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Culture, Identity, & Religion

Cultural topics such as "Who you Are?" and Religion.

Duke's Noelle Cunningham ('14) Voted Collegiate Soror of the Year:

Congratulations to class of 2014 graduate, Noelle Cunningham, on receiving the Collegiate Soror of the Year award at her sorority's 26th South Atlantic Regional Conference.  Soror of the Year is a regional award given to a single undergraduate who has exhibited constant dedication to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., her chapter and the community and has exemplified the Nine Cardinal Virtues of Delta Sigma Theta in her daily interaction with others.

 

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Dreaming is envisioning

My parents told me that when I was a young toddler, I wanted to be a doctor, dancer, writer, flight attendant, singer, and actor all at once. I was constantly envisioning myself as a new person each time I came up with a new profession; I was always living in the future. I could never pinpoint what I wanted to do. Duke changed that.

Duke, what’s up?! My name is Hanan (rhymes with the bomb.com), and I’m a dreamer.

When I dream, I not only escape my reality, but I imagine my life in a new way. I like to stretch reality—why can’t I be a dancing doctor who writes while being a singing flight attendant that acts on the side? The truth is—I can do all of these things, and it all begins with a simple dream. I find dreaming incredibly empowering—I am in complete control, I decide, I conquer, I achieve.

Dreaming is envisioning. While my future is still a bit fuzzy, it’s slowly manifesting itself. As a Public Policy and Global Health double major at Duke, I see myself using my health policy education to become a global citizen in the world. I hope to utilize the skills I’ve gained in the classroom to contribute to our ever-changing world. My main interest lies in humanitarian work, with an emphasis on social justice/human rights issues, women’s health, and global development.

My heart lies in Africa. I’ve traveled to Africa six different times and traveled to four different countries in the continent (hopefully more countries in the future). While some may feel like they know Africa, in reality, many people’s understanding of Africa is very limited, due to the media’s negative portrayal of the continent. Mass media fails to provide a dynamic perspective of the continent, and instead unfairly emphasizing the dysfunctions of Africa. As Mos Def once said, “if Africa stands in good stead, then the globe will be positively affected.” Thus, it’s vital for people to realize the beauty of the continent, and not be so wrapped up in the media’s narrow portrayal of Africa. Africa has a special place in me—I love its rich history, culture, traditions, and diversity. It’s why I constantly find myself gravitating towards the continent; I enjoy spending weeks on end in African countries at any chance I get.

Duke helped wipe the mist off the foggy lens that is my future, but spots of fuzziness still remains. I’m confident that things will clear up by the end of my time at Duke. And your future will clear up to; everything will work out the way it should, when it should.

Stay dreamin’
Hanan

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The Caged Bird…A Song Well Sung

Maya Angelou entered my life at a time when I very much needed to see someone who looked like me, both in body and in spirit, doing and being something unconventional. I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and hanging onto every word. I was in my first semester of college, at Pace University in New York, and dealing with a particularly trying and debilitating trauma that had recently occurred in my life. A dear friend had recommended this text to me. I didn’t know then that it would serve to reconnect me to pieces of myself that had been silenced/I had silenced. 

I felt daring as I read her words. I saw this woman speaking truths that were mine, in ways that I felt had been forbidden to me. She spoke of pain as though she had conquered it…stood on its neck and reminded it who she was in a world that would tell people who look like me and her otherwise. Maya was unapologetic as she revealed parts of her that were more easily kept covered…private…unseen. There was a communal shame associated with some of the realities that she shared and, rather than embracing that shame, she sang. Sang inside of the cage of racial disparity and cultural invisibility…she sang beautifully. Every now and then I could hear my own muffled voice adding a harmony or timidly carrying the melody while she moved fearlessly on to the next verse of our song. This was one of my first glimpses into what freedom could look like. Speaking…truth to power, words in spaces that preferred silence, poetry as activism…finding and owning my voice.

When I came to Duke University, I was a part of the last class of January Freshmen that Duke admitted, in January 1989. I had no idea that, the fall of that year, I would find out that Maya Angelou was the convocation speaker for the incoming class of freshmen. This, to me, seemed to be divine providence. I had been finding own my voice by listening to the beckoning of hers. Because of Maya Angelou, I was a phenomenal woman before I ever believed it. Because of Maya Angelou, I knew that I was the dream and the hope of the slave in spite of the intimidating voices that said that I didn’t belong here at Duke. These words and truths accompanied me through a harrowing 12 year journey that finally, in 2000, resulted in me proudly finishing my Duke undergraduate degree with my children at my side. 

