Throughout my stay in Cape Town I have been asked multiple times what I am doing here. Most are surprised when I answer that I am working, and are even more surprised when they hear that I am working for a trade union. I think many people expect foreigners to be exchange students or volunteers. In truth, the DukeEngage program is actually more complex than just work or service, and I have learned so much more than I could have if I had just found a job here on my own. Being able to be in this city with such an incredibly insightful group of people has literally made my experience. They challenge me and get me to explore concepts and ideas I have never even thought of.
By hearing about their experiences, I am able to learn from what they are doing. The TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) girls have taught me about HPV, the WLC (Women’s Legal Center) girls about the decriminalization of sex work, team d6 (District Six Museum) organized an incredible event that allowed us to learn from the children in the area, the Sonke girls have taught me about gender based violence… I am not only learning from my own experiences, but I am also learning from theirs as well.
Our guest speakers have also allowed us to learn from each others’ workplaces. Each week, we invite a guest from work to come have dinner with us and discuss what they are passionate about. Each guest has brought up issues and questions that I had never heard before. By telling us about their lives and experiences, they are giving us a little taste of their perspective. Each guest has brought something new to the table. Mandy, from District Six, talked about her experiences fighting against apartheid and how she was inspired by Cuba. Sonia, a lawyer from the Women’s Legal Center, talked about the importance of taking on cases that could potentially change legislation by proving laws to be unconstitutional.
Even our daily conversations are stimulating. I love being able to hear about Charlotte’s experience in court, Rachel’s experience in Khayelitsha or Tunde’s afternoon with a homeless woman on Long Street.
I can honestly say that I have been truly “engaged” throughout my trip. I have shaped thoughts about both social and political issues, learned to apply lessons from history and gained valuable knowledge about South Africa and the world. I have been challenged, and this has taught me more about myself in the process.
However, a couple days ago, I realized that what I saw in the DukeEngage program was not exactly what was communicated on the website. One of my coworkers asked us to submit a quick summary of the program to be able to keep on file. I quickly got onto the DukeEngage website, honestly expecting to copy-paste the first paragraph of the mission statement to send it off before resuming my work. However, I found that the summary provided did not align with my experience at all. It was almost too embarrassing to submit because it made it seem like I was the one helping them, that I was providing assistance to them, when that is not the case at all.
Even though I am helping out with a couple projects, SACTWU has given me much more than I have given them. They have taught me about unionization, factories, worker’s rights and labor history. Through the Worker History Project, I have been able to learn about the country’s history through the personal stories of the shop stewards. They are the ones who have taught me, not the other way around. Even though I am aware that every Duke Engage experience is different, and that many are indeed focused on service, I still believe that the summary provided on the website is condescending. It is focused on “meeting community needs” and “providing meaningful assistance,” when it should be emphasizing how civic engagement and the community can actually assist the students. In the first paragraph of the overview of the program, the line “translating knowledge into service in unprecedented ways” stuck out to me. Is that not hinting that our year or two of undergraduate education is essentially superior to years of experience and often times higher education of our community partners? The list of “what the students have done” adds to this aura of superiority.
Even though I disagree with the information on the website, I do have to say that DukeEngage really does try to emphasize that we should make sure we are aware of the ethics involved with this type of program. Throughout DukeEngage Academy, we were told to learn from our sites and from our placements. This is why I was so struck by the content of the website. The program itself made me aware of the issue, but it is almost contradicting itself on the website.