That’s (Not Quite) All, Folks

This summer’s intensity – a full-time job compounded with supplementary activities, many of which involved frustrating realities and high emotions – left me simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. I was sad to leave New York but ready to unplug, to sleep late and read a novel. I couldn’t wait to sit outside, to walk down the street without weaving around hordes of people, and to taste home cooking. But within five minutes of leaving the airport, I found myself in a dead-end political debate with my mother. We agreed to disagree, but something had clearly shifted this summer. For the past ten days I have been unable to disconnect entirely, increasingly noticing and bringing up everyday discriminations and oppressions.

When I discuss these things with my family and friends, I find myself more direct and confident than ever before. Accustomed to honest conversations with my fellow Moxies, I am perhaps too frank at times. Most of the time I remember to phrase my arguments gently, but at other times I forget myself in frustration.



It’s difficult to recall a time before the group accountability of this summer, and I struggle to remember the reality that most people are not accustomed to such bluntness – and that until two months ago, I was not either. This is something I must keep in mind when I return to Duke, a campus on which direct and honest conversation can be difficult to come across. I believe strongly in the importance of maintaining friendships across fundamental differences of thought and belief, and so have no desire to alienate anyone by seeming dismissive. I have struggled, as have friends of mine, with when to accept and respect these differences; when to gently bring them up, in the hopes of fostering further tolerance; and when to ease out of friendships with those whose beliefs I find toxic or hateful.

These are difficult decisions that everyone has to make, whether these fundamental differences are on topics regarding equality and justice or others. But as I look ahead at my remaining time at Duke, they loom even larger. Coalition building depends upon bringing in new voices and perspectives, and in this vein it seems that I would try to bring every single friend and acquaintance along with me as we delve collectively into fighting for social justice on campus. But in reality, there is just no convincing some folks. There are some battles that are just not worth fighting, and there are some battles that are simply misplaced. Mass denunciation of the Republican Party or conservatism is disheartening and only serves to isolate a huge swath of the population, yet it is constant. I am a staunch liberal, but discussions with close conservative friends have taught me that conservatism does not necessitate a lessened belief in equality and justice for all. Part of coalition building is bringing in those who may be unexpected participants in the struggle, and Duke’s culture of judgment and holier-than-thou attitudes surrounding social justice is perhaps a key reason why so many steer clear of it.

I was more impressed by the activism that I saw at NDWA leadership and board retreats, coming from women often overlooked by our society, than by any speech or action I have ever seen at Duke. Campaigns such as #DukeOpen and the Asia Prime protests created a brief uproar, but no long-lasting mobilization. They were intended to stir things up, making noise rather than doing the hard work necessary to empower and organize individuals. No wonder so little gets done at Duke – we are all so focused on making a name for ourselves, getting published in the Chronicle or a line for our resume, that we don’t want to humble ourselves to lay the groundwork for lasting movement. The movement is not about individuals, and it never has been. The community needs the individual to move forward, but the individual is nothing without the community. When we place our own needs and desires above movement sustainability and community inclusivity, activism becomes stagnant and selfish. When we exclude others from the movement due to snap judgments or our own preconceived notions, we only weaken our collective power. As I move on from Moxie to a semester in Morocco and then back to Durham, I hope to combat the exceptionalism that I have been taught as a Duke student and the millennial desire for instant gratification and publicity. I must remain grounded in the knowledge that social change is difficult and slow; it can only be accomplished with full investment in, solidarity with, and love for the community.


The Privilege of Memorial

The other week, I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. As I walked through the 110,000 square feet of museum, I was struck by the grandeur of our national commemoration. Nearly 3,000 individuals were killed on September 11th, 2001; some were as young as four years old and some were as old as 81. They were husbands, wives, siblings, parents, and children. Walking through the museum, in which every individual’s face was on display along with his or her name and story, I understood this in a more concrete fashion than ever before. As I walked outside into the muggy evening, walking over to the reflection pool, I was struck by its magnitude – and then by the immense waste of water in a world where countless go without the hydration they need.

The Memorial Pool

The Memorial Pool

On the subway over to the museum, I had started a new book. The introduction described Belgian plunder and terror in the Congo, reporting that these brutalities took between 8 and 10 million lives. The author then goes on to point out that even if these numbers are exaggerated – even if only half as many lives were lost – this was still a cruelty of immense proportions, and yet it has been relegated to the outskirts of history. I remember learning about King Leopold’s cruelty in 10th grade history; we read a primary source and discussed it, perhaps using half of a class. As I stood by the pool, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the immortality of 9/11 and the fleetingness of the Congo.
What draws us to remember an atrocity? Why is the Holocaust indelibly etched into our collective memories, while Stalin’s starvation policies and purges slip our minds? Why does 9/11 get an enormous memorial, while the massacre of Native Americans and the disposability of slaves’ lives goes unnoticed? When we speak about privilege, we rarely speak about the privilege of memorial. The opportunity to commemorate our tragedies – to treat them as more than just bad luck or the way the world is – is one offered to very few in this world. Shaping the world’s collective memory requires clout and resources, something which the United States – particularly the trade sector, to which the World Trade Center was linked – has plenty of.

Even on a more individualized scale, we see this hierarchy in the way that murders and deaths are publicized. How is the murder of a teenager in a school shooting any more tragic than the murder of a teenager in a drive-by shooting? Why are women killed by domestic violence consistently overlooked and ignored? Even in death and tragedy, our society perpetuates the idea that certain lives are more valuable than others – and this valuation is largely based off of the construct of “potential.” A white middle-class student is seen as having more potential than a black or brown inner-city peer, yet nobody talks about the prison-industrial complex and white supremacy that actively work to steal this potential. When a white male commits murder, it is an aberration and an anomaly, but when a black or brown man commits murder it is normalized. Victims of domestic violence are viewed by society as poor and weak, and thus subjected to patriarchal, classist devaluations – to say nothing of racist or nationalistic ones.