The power that Maya Angelou gave to words and the fact that speaking was a conscious decision for her gave me the inspiration to speak and act in activism, and social justice advocacy. The universal truths that governed her understanding of being human and loving humanity continue to remind me that there is a responsibility that comes with a poetic gifting. There is a responsibility that comes with choosing to speak and being intentional about that which you articulate for others’ consumption. That freedom is often a journey through which community is developed. That there will be struggles, difficulties, issues and pain…that there will be cages and that cages will never be a reason to stop singing.

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Thank you, Dr. Angelou, for clear eyes

It is a special cohort of students that is able to claim itself as Literature majors at Duke University, and I consider myself extremely lucky to call myself one of that small group of ten that graduated from the department just two years ago. However, I must warn you - though I am proud to call it mine now, it wasn't always so.

As a lowerclassman, the struggle to manage my family's expectations of a traditional career path and my own interests had brought uncertainty into what should have been an easy decision. I was confused and torn by my passion for the art (and the academic enjoyment it fielded me) and the internal guilt I harbored for not following the path my family had mapped out.  

This is about when Dr. Maya Angelou came into the picture. Like many Duke students, my first brush with her was through assigned readings in grade school and then her annual Convocation keynote during Orientation Week. I had always loved her poems and even as a freshman, I was in wonder of the inspiration and fresh perspective she instilled in the students though she had been doing the keynote for decades. Even so, it wasn't until I was an upperclassman in Delta Gamma sorority, which hosted Dr. Angelou at the event each year, that I was afforded the incredible opportunity to meet her.

We were in a back entrance of the Chapel after ushering another fabulous talk, and though her son conveyed that she was exhausted by the experience, she was still waiting for us and excited to meet. She greeted all of us, shook our hands, and gave a bit of personal inspiration there to our sisters in that little nook. I may be a little selfish when I say that I felt like her words were spoken directly to me, but being in her presence with my academic background made me truly awestruck and reflect on my current circumstance.

All in all, I credit my brief meeting with her for jolting me into the realization that there was nothing wrong with my love of the written word, and it was time to release myself from my self-constructed cage of doubt and guilt. Without her, I would have continued my studies with a clouded head (and heart) and been unable to fly free and wholeheartedly enjoy my academic career so much.

So, thank you, Dr. Angelou. It would have been impossible to absorb the amazing teachings I was so lucky to experience from our renowned faculty without the clear eyes you gave me.

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"I am yours, and you are mine"

Each day this week, a member of the Duke community will share their memories of Dr. Angelou.

I was 11 years old in the sixth grade, and I needed something new to read for silent reading time at school. Looking through my family bookshelf, I came across a tiny book that looked pretty well-worn, and its author was someone I’d heard of before: Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  My mom had written her name inside the front cover, and it looked like it was a book she had read multiple times—so I grabbed that one and brought it to school.

I couldn’t ask my mom what her opinion was on the text, at that point, because of the stage of her illness. My mother was diagnosed with brain cancer six years prior, and was in a difficult place at that point in her life. Her name in the book’s cover was all the recommendation I needed to trust her judgment on the quality of this autobiography.

Sitting at school reading the book, I remember wondering whether this content was too mature for me—perhaps, I thought, I should choose something less heavy, like Holes or something. I remember raising my teacher’s eyebrows that I was tackling it at all. Who knows how much actually resonated with me at that point in my life, but I stuck with it, and I never forgot the power of Maya Angelou’s words. I remember trying to hide the tears in my eyes during the difficult moments of sexual assault in the text. I remember my indignation as a young, white female that this young, African American female recalling her autobiography could have faced such a different life than I had. These feelings stayed with me as I got older. Later in my life, I would read Toni Morrison’s novels, and I’d find myself drawing connections back to Maya Angelou’s writing. These books sparked an early anger in me, and were fundamental to my wanting to pursue work in social justice.

