Duke University Alumni Magazine

Pivotal Partnerships
Facing the Future Together
by Bridget Booher

Looking forward: Joe Alston, Sandy Ogburn, and Warren Herndon, from left, are part of the university team working to enhance town-gown relations.
Photo: Les Todd
Like all cities, Durham is confronting a multitude of challenges; and like all universities, Duke is aware that its own future is inextricably linked to the fortunes of its hometown
hen Hurricane Fran tore through North Carolina last September, Durham was devastated. Some neighborhoods were without electricity for a week. People waited hours for gasoline and ice and wondered when they'd get a hot shower again. But if you lived on the Duke campus, you might never have known about the hardships suffered by your nearby neighbors. With the exception of some downed trees and scattered debris, Duke--benefiting from underground power lines--hummed along quite nicely, creature comforts uninterrupted.

     For some Durham residents, the image of the blissfully unscathed Gothic wonderland in the midst of widespread destruction was a fitting metaphor for the relationship between town and gown. Duke's reputation as a top-ranked university, international research center, and medical facility continues to climb, while Durham struggles to deal with rising drug and crime rates, unemployment and poverty, and financial headaches. Like all cities, Durham is confronting a multitude of challenges, and the decisions its leaders make will determine whether Durham prospers or founders in the years to come. And like all universities, Duke is aware that its own future is inextricably linked to the fortunes of its hometown.

     When President Nannerl O. Keohane began her tenure at Duke in 1993, she made it clear that forging a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with Durham and its residents was a major priority. In her inaugural address, she emphasized the importance of having faculty, staff, and students actively engaged in civic service; and the need to create specific university-community initiatives. "Universities cannot singlehandedly solve all the problems of our society," she said. "Our resources are limited and they are mostly given to us for other purposes. But we depend heavily on the quality of life in our region and in partnership with government, business leaders, and interested citizens, we can work to develop coordinated programs for addressing some of the most urgent problems in education, housing, violent crime, health care, and other areas of direct concern in the City of Durham, our home." A year later, the board of trustees echoed Keohane's directive when it approved a comprehensive, long-range plan she developed that ranked enhanced interaction with the neighborhoods near campus as one of six priorities.

     Duke's involvement in the community historically has been quite active. Hundreds of undergraduates volunteer in the public schools as tutors and mentors, faculty members spend weekends hanging sheetrock for Habitat for Humanity projects, law school students offer pro bono legal services, and the medical center coordinates free health-care screenings. The flourishing Community Service Center coordinates dozens of one-time and ongoing projects. (For the record, hundreds of undergraduates and staff--including Keohane-- pitched in to clean up schools and neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Fran, and Duke provided a dump truck to haul away debris.)

     Yet there has not been a clearly articulated, university-wide focus to these community-outreach endeavors, no clearinghouse where neighborhoods could find precisely the resources they needed. At the same time, Durham has developed a strong tradition of grass-roots community activism. Lower-income neighborhoods have, out of necessity, become politically savvy and economically resourceful, securing federal money for housing improvements and fighting to protect encroachment by development. The more affluent neighborhoods conduct their own quality-of-life campaigns, demanding, for example, that landlords who rent deteriorating houses to students at inflated prices be held accountable. Residents have learned to do for themselves what needs to be done, relying on cooperation and reciprocity with interested and willing partners.

     One often-cited example of effective self-reliance is the Crest Street neighborhood, a stone's throw from Duke Medical Center. In the mid- to late Seventies, plans were in the works to extend the Durham Freeway past its terminal point on Erwin Road, where Sam's Quik Shop has stood for decades. (The road had already contributed to the demise of Durham's prosperous black Hayti community.) One of the benefits of expansion was the convenience of bringing patients and visitors to the doorstep of the medical center. But the blueprints called for the road to run straight through Crest Street (then called Hickstown), a tightly-knit black neighborhood. Through the tireless efforts of activists like Willie Patterson, a Durham native and longtime Duke employee, the neighborhood was spared.

     "A lot of people thought we were fighting Duke, which is a misperception," says Patterson. "It was a city and state issue. We maintained that the expressway could be routed [in such a way as] to save the integrity of the community. But it took relentless organizing. At the time, I was working the second shift at the hospital, so I'd get off about eight-thirty in the morning and go straight to meetings all day. It was quite a political battle, but we did it."

     In many ways, Patterson is a typical Durham citizen. He is a conscientious employee who never missed a day of work during the expressway conflict, but his loyalties are first and foremost to his neighborhood. Walk into any restaurant or church in Durham and you'll find someone like Patterson whose mortgage or rent is paid with a Duke salary. Some of these people have minimum-wage jobs in service positions, some draw six-figure salaries. They live in drug-riddled neighborhoods and in gated communities. They take pride in the care they've received at the medical center and they worry about the safety of their children.