To discuss the commemoration of tragedies and atrocities in such terms seems uncouth and unnecessarily politicized; I admit that I feel uncomfortable framing genocides and terrorist attacks in the context of privilege rather than in tragedy. Innocent human lives were lost, families were left bereaved, and potential was cut short on a mass scale. This cannot be denied, and must not be denied. In an ideal world, all victims would receive equal representation – a display for all those killed by the designs of murderers. But the world is far from ideal, and provides nothing close to equal representation. This is clear while we are alive, and it is often clear in the way that we die. It extends far beyond the grave, into our individual memorials and the marks we leave on history. It’s been said that death is the great equalizer, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Acting at Adults

These past two weeks have felt like a strange quasi-adulthood. I wake up at 7 most mornings, a thought that would make me laugh during the school year. After going for a run along the Hudson River, I return to my apartment with enough time to get ready and gulp down the cup of coffee that makes me fit for human company. I work from 10 to 6;  if we don’t have an evening activity planned for afterwards I make dinner and then read, write, or spend time with other Moxies. The transition from 11:00 Pitchforks to 11:00 bedtime feels jarringly mature, as does trading in a summertime wardrobe of shorts and cut-up t-shirts for one of dresses and flats. It can feel like we’re playing at adulthood, particularly when I know that a college campus awaits me when I return from my semester abroad in January.

images                         a.baa-a-cute-cat-sleep

The difference between midnight at Duke and midnight in New York, as told by kittens

This transition is all the stranger when I consider how I’ve spent the past 11 summers: at sleepaway camp, both as a camper and a counselor. Leaving was not an easy decision; the thought of leaving the campers I have watched grow pained me, as did the thought of a summer without my own lifelong friends. I chose to participate in Moxie knowing I would be giving up time at the place which I truly consider home, but sure that I would gain things from a summer in New York that would not be available to me at camp. I have constantly been reaffirmed in this decision; the past two weeks have taught me immense amounts, both academically and experientially. But even with this awareness, there is an even bigger and more frightening loss looming overhead – that of the person I am at camp.

I am my best self at camp: my least inhibited, most authentic, and kindest. Counselors are caretakers, but we are also professional role models – and that allows us to find within ourselves the qualities necessary to be one. I inevitably lose my sense of self during the year, overwhelmed by the constant Duke grind, and I have always relied on my summers to remind me of who I am and who I want to be. I am still searching for ways to connect with that self in a different space: as much as I tell myself that I can channel the energy I used to put into planning innovative camper activities into the work I do at NDWA, I have been struggling to align the two. I doubt that my silly and often downright weird camp self would be welcome in the workplace; and though I am sure there are ways to turn the lessons of camp into tools for the city, I have yet to discover them. This seems an enormous task: taking the things I like best about myself in an unique, informal setting and learning to bring them into the real world. I have always known that I would leave camp, but I have assumed that there would be pieces of myself that would always remain there. Perhaps this doesn’t have to be the case.

Who Does Leaning In Leave Out?

Rachel is a rising junior interning at the National Domestic Workers Alliance this summer.

When I was younger, I read constantly and my mother used to joke that I was one of the few children she knew who had to be told to be put a book down. This love for literature has lasted through the years; though I rarely have time to read for pleasure at Duke, the first thing I do upon arriving home for vacation is make a trip to the local library. One of my selections for this summer was Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which tells the story of a journalist’s attempt to see what it would be like to survive on $6 or $7 an hour. Of all of Ehrenreich’s jobs, it was during her stint as a house cleaner that she felt the most invisible and cast out of society.

While some of Ehrenreich’s middle- and upper-class clients are retired or have one partner stay at home, many of the women for whom she works hold steady jobs. Largely wealthy and white, they are the type of women towards whom Sheryl Sandberg directs Lean In when she focuses on strategies for female workplace success without addressing race, socioeconomic status, or a host of other factors that influence women’s workplace experience. Reading these two books back to back, I couldn’t help but notice the stark differences between the lives that Sandberg and Ehrenreich described – while Sandberg suggested that working women hire private domestic help, Ehrenreich was that help – and had to work a second job just to pay her rent.

Sandberg encourages solidarity among women, but that solidarity does not seem to extend beyond the corporate sphere to the domestic workers that she and her colleagues employ. If “leaning in” as defined by Sandberg often involves hiring domestic help, does it involve rendering human beings invisible? If this country and the world need more women in positions of leadership, does that merit other women earning less than living wage so top female executives can devote time to climbing the corporate ladder instead of cleaning their homes? National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit where I will be interning, advocates for millions of domestic workers like Ehrenreich’s colleagues who struggle to buy food and pay the rent – often in the service of families and women who have chosen to “lean in.”

How do we reconcile these two needs – one for increased female leadership in the corporate sphere, which may require domestic help, and one for increased rights for domestic workers? Domestic help provides crucial jobs to men and women across the nation, but I shudder at the idea of an experience as dehumanizing as the one that Ehrenreich describes. There must be a way to create a humane and sustainable experience for the people who work to clean or maintain others’ homes, but often struggle to pay the rent on their own. As men and women move forward in corporate careers, they all too often forget the humanity of those who do the tasks they can now afford to outsource. This summer, I look forward to working with an organization that serves to remind the nation of that humanity – along with the rights, needs, and desires that come with it.