropped out before finishing high school; one-fourth of adults 25 years of age and older had less than a sixth-grade education and were illiterate.

The volunteer program was one of the first sanctioned projects by the Fund to fight the nemesis of poverty. Although they brought a mix of motivations to their work, volunteers emphasized a conception of citizenship fitting President John F. Kennedy’s call for “patriotic self-sacrifice.” The volunteers felt a responsibility to uphold American ideals, especially with the threat of communism abroad and social conflict at home. One wrote, “Because I am a concerned American, I think to be able to help others is more than an opportunity.”

And yet as these students took to the field, they experienced a fundamental change in their understanding of citizenship. Activism was embraced no less than service as an essential element of democracy. They began to contend that the poor had as much responsibility to live productively and independently as to demand “political rights, higher wages, improved housing, and better schools for their children.”

But this newfound obligation was met with some resistance. A volunteer in the program, Szittya, reported her frustration with the political system: “We must remember that we were employees (in effect) of the City of Durham, and under the city’s thumb. We are here to serve as requested, not to change the requests. In short, we are here to be uncreative, and not to fight poverty, but to play the city’s conservative ball game.”

When the summer program ended that August, the Fund decided to disband its volunteer program for financial and safety reasons. It instead started to focus its resources on independent “poor people” movements (Leloudis’s and Korstad’s words) and training “Community Action Technicians” who could live and work full time in places they served. Of course, those efforts were met with further confrontation; some opponents of the Fund purported that the empowerment of the poor did not promise so much economic development as social chaos and disorder. Add to that a developing conservative stronghold, and the Fund was finally disbanded in 1968.

Forty-two years later, we still face some of the issues of poverty that plagued Terry Sanford and other North Carolinian legislatures of that time. Given the rather recent past, it seems understandable that current community service would want to stay clear of the political drama. Yet, has Duke community work lost its fiery edge? And with DukeEngage initiatives now spanning the globe, have students effectively displaced that hype and generated the passion for local engagement of the 60s?

At the very least, this story should highlight the importance of the historical relevance of our current community work. We would do a disservice (no pun intended) to ourselves to forget the profound roles students realized in their own communities.

As the future prospect of DukeEngage lingers for those caught up in the hype, look to the past as a reminder of what it means to fully engage and challenge your community status quo. If the work they did changed them, the work you do might change you. Just “be careful what you do.”

Brandon Maffei is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Wednesday.


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