Taking the Initiative

“We decided that Duke can’t solve all the problems of Durham. But we felt we had an obligation to work with the neighborhoods near campus.”

Duke University can be easily found on various maps. It floats as a dot in the north-central part of a state map. It becomes clearer on a regional map, as the dot resolves itself into a larger square, sometimes with an accompanying square for Duke Medical Center. On a small city map, the squares double, one for East Campus, one for West. In its most highly resolved form, a detailed map shows streets and stadium, boundaries and buildings.

But there is a level of detail between the ambiguous square and the stone-by-stone footprint, and because city maps rarely show the boundaries of neighborhoods, it is a map that few at Duke readily visualize. If west central Durham were a body, the Walltown neighborhood would be at its head, the neighborhoods of the West End would be the vital organs, and Duke’s campuses would lie about where the heart would be. Duke is surrounded, not just by city streets and shops and restaurants and bars, but by twelve distinct, history-bearing, emerging or re-emerging entities whose presence affords both challenge and opportunity—just as Duke itself affords both challenge and opportunity in return.

When Trinity College relocated from Randolph County in 1892, its setting in Durham (the present-day East Campus) must still have seemed bucolic despite its new, relatively urban milieu. First engravings from the period show little more surrounding the school than fields, trees, and an occasional house. As the decades progressed, campus views show the construction of avenues and streets, homes, a hospital. Still, the appearance of print and painting is calm and pastoral.

The earliest views of West Campus combine the somewhat isolated feel of Trinity’s younger days with a hubbub of construction. But maps of the 1920s and 1930s suggest that the isolation is misleading. While the long stretches of Campus Drive and Chapel Drive wind through thick trees, without today’s urban reminders of stop signs and stoplights, Durham was thriving beyond the forest. Whole neighborhoods of mill workers, tobacco hands, shopkeepers, and schoolteachers were established and growing, anchored by churches and businesses, often centered on a school. They were segregated by race and class, but each brought a sense of history to its inhabitants and so helped to comprise the larger picture of Durham.

Yet for decades, it rarely seemed as though that picture had anything to do with the larger picture of Duke University. Over time, Duke earned various reputations in the city—largely as employer or landlord, sometimes acknowledged as benefactor. When the university’s educational mission came to mind, it was seen as a gift for privileged children who came and left without giving a thought to much beyond the college walls. When there was not overt hostility between town and gown, there was often suspicion and mistrust that even the best-intentioned of community initiatives had difficulty overcoming.

The problem was still noticeable enough to trouble Nannerl O. Keohane when she assumed the presidency at Duke in 1993. Her first day on the job included meetings with community leaders, and early in her tenure, she announced the necessity of and support for new Duke-Durham partnerships. Programs began to appear, grants began to be announced, one by one, each a splash into the bucket. But that bucket was wobbly and leaking, as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations John Burness recalls.

“Durham was in a very difficult, challenging position,” Burness says. In the several years before President Keohane’s arrival, the tobacco and textile industries had declined or met their demise; the crime rate skyrocketed as a serious drug problem took root in a cradle of interstates and poverty; and the Durham city and county schools were merging, leading to all sorts of questions about resources and demographics. In the meantime, Duke’s reputation was growing in the opposite direction, as the university had spent those years amassing top professors, research dollars, and an ever more selective pool of students. Despite Duke’s ups and Durham’s downs, however, Burness points out that “our fortunes were entwined. It wasn’t good for anyone if Duke was successful and Durham was not.”

“Some people thought that Duke could leverage unlimited resources and that whereever there was a problem in Durham, Duke ought to help,” Burness says. “Others said that Duke’s efforts to help were so unfocused they weren’t having an impact.”

But how could Duke be responsible for all of Durham? Should it be? As the master plan of 1994 was formulated, the questions were debated, until finally it was agreed that “enlightened self-interest” defined the university’s involvement. “We decided that Duke can’t solve all the problems of Durham. But we felt we had an obligation to work with the neighborhoods near campus. Stress on those neighborhoods had a direct impact on Duke—and problems are more visible across the street than four miles away.”

As Burness puts it, new community involvement was seen as an investment, not a cost. During the half-decade since Duke’s trustees committed to that investment, the small splashes of help have become a steady stream. And thanks to a significant change in philosophy, that stream has been channeled into a reliable water supply that may eventually run on its own. 

Making her move: Cynthia Henderson, center, leads students at a Walltown Children's Theater dance workshop. Matt Barton.

