After carefully hopping over the gap between the muddy patch of grass and the street onto the Bull City Connector, I plop down into a seat across from Sam, my Duke Engage site partner. It’s around 8:12am, and we’re on our daily bus route to our internship at Threshold, a clubhouse for adults with serious mental illnesses. There are a few students, blue collar workers, and white collar workers sitting silently around us either on their phones or looking out the windows. The bus breezes past the beautifully developed buildings of Downtown Durham, pruned trees, and occasional construction sites.
My coworker, Sam, pulls the cord to stop the bus in front of the Durham Police station. Soon, we’re sitting on a bench in front of the sleek station and swat away bugs while we wait for our connecting bus, 2B, to take us to Threshold, our final destination. After about eight minutes, we see the bus coming down the street from afar and leap up to stand by the edge of the sidewalk so the bus driver sees us and stops the bus. After swiping our GoPasses (tip: swipe with the magnetic stripe facing you) we walk towards the back and we see and greet some Threshold members who are also riding the bus. As the bus pulls over the train tracks, our surroundings immediately become more rundown, the streets become narrower, the grass around outside withered and overgrown. The quick transition from the BCC to 2B uncomfortably highlights the distinct and unmistakable differences between Downtown Durham and East Durham.
It’s hard to believe that these districts are both part of the same city.
We pass a childcare center with grammatical errors in its name and the streets become much bumpier as the bus pulls through residential areas. The bus weaves around parked cars that take up half the width of the street and we whizz past the occasional person wearing Duke branded clothing. After a few weeks of taking this route and working at Threshold, I’ve become more aware of the occasions when I see people wearing or with Duke branded items. I’ve also become more self-conscious when I don my Duke shirt and head to Threshold. I’m the only Asian I’ve ever seen ride the 2B bus. I often feel as though wearing a Duke shirt just makes me feel more out of place and that being identified as a Duke student in East Durham might not help ameliorate the tensions between Duke and Durham.
Some residents of Durham view students from Duke as people from an institution that has perhaps done damage to their community, people who believe that it is their place is serve the residents, and people who probably don’t expect to learn much from the residents. Though this may hold true in some situations and these assumptions that they hold are not entirely unfounded, the rift and tension between Durham and Duke can only be resolved if both sides are willing to knock down their walls and come to an understanding that we can both help, respect, and learn from each other. During my time at Threshold, I’ve realized that there is so much more that I can learn from the members of Threshold than they can learn from me. And while the tasks I am completing do help keep the clubhouse running to some extent, I know that I am replaceable and that the experience that I have at Threshold will impact me more than it will impact the daily operations of Threshold. Residents of Durham who see me on the bus might not know about these ideas that Duke works hard to make us realize before branding me negatively, which is even more cause for increased dialogue between Duke and Durham residents. The state of Durham and its relationship with Duke is a reflection of bigger issues in our world such as gentrification and racism that need to be addressed. Though these issues won’t be solved within a few years, it is still crucial to recognize these issues in your own surroundings and take small steps, but steps nonetheless, to educate others about these issues and work to resolve them person by person.
On these bus rides, I’ve taken to drawing comparisons between the attitudes of people who ride the BCC and 2B buses. I have noticed that people on the 2B bus tend to be much friendlier and open than those who ride the BCC. People will enter the bus, pay for their ride, and say hello or wave to a bus full of strangers. One morning, as the bus screeched to a halt at a stop, two girls and their mother got up from their seats in the back of the bus and the girls immediately started happily hollering “THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!!” to the bus driver. Even as they got off the bus, they continued their chorus of thank you’s as they walked past the front doors of the bus outside. The bus driver chuckled and continued driving with a smile on his face.
There is simply no level of wealth, fortune, or privilege that excuses people from being kind to each other, from greeting each other, from thanking each other. I hope that these girls know how fortunate they are to have a mother who is raising them right because even at Duke, I’ve seen more than my share of thankless students be served by a Duke employee or just walk right past an employee and just ignore the employee’s service and existence. Money can’t buy manners.
After riding through the residential areas of East Durham for around fifteen minutes, we arrive at the bus stop in front of Threshold. We step off the bus and cross the street, stepping over weeds growing between the cracks in the sidewalk as we approach the clubhouse. A member waves enthusiastically to us from outside the clubhouse and I’m reminded of how grateful I am to be able to open my eyes to not only the brokenness inside of Durham, but more importantly, the wholesomeness, warmth, and love that already radiates from the people that populate Durham–regardless of the conditions of their surroundings.