I think that the vast majority of people understand the appeal of “doing good” in their professional lives but are uncomfortable with significantly altering their current lifestyles or fail to put themselves in positions to actually a make a difference. I think that in a lot of ways before DukeEngage I felt and behaved similarly for, in my opinion, understandable reasons. It is extremely easy and convenient to have supposedly deep, philosophical and political conversations about contemporary issues plaguing the country; however, it is substantially more difficult and daunting to seriously put oneself in unexpected, nerve-wracking, and demanding situations to try to enact change, even on a micropolitical scale. Deep down I feel like I knew this but was hesitant to speak it into existence. In a sense, I thought “why bother when enveloped by a cushiony Duke campus and lifestyle?” It’s not that I didn’t understand the arguments behind certain causes — in fact I consider myself extremely politically active — but rather that there existed no permanent fixture within my day-to-day life that nudged me to “do more.”
I applied for DukeEngage Seattle honestly because I felt the pressure to do something productive in the summer after my freshman year and figured the program would be incredibly fun and personally transformative. I am comfortable with saying that at the time I applied I certainly did not do so because of a personal focus on service, civic engagement, and volunteerism. I obviously had the understanding that the program was going to be service-oriented but didn’t expect to find the majority of my “fun” from those experiences. I was wrong. The service-based experiences I’ve had the opportunity to participate in here have become the highlights and dominating features of my summer. Volunteerism, conservation, and social good have become central elements of my day-to-day life and have forced me — in the best of ways — to think more consciously about my individual impact on this planet.
I won’t absolve my personal responsibility, but my understanding of service was certainly biased by less serious high school volunteering experiences towards an understanding of volunteerism and non-profit work as inefficient and quite insubstantial in terms of enacting structural change across the country. My time working at Treehouse this summer has significantly altered my understanding of how non-profits can and ought to operate. Good people exist in the world and they take pride in their work at these organizations; the magnitude of their individual contributions is hard to fully appreciate from a summer of service and much less an afternoon of volunteering. Although these groups are indeed rarely making large-scale structural changes to national policy, it is intellectual snobbery to believe that improving the material and daily conditions of the most vulnerable and neglected groups isn’t substantial or worthwhile. I think that my time working over the summer showed me that it’s certainly not crazy to devote one’s life towards positive change. Though it’s hard to make a difference as an individual, much less within the timespan of 8 weeks, organizations like Treehouse are out there organizing individual actions to enact tangible and incredibly substantial improvements to the lives of some of the most vulnerable and neglected in society at large.
And as the program comes to a close, I have a single note and hope for myself: to remember these lessons and to incorporate them into my day-to-day decision making going forward. In other words, someone should slap me if I ever lose sight of what’s actually important in the world. I feel like a common narrative shared by boomers is that large pockets of us “liberal” youth will become more conservative perhaps the second we receive our first paycheck and certainly after a lifetime of paying taxes to the government. I get the merit of this argument and can certainly understand the thought processes behind these types of personal political changes, but I struggle to believe that my compassion and empathy for the people of this earth will ever fade away. In fact, my nightmare is to find myself in a position where I can feel comfortable and fulfilled while ignoring the lives around me. So long as unequal power distributions across individual actors and the entire government affect the marginalized communities, there will exist a demand for non-profit, people-oriented service work; I hope that I continue to be aware, cognizant, and active in these issues.
I’m both scared and simultaneously excited to take a look back into these reflections on DukeEngage in a year from now and after my undergraduate years. I desperately want to prove the rest of the world wrong about what it means to care about social, environmental, and economic issues. It’s neither a fad nor a product of teenage angst; my empathy for others is a core part of my identity and for that reason I am optimistic to reflect on the ways that I will have grown as a person with these values.