Duke decided to turn to the communities it wanted to work with to determine how best to work with them. It doesn’t sound like the most radical idea ever proposed for town-gown relations, but it’s decidedly different. Before the commitment to community became firm, the city’s view of Duke’s largesse could be dim.

“The perception in Walltown once was, ‘They’ve got all the money and we’re going to do it the way they say do it or else they’re not going to do it at all,’ ” says Luther Brooks, pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church on West Club Boulevard. “That perception is long gone. They’ve really taken the approach of, ‘What can we do to help you make your community better?’, which really makes it work. They’ve also, in my opinion, taken a behind-the-scenes role, so as not to play the ‘I’m out front, look at what we’re doing for these poor people over there’ part.”

“It’s a form of failure if you come in from the outside and try to fix things, address things for them, because it won’t take root,” says Michael Palmer, Duke’s director of the Office of Community Affairs. “It’s like throwing a seed on cement. Outsiders can’t go into a neighborhood or a community and make anything happen. You have to nurture what you already have, and that’s what we can work on, those specific issues which the communities articulate as their issues.”

And so the Neighborhood Partnership Initiative was born, bringing together the dozen Duke-related Durham neighborhoods of Burch Avenue, Crest Street, Lakewood Park, Lyon Park, Morehead Hill, Old West Durham, Tuscaloosa-Lakewood, West End south and east of West Campus; and Trinity Heights, Trinity Park, Walltown, and Watts Hospital/Hillandale east and north of East Campus. Today the initiative and the ideas behind it are solidly established, with an entire section of the $727-million “Building on Excellence” strategic plan devoted to “support for Duke’s outreach” and “reconfirming our commitment to partnerships with Durham.”

The earliest fruit of those partnerships ripened in Walltown, north of East Campus, where the thriving neighborhood of earlier years had given way to drugs and crime, a plague fueled by transitional housing and absentee landlords. Community Affairs director Michael Palmer drives through the neighborhood with the confidence of a man who knows each street, and many of the folks who live on those streets. The Rhode Island native has been director for two years, but spent the twelve years before that in Durham county government. His tour commentary touches not only on the projects with which Duke has been involved, but also on the social challenges facing the neighborhood and on the people who are facing them.

“Walltown has articulated a need for affordable housing to be developed, along with job training, crime reduction, those kinds of things,” he says. He drives down Berkeley Street and pulls over halfway down the block, gesturing from corner to corner at a line of tidy bungalows with deep porches and neat paint jobs. “These are some of the houses we’ve done in partnership with Self-Help Credit Union. We’re not in the housing business—we go out and find those folks who have that expertise and partner with them. Duke’s role was to provide a $2-million loan to Self-Help, which enabled Self-Help to create affordable houses for low-income buyers.”

The homes were once high-turnover, low-rent, tenant housing, with little involvement from landlords and little for the renters to like. Now they provide secure, permanent homes, and as each one has been completed and moved into, Walltown has come back just a bit more, involving more and more of the community in the process. “It’s really a consortium of players,” Palmer explains, crediting not only Self-Help and The Duke Endowment but also the City of Durham, the city housing department, the housing finance agency, Habitat for Humanity, Duke Divinity School, St. James Missionary Baptist Church and Luther Brooks, and the residents themselves. “The homeowners have become more involved in the community, and it becomes a much larger effort than just selling homes. It’s much more complex.” He speaks with more passion about the single mothers employed by Duke who now own their homes and participate in the community than he does the multi-million-dollar deal Duke helped broker to make it happen, despite his obvious satisfaction with that accomplishment.

Further down Berkeley Street, Palmer pulls into the parking lot of a small brick building that was clearly once a church. It was once, in fact, St. James Missionary Baptist Church, home of Luther Brooks’ congregation, but now houses the Walltown Children’s Theater, the result of the inspiration and hard work of Joseph and Cynthia Henderson. The theater has been in place for about a year, and the building is still being transformed. Again, an assortment of individuals and groups have pitched in, from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation to the American Dance Festival to a class from the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. “Part of [Duke’s involvement] is to try to find not just financial resources, but in-kind resources, and connections between people,” Palmer says. “The dollars are very important. But I think the relationships are equally as important—sometimes more important.”

The Hendersons use the theater to teach acting and dance, bringing children from Walltown and all of Durham into the space to work and play together. They held a series of student dance workshops during the summer, complete with public performances, and plan an extensive and ambitious project for the school year that will combine performing arts and outreach for at-risk students. Eventually, Joseph Henderson says, they envision the development of a troupe of young professional actors, touring and performing productions under the aegis of the theater.

