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The DukeEngage Communications team sat down with Kisha Daniels (Instructor of Education at Duke), one of the faculty directors leading DukeEngage-Chicago, as part of a series of interviews that aims to talk about DukeEngage programs and their impact on community members, partners, and students. Follow us on Instagram for more content like this!


What sparked your idea for a DukeEngage program?

My research has always been supported by service learning. When I first started as a professor, I was introduced to the terminology of service learning through a grant that I was asked to be a part of as a faculty member. But when I started digging into service learning and what it was about, I realized that that’s just how I had always been teaching. I didn’t know that it actually had that name. Community engagement was just always something that I was passionate about and that I felt should be any component of every education classes.

I started learning more about service learning and how it was different from community engagement, but it really helped me hone in on different ideas and connections that could be made to content and service. When I came to Duke and realized that Duke had this amazing program- Duke Engage- I thought, “Well, wow. This solves all my problems.” One, being I never felt like 16 weeks was enough in any semester to actually extend a student’s understanding and knowledge, a foundational kind of a knowledge or skillset, even, around course concepts.  So, I thought, “Wow, DukeEngage could be that answer if there were a way to connect what we were doing in the classroom and then have an extension where students were really immersed in programming that was connected.” I started just thinking about Duke Engage in that capacity, then, of course, learned more about it.

I always knew that the program I envisioned had to be connected in some way to urban education, and I know urban education can sometimes be that buzzword for a lot of things. But in my mind, because I was born and raised in the Bronx, I just knew it to be more of a method and an ideology as opposed to a buzzword. Whatever the Duke Engage was that we came up with, I wanted it to be in an urban area. I started thinking about what cities are urban in nature and have rich cultural histories, and Chicago just came to mind.

Then I had to start thinking about, “Well, what is it that we want to connect?” My research focuses mostly on marginalized populations and innovative and creative strategies that support marginalized populations in education and in the classroom specifically. It really revolves a lot around culturally relevant pedagogy. One of the newest iterations of culturally relevant pedagogy from a different perspective is using Hip-Hop as a genre to really help kids understand the advocacy behind it and also how it connects to learning. I knew those had to go together and then I knew Chicago was a great vessel community to have this all happen in. Then I started talking to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal and I kind of just said, “I’ve got these ideas but I need some help fleshing them out. You have Hip-Hop as a historian and I’ve got the education aspect, what can we do? How can we come up with something great?”

And it just worked. He and I met a few times and we just discussed what we really wanted students to be able to walk away with, and then it all kind of just morphed together into this great program. And so that’s pretty much the genesis of where it came from. It got me thinking about it just being a connection to a course, and then it evolved more into how can students really understand all of these nuances and facets of city living and the different factors and impacts of living in a city and layer that with Hip-Hop as a critical pedagogy and how it looks in real communities. Especially in the summer. That’s really the long story of how it kind of came to be.


What do you hope students will take from the experience? 

I really feel strongly- this is sort of the way I approach everything in education- that we have to shift our paradigm from a deficit thinking model to a non-deficit thinking model. What that would look like is students approaching work in the community and realizing what are all the great things that this community has to offer me, and what am I taking away from this, as opposed to, this community needs so much help and I’m here to help it. That would be the deficit model. Cities have all these struggles and challenges, and while that may be true, if you start with that lens, sometimes it is very much clouded by all of the great things that are already there. Start with the great things and let the communities tell you what their needs are. Because if you come with a deficit model or a deficit lens, chances are you’re going to either overlook that or it’s going to be hard for you to really be an integral part of that community.

For many of our students, they may not have ever been or been to and/or lived in a large city before, so that’s definitely a shock. Even if they have, each city has a very, very different history and very different pulse. They’re just different. So, it doesn’t really matter that they’re both cities. They have their own unique perspectives. We have to be able to appreciate each for what they are. Each community has its own separate needs.


What benefit does your DukeEngage program offer the community/partners?

All of our programs are so diverse, our community partner programs are very diverse, and they work to solve and support different constituents in Chicago. So, I think that each partner comes to this from a different perspective. I know that’s one of the things we work on setting up in advance and having a lot of really thoughtful conversations around: “What are your needs and how can we help?” I think that, at the root of it, all of our partners look to us to enrich what they’re already doing and to bring different perspectives. I really do believe that our partners all are so invested in telling their stories, that having students come and spend two months with them is another unique way to tell their story and to get the information out to larger communities about who they are and what they do and the value that they have in the community. It’s very noble of them to allow us to come into their communities for two months to really learn about and support them, but also then to say, “Go back. Tell people about how great we are.” I think, in regards to Chicago, when the story gets back to larger populations, it is often riddled with violence and there’s a lot of misinformation that gets played out. Chicago gets a bad rap a lot of times, particularly the South Side of Chicago where they’re majority African American and Latinx communities. I would imagine that a lot of our community partners are excited by the fact that students are coming to the South Side to be able to go back and share, “It is not what you hear on the news.” It’s a community full of people who love Chicago, who want the best for their neighbors and their children, they are fighting for good schools, and they’re no different from anybody else. But you have to understand that there have been a lot of systemic issues that might play into this. So, I think we help to tell the story of Chicago for Chicago.