     With the closing of tobacco and textile companies downtown and the emergence of the Research Triangle Park a few miles away, Duke has emerged as Durham's largest employer--some 19,000 people work at the university and medical center--and its most pervasive corporate presence. While many residents say Duke is a positive influence on Durham--a 1994 poll conducted by public policy students in a "Reporting the American People" class found that 98 percent of respondents thought the university was a benefit to the community--many also feel that Duke as an institution could and should do more than provide well-intended but scattershot assistance.

Stimulating achievement: children at the West End Community Center afternoon enrichment program, which emphasizes intellectual growth while providing adult supervision
Photo: Jim Wallace

     While few may have doubted the sincerity of the new administration's pledge back in 1993, some community activists and longtime residents wondered how and when the follow-through would take place. After all, Duke is a large, decentralized institution, and promises made in the past didn't always come to pass. In some cases, Duke appeared guilty of benign neglect. An example: After a year-and-a-half of delicate negotiations with one wary neighborhood association, Duke was poised to sell off eleven rental properties in the community for construction of affordable housing at terms acceptable to everyone. Within days of signing the long-brokered agreement, Duke-owned satellite dishes and a 110-foot microwave tower--installed to improve reception for dormitory televisions--were plunked down in the same neighborhood, a move approved by another Duke office oblivious to the fragile, hard-won alliance that had transpired.

     On other occasions, the blunders seemed downright insensitive. In 1988, Duke decided to make way for new medical center construction by evicting forty-two families from university-owned property. (The subsequent protests from within the Duke and Durham communities prompted much discussion about the appropriateness of the university's role as a landlord, and its responsibilities to its lower-income employees. A $1.2-million loan the following year helped finance construction of affordable housing.)

     But Keohane, whose first day on the job included meetings with key city officials, is known for the integrity of her intentions. As part of her commitment to affordable housing, she coordinated a $2-million investment in the Self-Help Credit Union that is helping to finance construction or rehabilitation of thirty single-family homes in Walltown near campus. (Qualified Duke employees have first priority for purchase of these houses.) As a committed advocate of Durham's United Way campaign, she provided leadership--and leadership gifts--that inspired employees to nearly double their contributions in fewer than three years. There were also smaller gestures, such as her donating an honorarium received from a speaking engagement to two community gardens. At a City Council meeting at the end of the year, Keohane was named the 1996 recipient of the prestigious City of Medicine Ambassador award for her contributions to the Durham community.

     More significantly, Keohane asked Senior Vice President for Public Affairs John F. Burness to analyze how the university could best work in structured, strategic ways to improve relations with Durham. While targeting the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the Duke campuses, Burness and other members of a community-relations planning committee approached the task as the first step of a bigger commitment to Durham's overall well-being.


     Burness says that one of the things that struck him early on in the process was how much Duke was already doing but that no one internally--much less in the community --was aware of. "We had been all over the map," he says. "We were doing an unbelievable amount but, because it was so widely dispersed, the impact was lessened enormously. I can't tell you how many times I've heard from community leaders, 'Can you guys ever get a focus?' At the same time, there is a historical lack of trust between some neighborhoods and the university. And we knew that. So we decided that we needed to start quietly and follow through on everything we committed to and not seek any publicity. Because if people saw publicity, they would think we were only in this for appearances. And we're definitely in it for the long haul."

     Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff says she welcomes Duke's determination to be a serious player in Durham affairs, particularly given the alternatives. (Kerckhoff brings an interesting perspective to town-gown relations: In addition to being a longtime resident, she earned her master's in teaching from Duke in 1960, taught for years in the Durham school system, and is married to sociology professor emeritus Alan Kerckhoff.) "Duke does not want to become a Yale, which is this lovely Ivy League university surrounded by ghettoes," she says. "There's no mixing and matching there. So, in addition to the feel-good dimension, it's in Duke's economic and social interest to reach out and pay special attention to these neighborhoods."

No place like home: community activist Willie Patterson helped save the Crest Street neighborhood where he grew up
Photo: News & Observer Publishing Co.

     Yale is the prime example of how starkly a university's sterling reputation can be in contrast to its tarnished physical surroundings. But it's not the only one. At the University of Pennsylvania last October, a biochemistry professor was stabbed to death on a residential street near campus, the latest in a crime wave that has shaken Penn students and staff who live in the nearby transitional West Philadelphia neighborhood. (To encourage faculty to live near campus, the university arranges for mortgages with no down payments and pays real-estate closing costs.) The University of Chicago and Columbia University face similar dilemmas; no one knows how many potential students or faculty recruits have decided against one of these institutions because of safety and quality-of-life issues.

