I’m at the point in my trip where I’m beginning to question what it means to truly, engage.
Is engaging showing up to work everyday, and following instructions from behind my desk, or is it when I probe my coworker at lunch, and end up listening to her incredible life story instead?
Is engaging when I have something ‘thoughtful’ to say in group reflection, or was it when I vibe with my Uber driver over a shared music taste on the way to the beach?
Is engaging writing these blogs and becoming more ‘self aware,’ or is it taking my ‘self awareness’ and holding myself accountable to insight in public?
Introspection is great, and I love my fair share of self help books and philosophy, but if I’m not using any of this to change my surroundings or feel connected to the world around me, my desk work, late night reading or weekly group reflections won’t mean much.
I started Duke Engage 5 weeks ago with an impressionable mind and not much background other than a South African history class, skimming Trevor Noah’s memoir and some quick Google searches. I had all the training from Engage Academy to tell me how to be ethical, how to be open minded, and connect with people ‘different than me’… but none of the experience. Now, I’m more than mid-way through my trip and think I have some more experience to supplement my prior knowledge, but coming to realize what I thought about ‘engaging’ is actually pretty… wrong.
Engaging isn’t an outcome.
Outcomes from DukeEngage are great, and the nonprofits we work for do some really important things. I feel like I’m helping contribute to SACTWU in tangible ways, and am excited about developing a website for them and creating their first online archive of oral histories. I selfishly love being able to do web design, interview factory workers and enjoy the privilege of retelling their stories.
But finishing this cool project at work isn’t necessarily, engaging. Our group reflections where we ‘think critically’ in our comfy villa isn’t engaging either. These blogs I’m writing, where I think I’m getting closer to some finite truth isn’t engaging because I’m so caught up in my own words, that I’m ignoring my view of Muzienberg and the company around me in this coffee shop. Our group trips where we’ve taken a tour van to Robben Island, Simons Town and Cape Point have been novel and beautiful, but there wasn’t much engaging going on either. I appreciate the structure within DukeEngage, but it can be stifling at times because I think engaging has to be earned. It takes a little bit of courage, faith and attention to get there. The trips and talks have been fun perks, but aren’t close to the most rewarding or engaging part of my experience thus far.
When I look back on DukeEngage, I’ll definitely remember the things I listed above because I have photos and websites and blog posts to prove my trip was worthwhile and important. But more importantly, I’m going to remember the moments I felt the most connected… and not just when I wrote about it.
The times where I was most engaged were mostly small moments.
They were the decisions I almost didn’t make, the times I almost didn’t ask a second question and the moments I almost didn’t notice, because I would’ve been too busy thinking about myself or taking a photo of it. But these snapshots in my memory don’t help anyone. They are just ‘forever box’ moments that opened my eyes and heart a bit more, and can’t be replicated or retold as well again. But I guess I’ll try anyway.
I felt engaged this morning, when I drove to the beach in an Uber and blissfully looked out at the mountains and played music on Spotify. I felt serene, but began feeling a creeping sensation that our driver might not like Shallou, Shoffy and my other indie-pop-Very-American sounding songs. So I asked him if he had any song requests, but his response caught me off guard.
“No” he chuckled, “I’m actually trying to remember these song titles, I’m really jamming to them.” He was bobbing his head and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel after, and genuinely enjoyed my off kilter playlist.
I felt engaged last week when my coworker made a comment at lunch and said “all men are bad news.” I asked her to explain her cynicism, (probably just being curious more than caring), and ended up listening to her history dealing with sexual assault and corrupt relationships, that very much so, justified her statement. I almost missed this opportunity to understand and learn from her, and let that comment slide through my stream of consciousness.
And lastly, I felt engaged to Aunty Marie in her interview on Monday, and thought how often I also feel like I’m “always looking through a window.” I was planning on keeping my mutual feelings to myself, but decided to share with her, and ask when she feels like the window is broken.
Aunty Marie looked at me with conviction, and calmly said, “Right now. Right now, I feel seen and understood.” I wasn’t expecting someone who was just a stranger an hour ago to say that, and the gravity of her words jolted my attention and left me shaking.
But if ‘engaging’ is supposed to have a purpose, and expects an outcome, I’ve probably failed to ‘engage.’
Although engaging can’t be this explicit. I can’t ask to ‘engage.’ I think that sounds invasive.
I don’t think it’s a strategy to help either. That sounds calculated or deliberate.
Rather, engaging in the truest sense can’t have a meaning or an outcome and that’s exactly why, and when it happens.
If I walk away from DukeEngage and only have memories like the ones I listed above, (with my Uber driver, coworker, or previous strangers), I’ll be satisfied. I might be simplifying this, but I think it’s more important to practice stepping along side the people around me, than to worry about some big tangible product to prove engagement when the trip is over.
Instead, my metric to engage is to presence. I can’t plan on being present, but instead, just have to actually be open to people and conversations around me… and I’ll feeling the weight of the word a little more.
I don’t want to leave DukeEngage and only have a great collection of photos and blogs, finalized websites and memories of intellectual conversations with my peers. Those are all awesome— but I want more of the small, unglamorous, but simultaneously profound moments to remember. I can’t guarantee these special accidents will happen again, but I’ll keep reminding myself to stay open and aware of what’s going on in front of me… and hopefully be accident-prone to more of those moments.
I think my fearful awareness of voluntourism victims, white savior warriors and people who prefer adventure from inside a van, is just enough fear to propel me towards the moment I’m in (and attempt to avoid it).
Last week, protestsers chanted a song called ‘Bread and Roses.’
I watched employees on strike at a local factory, but didn’t know what the song meant at the time. Later, my boss, Simon, told us in the car that ‘bread‘ is a symbol for the human need for food, safety, and survival and ‘roses‘ is a symbol for humanity’s more important requirements for love and beauty.
The employees might get a wage increase to put bread on the table, or their demands could be met with silence, but they just seized the moment into the void, danced a bit in the rain, and made some music. Workers were shamelessly dancing on the street, singing songs for no one but themselves (and some aggrivated drivers in cars nearby to hear), but they had joy just the same.
At first I wondered, what was the point of all of the singing and shouting, but then I realized, I was a witness to some of their roses.
I only have three weeks left. I will keep trying to help people ‘put bread on the table’ with my work at SACWTU, but if I don’t pick up some roses along the way,
I’m not really engaging at all.
(Lyrics to the song)
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.
As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.
As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we. fight for, but we fight for roses, too.
As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.