The DukeEngage Communications team interviewed David Malone Ph.D.’84, Professor of the Practice of Education and Faculty Director of Duke Service-Learning. He has led the DukeEngage-Boston program since 2015. This profile is part of an interview series that aims to share how DukeEngage programs impact community members, partners, and students. Follow us on Instagram for more content like this!
What sparked your idea for a DukeEngage program?
In the summer of 2013, my good friend and colleague, Public Policy Professor Tony Brown, approached Eric Mlyn (then Director of DukeEngage) about creating a new program in Boston focused on social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and civic engagement.
Tony chose Boston for several reasons: the high level of social innovation and entrepreneurship in the city, an active and engaged cohort of Duke alums, and New England is Tony’s home. The DukeEngage-Boston program began in summer 2014 with 10 undergraduates and 6 community partners. That fall, Tony and Eric asked me if I would be interested in directing the program in 2015. I was excited about the opportunity for because I love working with Duke undergraduates, I was very familiar with Boston having gone to college in the area, my wife grew up in Boston, and I knew Tony had created a strong foundation for the program.
Being an education professor whose work focuses on children, youth, schooling, and human development, I modified the focus of the Boston program by adding new and different kinds of community organizations as partners. While DukeEngage-Boston is still centered on social innovation and civic engagement, we now have a sharper focus on innovation as it relates to the holistic development of children and youth.
What do you believe students have taken away from the experience over the years?
This is my 36th year at Duke as a faculty member. I would rank DukeEngage as one of the most meaningful ways I have been involved with Duke students during my career.
I believe that DukeEngage—when designed and implemented in thoughtful ways—can truly be a transformative experience for our students. Transformative is a much-overused word these days in higher education. I don’t use the word “transformative” without careful consideration of what it means in the context of student development. By transformative I mean that many of our Duke students return from DukeEngage with significantly different perspectives than the perspectives they had prior to their experience. How do I know this? Evidence for this claim can be found in the ways students write about and discuss the issues we are grabbling with. They see themselves, their peers, and their relationship and responsibilities to communities in new ways. They grow in their capacity for careful observation, reflective analysis, and sitting still with ambiguous problems long enough to truly understand them. Social inequities that may have been invisible to them become more visible. They allow themselves to be uncomfortable as they examine power, privilege, and positionality.
In Boston, to help us articulate the ways we are growing, we use the metaphor “seeing the water” because we read an essay by David Foster Wallace “This is Water–About Living a Compassionate Life.” It is not difficult to perceive when students begin to “see the water” and to embrace the process of transformation; the stages of emerging adult development are well documented in the research literature and easily recognized. Duke students grow in significant ways as a result of their Boston experiences—increasing their capacity for perspective taking, empathy, self-awareness, new skillsets, and a greater sense of “we are all in this together.”
What benefit does your DukeEngage program offer the community/partners?
The Boston program provides meaningful benefits to our community partners. I know this because each year the partners register their “vote” when I ask if they want a DukeEngage student next year. Invariably the nonprofit organizations re-up enthusiastically. Their endorsement is typically accompanied by glowing reviews of our students. The thing I hear most often from our Boston partners is that Duke students just get things done; they are willing to take on any type of task or project and they persist and follow through until completion.
I recognize it is a lot of work for these nonprofit organizations to take on an untrained intern. It requires supervision, planning, and integration into the existing team. Taking on a Duke intern isn’t a simple task for a community organization, yet they embrace our students because they add value to their work and have an impact on the neighborhoods and communities we work with.
I know that our partners also enjoy their role as co-educators. They enthusiastically participate in the process of developing our students ethically, intellectually, and civically. Many of them often comment on the need to attract talented young people into careers in non-profit work and the public sector. It is truly is a win-win situation for our students and our partners.
What will you miss most about not running a program this summer?
What I miss most about not being with 12 Duke students in Boston this summer is the experience of learning alongside them. Even though I am almost 70, I am still learning and growing—and young people see the world in different ways than I do.
I remember one summer when I taped 10 signs on the walls of our dorm common room, each naming a social issue: wealth/income inequality, educational inequities, racism, globalization, environment, and so on. I asked the students to stand under the sign that represented the world’s greatest challenge. But one courageous student refused to move. As the other students moved around the room, I waited a minute before inviting the non-mover to share her thoughts. Then she said one word: intersectionality. At that point, all of us were drawn into something none of us expected—a deeply engaging conversation about interdependence and the ways social systems and structures interact and intersect. More importantly, we uncovered ways each of us may be complicit with these systems and the actions we were going to take to change them. I learned a lot that day, and became much more hopeful about our future and our capacity to address our challenges. This summer I will miss those kinds of intense growing experiences that happen within communities of purpose.
What’s your advice on how to stay engaged while socially apart?
To me the phrase “staying engaged while socially apart” is a bit misleading. At this moment I may be feeling physically apart from others, but socially I feel very connected. In fact, instead of calling it “social distancing,” we should call it “physical distancing while socially connected.” I don’t think I’ve ever felt more socially connected and as engaged as I do now, even after two months of being quarantined in my home. There is so much at stake—and so much to do. So many opportunities exist for rethinking how we have traditionally done things—from schooling, to voting, to healthcare—to what Rousseau called the social contract. Our moral, civic, political obligations and rights as individuals while being members of a collective community.
It’s time for reimagining and re-envisioning how we see ourselves as individuals and our relationship to the collective and re-thinking how we organize ourselves as a society. I appreciate the work of Bryan Stevenson who outlines four principles to guide our actions: get proximate, change the narrative, being willing to be uncomfortable, and stay hopeful.
I would encourage our students to use this time to do the difficult introspective work of sitting still with oneself and figuring out who you are and how you want to be in the world. Look in before you reach out. We live in difficult times—disproportionally and significantly more difficult for many—if we look within ourselves while staying deeply engaged and socially connected perhaps we can dream socially of more inclusive, just, and equitable ways of being in the world—and then take actions to make these dreams actualities.