How does/has this program align with/impact your research or teaching?

I would say that most professors will tell you there’s never enough time to do everything, and I feel exactly the same way. I think last summer when we were gearing up for DukeEngage, I had all of these big ideas about, “Oh, we can research this and we can think differently about how we come about this, and this would be a great opportunity to pull a lot of thesis work out for students.” That’s some of what students are asked on their application, but I think as a researcher and as an academic, I was thinking that I’d be able to do so much more, but there’s not enough time, right? I don’t have enough time to figure out how to synthesize everything that happened last summer into just one research project or one article or one book or anything like that. What I had to realize really soon after I got back was, for right now, I have to be able to take that experience and help it impart new knowledge and new teaching strategies for my current classes.

Last semester and this semester I’m teaching Education 240/ Psych 240. It’s Education Psychology. This semester I’m also teaching a Special Topics class: The Critical Pedagogy of Hip-Hop. That’s where I wound up talking a lot more about the DukeEngage experience really. In 240 especially, we have a lot of conversations around what is the nature of service learning and community engagement, and looking reflectively at whether or not we help communities or hurt them with service learning. How do we know this? How does that play out? I was really fortunate to be a part of a Bass Connections project (Community and University Assisted Schools) that is looking at this as well. While I haven’t been able to do a lot of independent research, it has completely impacted my participation in my Bass Connections project group. I’m also working with a student who didn’t come to Chicago- she actually went to Boston with Dr. Malone- but I’m her research advisor, and she’s looking at that idea too: What is service learning and what’s its place? And how it can be better, how universities can think about it differently?

I do believe that the experience has impacted my conversations that I have with students, how I have now embedded that as part of my Ed Psych class and my work with students who want to complete independent research. It’s most definitely grounded in my Special Topics class, which has two students who were in DukeEngage-Chicago enrolled. I’m really happy about that. Then last semester, one student who was in the class also participated in the DukeEngage. So, I feel like there’s a great overlap for students who were able to get into the class being able to see the connection.


What benefits do you see for students and faculty in the type of experiential learning offered by programs like DukeEngage?

Well, I think at the top is this idea that students would be getting very, very practical experience and knowledge around servant leadership. I do feel like, as an educator, that’s what servant leadership is. If you’re a teacher, if you want to do anything in the public sector, it is all about being a servant of the people in some way. I do think that that’s one of the themes that we stress in our DukeEngage program. Beyond you just liking to help people, you have to really understand the frameworks and tenants of leadership, servant leadership being one, and how that comes about and where it fits in your life.

I always pushed back on this notion that we have a lot of students who do the DukeEngage programs because it’s a box they need to check. I know I need to do something for my future employers. Fine, if you come to it from that perspective and you come to Chicago, I’m going to make you think about whether or not you really, really, really want to be a servant leader. Some people are not meant for the jobs that have that as a current, right? Along with that, I think it gives students very practical skills and information around leadership, but also empathy and communication skills. It may be the first time some students have actually ever had a real job. You’re having to talk to people that you never probably thought you’d talk to. You have to understand how the organization works. You have to do your research and understand systems. You have to be in meetings where you have to be really attentive to what’s going on because more than likely you’re going to be asked to do something about it. Along with that, you also are now a part of a community that is counting on you. There are some jobs you can do and it doesn’t matter if you’re a part of the community, right? Internships and placements through DukeEngage mean that you are a part of that community. For instance, I’m thinking about the Arab American Action Network, which is one of our community partners. In order to be a participant and to really get more out of the experience of being a part of that organization for two months, you need to understand what Arab Americans in Chicago go through. It’s not okay for you not to know because it impacts everything that you do within that organization. The organization is there to teach you, but for some of it you have to do research on your own. All of our partners are like that. They are steeped in the community.

You have to be a part of that community and know what that community needs in order to be effective. I hope that students walk away learning that being part of a community is a really important aspect of their adult lives, outside of the job skills and the leadership skills they gain. Surprisingly, there are many students who don’t have that coming to Duke or DukeEngage. They’re trying to find their place on this campus, find their community, maybe still struggling, and wound up going on a DukeEngage, and that might be your first experience with being connected to a community. That’s powerful for a lot of students. If they come to DukeEngage-Chicago, that’s one of the elements that we stress: this is your community. We work really hard to help them with that.


What are you most excited about for this summer?

What I’m most interested is really just seeing how we can take the lessons that we learned from this past summer and improve on it and make it, if that’s possible, an even better, stronger program than before. I think I’m just excited to see how it rolls out again and see if it works the same or if the tweaks that we made here or there make a difference. I’m definitely excited about another cohort. I think that you just don’t know. You don’t know, and it’s kind of the anticipation of not knowing. I’m really excited to kind of meet them and see how they work and gel together. I think it’ll be great.


Woman standing in a cityscape