This book also left a connection in my head that only a sixth grader could have between Maya Angelou and my mother. That I could ever have connected my mom, a white, Jewish, Canadian woman, to Maya Angelou at all feels a little strange. But for me, I saw reading this text as a way to spend time doing something my mom had done at a time when because of her illness we couldn’t do much together. My eyes following the same words that my mom’s eyes had followed, reflecting on and connecting with the same moments she had read. Whenever I read Maya Angelou again in the years to come, my thoughts would always come back to my mother. I thank Dr. Angelou for being able to connect not just me and my mother, but so many women through the beautiful power of her language.

You could have never convinced me as an eleven year-old that someday I would meet the poet that had inspired me so much. Flash forward to my junior year after I was elected president of Delta Gamma at Duke, where our organization had partnered with Dr. Angelou for 20 years to bring her to campus for Freshman convocation in the Chapel.

I remember sitting with Dr. Angelou before the event in a side room in the front of the Chapel. We were left alone for a few minutes to spend some time together—she could probably hear my heartbeat over where she was sitting. To break my obvious nervousness, she asked me what I was studying. I told her I was a double major in Spanish and History, and a minor in political science. “Ah,” she said, “ ¿hablas Español?” she asked me in a thick accent. And there it was: Maya Angelou and I were speaking in Spanish. (Little did I know, she spoke over half a dozen languages!) Sitting in that room, Dr. Angelou told me she had hoped my introduction of her wouldn’t be a list of her accomplishments, as she found those so boring. I assured her mine wasn’t, and that she could trust me. With my heart beating so fast and my blood rushing a million miles per hour, how could I even begin in that moment to share with her the connections in my head I had between her and my mother, that I’d drawn courage from her for almost 10 years of my life. This moment of spending time with the poet I admired so greatly was unreal. All I could say was that she’d have to let me know afterward what she thought of the introduction.  She told me “buena suerte,” good luck, and that she would let me know.Dr. Angelou spoke so beautifully that summer day in the Chapel. She told the freshman class, “I am yours and you are mine,” noting that she didn’t live far away over by Wake Forest, and they could write to her anytime. Sharing herself with the world was Maya Angelou’s part of her power as a poet. I had considered her words mine since I first read them, and before then her words were my mother’s. Now this incredible woman was offering to share herself with over a thousand more people—I wonder how many letters she got following the event.

After the speech concluded, and the freshmen boarded the parade of C-1s back to East, I stepped outside with my Delta Gamma sisters and my father to meet back up with Dr. Angelou. She greeted us outside with a smile, open arms, and embraced me and said, “Becki, you were so smooth!” I could have fainted.

The world lost a beautiful mind last week, and the Duke community lost a piece that was shared with us for so long. I am incredibly privileged to have met and spent time with Dr. Angelou, a woman whose writing will be a part of me for the rest of my life, and created an eternal connection to my mother. May she rest in peace.

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A Brave and Startling Truth

Dr. Maya Angelou delivered the convocation address to incoming Duke students for the past 24 years. With her passing, we offer A Brave and Startling Truth, which she delivered to the Class of 2016. The poem was first delivered in June 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

A Brave and Startling Truth
written by Maya Angelou
Dedicated to the hope for peace, which lies, sometimes hidden, in every heart.

We, the people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth.

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And face sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and
     daughters
Up with bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
 

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi
      who, without favor,
Nurtures all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the       
      dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people, on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That, in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing,
     irresistible tenderness,
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

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Collaboration & Change for a Common Good

 

Collaboration & Change for a Common Good
A Reflection on Collaboration in Campus Life
India Pierce and Sean Novak

 

One way that we can work effectively to create change for a common good is to work collaboratively across communities. With this in mind, India Pierce from the Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity (CSGD) came together with Sean Novak from the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA) to create a program that explored the intersections of race and sexual orientation. As part of the CMA’s En/Countering Racism series (E/C), they created a program for students to gather and explore intersectionality. This was done in order to deepen participants’ understanding of themselves and others as a means to building stronger coalitions for social justice.

En/Countering Racism is one part of the CMA’s Race Speaks Initiative. The series aims to provide a safe space for people to share their experiences encountering racism and build participants’ capacity to effectively counter it. The more we explore intersectionality, the more we will see that life is much more complex than our politically polarized times might suggest.

In the beginning, the focus was on doing good works and providing students the opportunity to enrich their understanding of themselves and others. However, in the midst of the project the true essence of collaboration became apparent. As much as they wanted the students to leave anew, they walked away from the experience impacted themselves. The project became more than just another event to host or dialogue to facilitate. It was a lesson in how to successfully collaborate. On the heels of the recent rollout of the Student Affairs Leadership Development model, India and Sean thought to share some insight regarding their experience.