     In his discussions with the trustees, Burness explicitly stated that Duke needs to adopt an attitude of "enlightened self-interest" in insuring the success of this partnership initiative. In addition to the "good neighbor" or ethical dimension as a responsible steward, he says, the university recognizes that unless Durham, and particularly neighborhoods near campus, are safe and inviting places for people to live, Duke may have a hard time persuading faculty to move here or parents to send their children to school here. Last year, forty-two people were murdered in Durham, many of them in drug-related circumstances. (Located roughly halfway between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. --and conveniently off I-85 and I-40--Durham has become another stop along the East Coast drug corridor.) A 1995 Human Needs Assessment Committee, using 1990 census data, found that 11.4 percent of Durham's population lives in poverty--including 28 percent of non-white children and 36 percent of families headed by single women.

     During last year's silent phase of the "Building the Framework for Partnership" plan, the university beefed up the office of government relations and community affairs by consolidating several offices around campus. Burness brought on Bill Bell, longtime chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and eight-year city council member Sandy Ogburn as consultants. They brought with them instant credibility among community leaders and invaluable insights into university-community interactions. The pair went into the targeted neighborhoods, meeting with individuals as well as residential and school associations; attending numerous meetings; coordinating opportunities between Duke volunteers and resources and neighborhood needs; and providing advice on everything from writing effective grants to navigating the often confusing channels of government bureaucracy.

     At an early-morning breakfast meeting in February, Ogburn, who has since been appointed director of community affairs, paused to reflect on her year's work. "I just turned in a progress report of all the things we've done, and it went on for ten pages," she says. "When I realized how long it was, I understood why it feels as though we have all these balls in the air. Now that the word is out in the community that Duke is serious about this, we're getting calls from people all the time. Some are asking for help, but others are just letting us know about something that's going on. Having a very distinct geographic focus--twelve neighborhoods and seven schools--helps this not become an overwhelming proposition. It also keeps several people very busy."

     Without fail, she says, everyone she has contacted within the university has been helpful and enthusiastic about the initiative. "I think in the past when departments had requests to help, they felt uncomfortable about setting a precedent. If they said yes to one group, how could they say no to the next? But establishing a clear focus on these neighborhoods and schools changes that. There has been an incredible level of receptivity to what we're doing. Everybody's interested."

     Bell, who moved to Durham in 1968 to work for IBM, shares Ogburn's perspective. "If you look at the list of all the things that could be done, you realize it would take a tremendous amount of time, money, and human resources to do it all. But we don't want to boil the ocean. The biggest challenge is trying to narrow the scope and define our objectives, while making sure we have the input of the community--which is vital to the success of the whole project."

     The targeted neighborhoods are Burch Avenue, Crest Street, Lakewood Park, Lyon Park, Morehead Hill, Trinity Heights, Trinity Park, Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, Walltown, Watts Hospital-Hillandale, Old West Durham, and the West End. The targeted schools are the Durham Magnet Center (formerly Durham High School); E.K. Powe, Forest View, George Watts, and Lakewood elementary schools; Morehead Montessori Magnet; and the Rogers-Herr Sixth Grade Center.

     When queried about what Duke could do for them, neighborhood leaders asked not for general pie-in-the-sky requests, such as large infusions of money (which a few university officials suspected might happen), but for specific resources: getting transportation for kids in an after-school program, helping to eliminate loitering while improving the appearance of businesses along a main street, coordinating parenting resource workshops, providing summer internships to Duke camps and programs. Besides the formal and informal discussions that took place, neighborhood leaders were asked to rank a list of issues they welcomed help with, from access to health care and concerns about crime to student decorum and traffic problems. The one category receiving votes from every neighborhood was improved communication with Duke--easier access to Duke resources and a greater level of mutual trust. (Concerns about crime --reducing violent and property crimes, establishing better relationships with police, improving community response to crime and drugs--came in a close second, with housing issues coming in third.) Schools were also polled, and requests ranged from professional development for teachers and assistance with site-based management to donations of science and computer equipment.

