When I told my friends that I would stay in Durham for six weeks during the summer, they were all surprised, “What? Durham?” Yes, I asked myself this same question as I browsed through the list of DukeEngage programs five months ago. There are so many exciting places to go. Why Durham? As I wrote my application, I convinced myself this is the right choice. Now after three weeks in Durham, I am glad that I chose this program. I discovered so many exciting things about this city and learned more about myself.
Growing up in Shanghai, a massive metropolitan city with 26 million residents, I didn’t consider Durham an exciting place at all. But I’m glad that DukeEngage-Durham gives me the chance to actually “live” in this city, not just go to school in a section of this city called Duke. After three weeks in Durham, I started to appreciate the unique exciting things about Durham. Durham is undergoing huge and rapid transitions and every person who lives in the city is influencing and being influenced by it. There are constructions everywhere in downtown Durham and each building that’s being built is probably going to be the tallest in the city and will soon be replaced by an even taller and more modern building. But if we look at the development from another angle, there are so many challenges that Durham and people who live here are facing.
For example, the revitalization of the old neighborhoods in Durham improved living standards to some extent and the new businesses opened in downtown created more jobs. Meanwhile, the development also brings along problems like gentrification. Will people who have lived here for decades be able to afford an apartment in the renovated neighborhoods? Are people paid enough to deal with the increasing living expense? At CEF, we deal with the tiniest problems that the each individual member is facing while always keeping the big picture in mind. Every day, I spend time talking to members and work on their goals to help them achieve financial stability. Every two weeks, staff members gather together and reflect on a topic related to our work. Last week, we had a very deep discussion on gentrification. These conversations unsettle me and encourage me to reflect on the work we do and the way we approach our goals. I also really appreciate that people at CEF look at Durham critically and in my opinion, this is how you really care about this city. Through the discussion, I realized that development and fairness are very hard to achieve at the same time. But CEF, along with other nonprofit organizations are doing their best to fill in the gaps in social equality and empower people in the ever changing environment.
One of the main reasons why I chose this program is that I wanted my service to have a long-lasting impact on the community. Since I’m working in Durham, I can always come back during the school year and carry my projects forward. Something I especially like about my job at CEF is that it’s very down to earth but it accumulates a huge impact over the time. Last weekend, I represented CEF at a community outreach event. A lady came up to me and said, “Hey, can I sign up as an advocate?” I was confused at the beginning but then she explained that she came to CEF and met with the advocates for two years. She was able to build her savings, find affordable housing and even start her own business. The relationship she built at CEF helped her to put her life together and she wants to help other people who face the same situation. At that moment, the impact and empowerment became tangible and I realized how the sessions I have with members every day help them get closer to financial stability and their personal goals.