Sean’s thoughts…

I had the pleasure of collaborating with India this past semester for our En/Countering Racism Series. I approached her with a very broad idea. I felt there was a need to host a program that explored the intersections of race and sexual orientation. I came to India with that basic starting point and little expectations. I know that I desired for the program to primarily be geared toward stimulating ideas for how and why individuals and organizations should work across communities (Ex. Black community and Asian Community) and movements (LGBT justice and racial justice movements.)

After a few brainstorming sessions, we came up with a concept about “challenging the face of privilege.” As we talked, India and I found a common desire in challenging ourselves to think about our privilege. On the surface, you can assume that I am White and I am male. Additionally, you can assume that she is a woman and Black. I knew from conversation that we had a similar social economic background, coming from a poor and/or working class background. With our education and current profession, we are both experiencing relative mobility in that aspect of our life. However, both of us are more than just this. As we talked, it was clear that we both acknowledged that we have multiple and intersecting identities. We both acknowledged that we needed to consistently bring our whole selves to the table and not just our racial identity, or sexuality, or gender identity, or class background, etc. We both believe that no aspect of our experience pertaining to our identity operates in isolation of other identities. It all intersects. We thought it important that we all explore our privilege instead of just pointing fingers at those who we perceive as “the privileged.”

In my opinion, what worked so well with India and I was that we were both willing to be open, honest, and vulnerable. We threw ideas around. We had a level of trust built that allowed for us to brainstorm without worry of being ridiculed for our ideas. Neither one of us had ulterior motives. This wasn’t a case of either one of us putting together a collaborative program in order to build our professional portfolio. We did this for the love of the work. India appeared to have a common desire for creating and expanding community and empowering students to work for equity. We had a common goal of providing people a space to explore the complexities of their lived experience not only to see how unique and distinct those experiences are but also, how we might be able to find common interests.

Next, I feel that we had mutual respect for and were resourceful with one another’s strengths. Instead of positioning ourselves against one another, we just focused on the work. I love the work I do. That’s why I committed to it. That’s why I chose this as a profession because I had a deep desire to work particularly with racial reconciliation and justice. It was obvious to me that India had a similar passion and commitment. After observing her track record in the short time she has been here at Duke and the conversations that we’ve had, India had similar motivations as I to embark on this journey together.

Additionally, what worked so well with our collaboration was a mutual willingness to compromise. India may have had an idea and I may have not initially agreed or thought differently. Instead of resisting, I discerned her suggestions. Sometimes, I might come back and say, “I think we should do this instead.” She agreed at times and disagreed at other times. Nonetheless, it was never personal. We had built a strong foundation from the start so we had a common goal. There were no suggestions that intentionally led us off course from that goal. Compromise can be a long and tedious process when you’re trying to organize a collaborative effort. I could easily have taken this program on myself (as could she) and created all the content. It would have been quicker and easier in the short-term. However, I am a firm believer that when you build bridges with weak foundations they are bound to collapse. Compromise and equitable collaborations are absolutely necessary for a sustainable initiative or program. If I wanted something for my professional portfolio, I could have just thrown it together and advertised it. In my opinion, compromise in collaboration is the difference between (1) being seen as a leader and (2) being a leader.

The last item that I will touch on is that we both put in our work. There was a mutual effort. We delegated duties and when one of us thought the other was taking on more than they should, we expressed it. After all, how could we take an inequitable approach to developing a program partially geared toward empowering participants to be more equitable? That wouldn’t be establishing a solid foundation. Sometimes, I was caught up with other projects or was simply slacking. I was open and honest about it with India. She was honest with me when she was falling behind as well. We made adjustments and knew what we were working with most of the time.

It truly was a pleasure working with India and I am going to enjoy working with her to build a larger initiative off this collaboration.

 

Thoughts from India…

I have been at Duke for a little less than a year but it did not take me long to understand how much of a buzz word “collaboration” is for folks around here. Yet, it seems to be at times easier to talk about than it is to do. Call it newbie naivety, but I believe that if us Student Affairs folks could figure out how to succeed with our collaborating efforts we will all win. I remember sitting down with my supervisor early on during my time here, sharing with her all of my ideas for how we could work with other identity/cultural centers. Encouraging of my enthusiastic spirit she encouraged me to consider every opportunity that presents itself.

