"If you come to help me then you are wasting your time. But if you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." - Lilla Watson1 

The Citizenship Lab is creating a neighborhood by understanding, explaining, and responding to migration and refugee resettlement in Durham, NC and beyond.

This neighborhood is built on family-like relationships between Duke undergraduates and newcomer students. These partnerships are anchored by weekly meetings and characterized by care, concern, and the deep desire for what is best for the other.

These relationships also reveal structural problems in education, employment, transportation, healthcare and housing. The Lab, then, becomes a place to address these challenges and ensure that people, ideas, and initiatives that deserve a future, have one. With high school and college newcomers, this is done collaboratively.

High school and college newcomers develop interpersonal, analytical and leadership skills that can help them (and by extension, their families) negotiate a new world. Duke students are challenged to use their education and experiences to identify and address needs, especially those that are unstated because they appear to be insurmountable

Together, members of the Lab are refining a style of change that is at once personal and experimental. This method is animated by a creative, urgent, and strategic exercise of “voice.” The style is visible in the Lab’s collaboration with Durham Public Schools, city and regional transit authorities, and employment agencies, among many others.


Relationships are the basis for everything that happens in the Lab. Relationships between Duke students and elementary and middle school newcomers can be characterized as big brother and sister relationships, and those between Duke students and high school and college newcomers as friendships. Home and dorm visits are occasions for empathetic ethnography, opening a window into the life of the other—the air conditioner that never works, the older sister who needs GED classes, but works full-time, the family pictures that sit prominently on a dorm desk. 

Problem Solving

How can one adapt to a country where the future is not preordained, but must be made? Recognizing the value of social and cultural capital, a public policy major from Iowa teams up with a smart but understated seventeen-year-old from Afghanistan to focus on career options. Together, they craft a strategy—locating knowledgeable people in the community, identifying resources, and collecting informal, unwritten wisdom—to help the high school junior decide if he should follow his father’s advice and join the army right after high school, as he builds his own networks and capital.

Community Change

The Lab uses knowledge gained from hard won individual triumphs and converts them into policies and practices that positively impact the community.  First, a six-month effort to ensure that a relentless junior from a Rwandan refugee camp “who must go to college” takes the ACT test with the extra time and dictionary to which he is entitled.  Then, co-production, with Durham Public Schools, of policies whereby all ELL (English Language Learners) test takers are offered these accommodations. In a single year, the number of ELL students taking the ACT under appropriate testing conditions went from one to over hundred. Now the Lab is working to help ensure that all ELL testing—teacher-made and state-produced—is fair.

1 Lilla Watson, “Recognition of Indigenous Terms of Reference,” Keynote Address at “A Contribution to Change: Cooperation Out of Conflict Conference: Celebrating Difference, Embracing Equality,” Hobart, Tasmania (September 21-24, 2004). She identifies this slogan as a collective statement from activists working in Brisbane in the 1970s.