     As the infrastructure of the partnership was being framed, including the (still ongoing) creation of a much-needed database to keep an inventory of the numerous projects Duke was involved with, the various streams of activity gradually came together to form a powerful current of accomplishments. With the office of government relations and community affairs as the conduit, connections were made between parties whose paths might never have crossed before. When the Lakewood School informed Duke of its desire to network its school computers, community affairs solicited the expertise of the university's Office of Information Technology (OIT), which successfully completed the project over the summer--and threw in surplus wiring, hardware, and ten Internet accounts at no charge. (OIT plans to now help the rest of the target schools get connected.) In conjunction with North Carolina Central University, a proposal has been put together for a joint venture that would provide summer jobs and life-skills guidance forat-risk youth. The examples began to multiply rapidly.

     With the arrival of Duke as a willing partner, there is a sense of optimism among residents who can use the help. The Reverend Fred Davis, pastor of Durham's First Calvary Baptist Ministries, is the kind of community leader who knows what it means to be resourceful. Dismayed by the lack of opportunities for children, teenagers, and senior citizens in his Lyon Park neighborhood, Davis has shown a scrappy persistence in renovating the former Lyon Park School for a community center (a dilapidated building replete with asbestos and lead paint), lobbying to get a city bond referendum on last November's ballot to finance the project (it passed easily), and working tirelessly with other agencies to pool energies and skills. Duke has appointed a task force to work with Davis and other representatives from Lyon Park; representatives from continuing education, athletics and recreation, facilities, Documentary Studies, and the Fuqua School of Business are involved.

Unfinished business: To renovate a dilapidated building into a thriving community center, The Reverend Fred Davis says he'll take whatever help Duke is willing to offer
Photo: Mark Dolejs © Herald-Sun Co., Inc.

     Davis says he dreams of the day when the Lyon Park Community Family Life and Recreation Center will finally open its doors. Until the bond money comes through, Davis is soliciting support for supplemental assistance from the pulpit and in person. "It's hard to get money for bricks and mortar," he says. "Someone will give millions of dollars to have a recreational center named for them, but they're not likely to give that kind of money for a nonprofit center. But we pray hard and work hard and do our best. And we've gotten a lot of help from Sandy and Bill, who have helped us strategize and understand the way city government and politics works. They came in asking what our community wants and needs rather than the other way around. So it's not just about money--although we'll gladly take that, too. We need resources, financial or in-kind."

     By the time Burness made a presentation to the board of trustees at its December meeting, the "Building the Framework" enterprise was already showing impressive results. The board, says Burness, was "extremely enthusiastic about the project, from the most astute business types to the people who [lauded] it for the moral position. During the course of the weekend, at least half the board members come to up to me to say, this is exactly what we need to be doing." Because Burness' presentation was part of the board's open session, members of the local media reported on the initiative as well, and newspaper articles began to appear with headlines like "Duke seeks to improve community relations."

     For people like Ogburn and Bell, the public attention is peripheral to the bigger picture. Joe Alston, a Durham native and veteran university employee who was recently appointed director of special projects in the community affairs office, knows what it's like to be in on the ground level of an ambitious project. For fifteen years, he worked in the materials support department's procurement division, and built the minority- and women-owned business purchasing program into a $22-million success.

     A former college basketball coach at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston compares Duke's strategic plan with an ambitious, talented team that has gotten off to a slow start. "If it's taken you an entire half to get behind in basketball, it's going to take you the entire second half to catch up," he says. "If you try to do it quickly, you're going to end up taking short cuts and making mistakes. So, while I commend Duke for taking this initiative, we have a long way to go. We're not going to catch up overnight, but if we really work on it, we can be effective." (Warren Herndon, director of community relations and special programs for the medical center, moved with Alston to the office of government relations and community affairs. He is working with Alston on special projects.)

     Community activists seem to be greeting the university's overtures with a mixture of relief and caution. Residents of Trinity Park, located off East Campus and home to a sizable number of off-campus undergraduate and graduate students, had asked the university to do something--anything--about rowdy off-campus parties and slumlords who violated housing laws by renting ramshackle houses to groups of students. Thanks to an alliance spearheaded by Duke Student Government (DSG), community affairs, and the Duke and Durham police, regular meetings and ongoing progress reports have helped open the lines of communication and led to mutual respect between students and home owners. Noise complaints have plummeted. A DSG-published guide for off-campus students details not only their rights as renters, but also their obligations as considerate neighbors. "For a while it seemed futile, because we felt that nothing was being done by the university to make the relationship improve," says Don Ball, president of the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association. "There are still concerns about landlords who don't maintain their houses, but overall we've been very pleased with the initiative the university has taken to reach out."