Unwavering in my opinion, that’s exactly what I did when I embarked upon a wonderful collaborative project with Sean. He approached me about creating an event that would work for the CMA’s En/countering Racism series and I don’t want to brag but the experience was the stuff dreams are made of. I say this because I have often been approached about collaborating on events where the real intention was simply to use our space or for us to provide financial support. I wasn’t being asked to be a partner in the creation of an event, most of the time the planning for the event was already completed. In those instances I can’t help but feel a little confused because that is not how I see collaboration working. Don’t get me wrong, I cannot and do not want to collaborate on everything. However, what I am normally asked for is to be a sponsor of an event not a collaborator on the creation of an event. It would have been easy for Sean to fall into the same pattern, as En/countering Racism is a series that he plans on his own. He could have come to me with a vision and plan for how we would work together and what the event would be, leaving very little room for me to interject; I appreciate that he did not do this.

Our first few meetings were us just talking about the issues that are important to the students we serve. We discussed the types of programs that were the most successful in each of our offices and sought to take some of those elements and include them into the work we would do together. I can’t remember how we came to the topic of privilege but when we got there everything seemed to fall in place.

Working on this project showed me that there is a clear difference between working with people and collaborating with people. In any working relationship there are some pretty basic expectations that one has for their teammate, like completing tasks and meeting deadlines. However, successful collaborations go beyond the logistics…beyond the things on paper. Successful collaborations push and cultivate the growth of us as individuals. Our project focused on challenging the traditional notions of privilege, a topic that could not be taught to others until we did a little of the work ourselves. We had numerous conversations about the spaces in which we felt we had privilege and those that we didn’t. For both of us, we discovered that it is important that we bring our whole selves into our work. In order to do that we must first see beyond the check boxes of identities and see ourselves as the complex individuals that we are. At first glance it doesn’t seem that Sean and I would have much in common, aside from the fact that our home sports teams were rivals, Michigan and Ohio State.  Despite Michigan’s inferiority to Ohio State, we found out we’ve had some similar experiences in certain aspects of our life and others that were completely different. It was on those things that we were able to build a strong foundation for our work. I didn’t feel the anxiety that I’ve felt when working with others where I had to do x, y, or z otherwise it wouldn’t get done. Most importantly I was able to be myself, I admitted when I didn’t know something or was swamped with other things. It was our flexibility and openness that helped Sean and I work well together. We discussed how we approach creating events and when we’re at our best so we could support one another where we were and not where we would prefer the other to be.

At the center of every collaboration must be trust, and it is probably the hardest part of any true collaboration. We by nature are looking for ways to save our own butts. We expect the worst in others and over compensate for bad things that haven’t even happened yet. Those approaches are a disservice to those who we are committed to serve. I am of the belief that the best collaborative experiences often look like magic. Magic is something that can be taught, you teach it by encouraging people to think outside the box and embrace the process of stepping into the unknown. If we want our division to be one in which we are truly collaborating and creating meaningful programming for students we must first start by teaching the skills that people need to be successful at those things like emotional intelligence, communication skills, and effective management skills.  I believe that these skills helped cultivate a healthy working relationship between Sean and I. I look forward to what happens next as we build off this collaboration.

Sean and India closing…

We had a wonderful time working together. This started off as a one-time program to explore the intersections of race and sexual orientation and it is now developing into a half-day workshop. We plan to restructure and expand this program to provide an opportunity for students to engage even deeper into the complexities of intersectionality. One of the primary purposes will be to galvanize and equip students to work across identities and movements. Additionally, we will be altering this workshop to provide a professional development opportunity for colleagues to consider an intersectional approach to advising student organizations as well. As advisors, we think it is important for students to work collaboratively and not always in isolation from other organizations and communities.

In closing, we believe that collaboration is a vital component for us to provide the best service possible for our students. It is difficult to be influential in encouraging students to work together if we are not setting the tone for what it looks like. One of the most powerful things we can do to increase our ability in advising students is to first advise ourselves. Working collectively can be a daunting task with competing interests. However, we believe that enduring the struggle and fighting through the dissonance can produce sustained initiatives that will prove to serve students and ourselves well.

 

Thank you for your time.

 

India & Sean

 

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2014 Greek Awards

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