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The DukeEngage Communications team interviewed Rebecca Bach, Associate Professor of the Practice Emerita of Sociology and Director of DukeEngage-San Francisco. 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?

Actually, the original idea for DukeEngage-San Francisco came from Dr. Janie Long, who co-directed with me for the first five years of the program. Dr. Long and I had worked together on some community-based research projects, so she was familiar with me and my interests in social issues associated with sexuality and general social inequality. When she asked me if I was interested, I joined enthusiastically. We were fortunate to receive a site visit grant from DukeEngage and were able to spend a few days in San Francisco to investigate potential community partners for the program. San Francisco is an ideal city for our program since there is a relatively large homeless population, a significant portion of whom identify as LGBTQ+.

What do you believe students have taken away from the experience over the years?

When some students have their first few days of working with Larkin Street Youth they appear a bit shell-shocked. The experience of riding a city bus into the Tenderloin [district] and walking past large numbers of people who are homeless is many students’ first exposure to a concentrated and very visible population of homeless people. And the fact that they are working with young people their own age allows them the opportunity to think critically about the lived experience of homelessness—the vulnerability, fear, hunger, desperation and the longing to feel like a “normal” 16-22-year-old. They also gain a better sense of the structural causes of homelessness in a wealthy city like San Francisco and the complexities of trying to “solve” the problems of homelessness.

DukeEngage students in front of Larkin Street Youth Services.
2019 DukeEngage-San Francisco participants at longtime community partner Larkin Street Youth Services.

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

We have worked primarily with two community partners, Larkin Street Youth and At The Crossroads. Larkin is a huge organization with numerous services for homeless youth including academic courses, GED tutoring, job application assistance, temporary housing, health services, arts programming and more. Our students generally assist with several day-to-day operations and develop an individual or small group project. We have been fortunate to have a wide variety of students in the program who have developed classes in their areas of interest and expertise, such as computer classes, guitar lessons, creative writing, sexual health information, and even hip-hop dance classes! The staff at Larkin are very enthusiastic about our interns, indicating that their energy and commitment provide a boost for the clients and the staff. Sometimes our students are able to witness the fruits of their labor when a client passes the GED, gets a job, obtains housing, or enrolls in college courses.

At The Crossroads (ATC) is a much smaller organization that focuses on reaching youth who tend to fall through cracks of other programs, often because they have significant mental illness or substance abuse issues. Because their clients require professional counseling, our students cannot provide direct service to them. Rather, they provide support to the organization by taking leadership roles in organizing one ATC’s major fundraising and outreach campaigns. Our student interns have been significantly involved in earning the organization an average of $100,000 for that one major event!

What will you miss most about not running a program this summer?

There are many aspects of running DukeEngage-San Francisco that I will miss this summer. The biggest loss for me is not being able to come to know the students on a deeper, more meaningful level. I find it very rewarding to watch them grow and develop over the course of the summer. The experience of working in a shelter for young people who are homeless can be a significant eye-opening experience for students. As they begin to become acquainted with people their own age who are living on the street, they realize that they have much in common with them except for the fact that most of our DukeEngage-San Francisco students have a home to go to when their DukeEngage summer ends. Reflections with the students at the end of their experience demonstrates their personal growth and their development of a deeper understanding of homelessness in the United States. I will miss that a great deal.

DukeEngage students with VW bus in front of Golden Gate bridge.
2018 DukeEngage participants learning about San Francisco.

What’s your advice on how to stay engaged while socially apart?

This is a real challenge given the programs have been cancelled. Some students have reached out to me to find ways they can engage in these issues when they return to Duke. Obviously, poverty, discrimination, and homelessness exist in Durham and there are a number of organizations that would welcome student service. We are currently exploring the possibility for some students to become involved with Larkin programs at a distance, but there are some logistics to work out. While the students are home over the summer they can reach out to similar organizations in their home communities, as well.