     A short walk away from Trinity Park is the Burch Avenue neighborhood, a racially mixed, working-class community concerned more with housing and crime than late-night parties. The business district along West Chapel Hill Street used to be a vital center of activity; now it looks decrepit and uninviting. A boarded-up pool hall (and former drug hang-out) sits vacant, shut down by neighborhood efforts. Customers of the few remaining businesses have limited access to parking. University Architect John Pearce has been working with a facade improvement committee to upgrade the look of the block, which is the main connection between the Durham Freeway's Chapel Hill Street exit and Duke's main campus entrance off Duke University Road.

     Rick Sloan, treasurer of the Burch Avenue neighborhood association, says his neighborhood's needs are great. "I've lived in places where the biggest issues were how to get people to pull their garbage cans back in or how to organize the Christmas house tour. Those aren't the kinds of issues Burch Avenue is dealing with. We're dealing with problems like drugs and crime and how to improve the neighborhood while keeping it affordable for people to live there."

     Sloan says he is encouraged by the involvement of Duke liaison Ogburn, who attends neighborhood association meetings and knows many residents from her city council days. "Sandy has been genuine in her willingness to work with us," he says. "Using Duke resources to further our neighborhood goals is a happy arrangement. But I'm not exactly sure what all Duke is willing to do to help." Like most community groups, the Burch Avenue residents will take whatever help Duke can offer, says Sloan, but will also continue independently to pursue its own course of self-interest. The Southwest Central Durham Neighborhood Council, a coalition of five of the neighborhoods in Duke's initiative (Burch Avenue, Lakewood Park, Lyon Park, Morehead Hill, Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, and West End) was launched last year to deal with common concerns.

     On a typical weekday at the West End Community Center, neighborhood children pile in to the cheerfully decorated house for an afternoon enrichment program. Before the community center opened in the early Nineties, young children had nowhere to go after school. Juanita McNeil and other West End residents were troubled by signs that crime was having an impact on the neighborhood's youngest members, who began to admire the lifestyles of drug dealers. "When we started hearing kids say things like, 'When I get older, I want to wear those fancy sneakers and drive those nice cars,' we knew it was time to do something," says McNeil. She and a few other residents opened their own homes for after-school care, and set a goal to open a community center. Residents raised more than $30,000 in cash and donated labor and supplies. Duke students volunteered from the start, providing an enthusiastic and reliable source of help.


     Duke has found a receptive partner in the West End. The Center for Documentary Studies, with help from community affairs, has organized an oral-history project for teenagers and senior citizens. The initiative will teach the young people interviewing, writing, and research skills while tapping into the experiences and memories of older residents, thereby documenting the neighborhood's rich history. OIT has helped the community center by donating and wiring computers, and the university's surplus store has donated furniture and kitchen equipment. A grant proposal to fund a parenting resource center is also in the works, and plans for a teen center to open in an adjacent house are well under way.

     Still, McNeil says maintaining the community center financially is an ongoing struggle. "We get money from the city and Duke students have helped raise money with bake sales and selling candy at Halloween. But what we could really use is help setting up an endowment so that the center would never close and our doors would always be open."

     Attracting big bucks for needed services may get a little easier now that Duke has committed itself to Durham's future. (Keohane has built the initiative into the proposed capital campaign.) John Burness says he's seen an increase in interest from other companies that have watched Duke's strategy with interest. "In many ways, the major corporations based in Research Triangle Park have had no one to partner with in the city of Durham, so there was little incentive for them to get involved," he says. "In the absence of a major corporate presence in Durham, everyone looked to Duke, and we didn't always deliver. But the response since we've started our partnership initiative is that if Duke is serious, all of a sudden it's become a priority. With Duke at the table, we think foundations, corporations, and other groups will want to partner with our neighbors and Duke in these programs."

     The effort (which Burness calls a "work in progress" rather than a plan) has already reaped benefits for the university, certain neighborhoods, and the city in general. But there is still much work to be done. For example, how can faculty be used effectively? Should Duke offer compensatory time to employees so they can take time off work to volunteer? How can a solid intellectual component be built into student involvement with community-service projects? What if a neighborhood wants something that is at cross purposes with Duke's goals? What do we say no to?

     "We're trying to enable these neighborhoods to help themselves," answers Burness. "We're getting them to ask the tough questions about what they really want and then see if we might help them. Because it has to be their issue. If we go in telling them what they need, it automatically fails. At the same time, it's really important to remember that we're an educational institution. We're here to do research, and teach, and provide patient care.

     "We can't solve all of Durham's problems. But we're hoping that through our efforts, we can have a positive and constructive influence on Durham's long-term economic development. Because economic development, whether it's through job-creation programs, or affordable housing, or a stronger school system, is going to be the solution to a lot of these problems. And that will make Durham an even better place to live and work."                                                                 

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