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Over the past 6 weeks in Durham, NC, I feel that I am slowly transitioning from a mere bystander to an actual member of the Durham community. This transformed perspective was a result of my interaction with community members and my internship at OEWD.

Working at the OEWD gave me numerous opportunities to speak to Durham citizens/youth and to gain insights on education programs in the city. For example, one of my tasks at the office was to communicate with students who wanted to open their own bank accounts with the Latino Community Credit Union. Throughout the process, I initially felt frustrated and could not understand why many families had trouble finding or providing the basic documents such as picture ID’s. One day, I called a student’s number for her to fax some documents again and her grandmother picked up the phone. I remember her explaining that as much as she wanted to, they spent their last dollars of the week trying to fax the documents in the first place. After our conversation, my frustration vanished and was replaced with a new sense of understanding, and almost shame, that I forgot the fundamental aspect of money in this situation. That type of frustration and the near-willingness to ignore the problem, is a mistake that will indefinitely perpetuate the vicious cycle many families in the city are struggling with.

Another unforgettable moment took place during the YouthWork Internship Program orientation which the OEWD interns helped facilitate. When we first set up the meal trays for the students’ free breakfast and lunches, I was expecting the students to be excited with what we were providing…until one by one, they walked past our table with looks of disappointment.The program supervisor explained to us that these meals are provided by the Durham Public Schools (DPS), so most students were tired of them. This posed quite a dilemma. First, for counting purposes, they could not pick what they want to eat from the meals, so most items were thrown into the trash by the students. Second, we could not donate the leftover food because of liability issues. Lastly, DPS does not accept any food back for sanitary/health reasons. As a result, I had to throw away warm sandwiches, fresh milk, and perfectly non-perishable snacks into a garbage bag after every orientation day — an act I never would have expected to do and would not want to experience again. I never expected something as simple as providing free lunches to students would have so many complications and wasteful consequences, those of which are usually neglected.

What should we do to tackle these challenges? It is easy to grasp the magnitude and complexity of the issues that Durham faces, but it is far from easy to come up with a realistic yet efficient solution. Nevertheless, our conversation with Michael Goodmon last week made me realize that sometimes, the best solutions are the ones that may seem the least attractive. In these cases, although sorting through hundreds of files, and calling/emailing the students numerous times may seem tedious, how else would we be able to communicate through problems and successfully place students in their internships (which greatly benefit their long term career plans)? Simply acknowledging the problems is not enough — similar steps should be taken, no matter how “inconvenient” the discussions may be, to adjust food-related regulations, especially in the school system. I am confident that with time, positive changes can be made, as long as awareness and motivation continue to exist.