Both Hendersons are deeply committed to the work, giving endless amounts of time and energy. Cynthia Henderson has put her Spanish-language skills to use, reaching out to Hispanic students and even providing bilingual arts education for home-schooled children. She directs the summer dance workshops with intensity and enthusiasm, as if the students were preparing for a Judith Jamieson performance instead of an end-of-camp show. When Joseph Henderson talks about getting the school-year students involved in the development of a theater production to help eradicate lower-achieving students’ fears of math, he details an elaborate plan that encompasses special performances at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, a tie-in to Duke’s efforts in the local schools, and even a newspaper study guide to help students get the most out of the performance. And yet for both of them, the work is clearly about reaching out to children, not only teaching them but giving them motivation and opportunity.

Back in his car, Palmer pauses to underscore the importance of the Hendersons’ work. “People like them are the Pied Pipers,” he says. “They draw the audience, and we help them, and so in essence we can help the community.” Thanks to the Hendersons’ outreach, Durham’s parks and recreation department has taken an interest in the theater and will help fund its programs as part of its after-school programming around the city.

Palmer wants to show off St. James’ new home, but enough has happened in Walltown that the three short blocks become a dozen or so as he detours past churches that participate in the Walltown Neighborhood Ministries and points out rows of homes along the way that are part of the Self-Help initiative. Then he turns into the parking lot of a long, large, two-story, brick, mid-century school building. This is the new St. James Baptist Church, with sanctuary, community center, and even a charter school occupying a surplus county property that once had every window broken out and graffiti covering the plywood meant to close it away from the vagrants who took shelter there.

Bidding for the building went from $25,000 to nearly $400,000, a long and sometimes distressing process that tested Luther Brooks’ patience. “We were—we are—a very small church,” says Brooks of his congregation. “We didn’t have that kind of resources. But when you go anywhere in the city and Duke is your partner, it carries a lot of weight. Duke didn’t do it for us—they supported us in doing it, every step of the way.”

Joining with Duke meant that St. James had someone to stand behind them, to co-sign loans and work to find creative financing and open doors to other partnerships. Self-Help came to the table, and then the Carter Community School. Self-Help, with a $375,000 grant from Duke, helped St. James to purchase and renovate the building all at once, instead of in the three long-term phases the congregation had thought would be needed. The school opened, the congregation moved in, and community services were put in place. There is a computer lab and an after-school program, nutrition services and a library.

A small house next to the church property has just been renovated to become an “economic empowerment center,” where Northgate Mall and the Triangle United Way and First Citizens Bank are among the partners in a job training program that will teach neighborhood residents retail skills with the promise of mall employment for those who pass the course. Brooks’ wife has started a Dress for Success program to accompany the job training, using donated business attire to set up a store that will help teach inventory and sales skills and will provide professional clothing for participants at the same time.

Sitting at his desk in the new building, office door wide open, windows overlooking the charter-school wing and the economic empowerment center, Brooks looks forward with the sense of being able to pursue his ministry ever more effectively. “It has been phenomenal,” he says. “We are really, really blessed. What we are striving to be is a holistic community, where we are meeting people at the point of their need and helping them move through it and become productive. I had a young lady walk in and say, ‘Pastor, I’m tired. I can’t live like this.’ And with the help of my partnership with Duke, I was able to call Michael Palmer, who was able to call someone else, and we got her to Duke for emergency care, got her a physical, and got her into a program by dark. That’s ministry for me. That’s what makes it work.”

A large part of that ministry over the summer was the Street Reach program, supported by a Duke grant and coordinated by St. James and the four other churches of Walltown Neighborhood Ministries, where “drug corners” were targeted for Friday night community meetings. Part tent meeting, part block party, church members reached out to residents with hot dogs, helping hands, and the Holy Spirit. “We’re trying to build confidence and trust in us as a religious, faith-based community within the community,” Brooks says, talking about targeting both residents and criminal elements. “We’re here. We care. We’re going to be here. And if you dudes are going to be on the corner of Englewood and Onslow, we are too. That’s the way to take back our community.”

“Then the Walltown Neighborhood Ministry becomes a focus for the community,” he adds, noting that prayer went hand-in-hand with talking to community residents, soliciting their ideas about problems and solutions, reaching out to form bonds of faith and friendship. “We want to be a hub, a center, so that people can have their needs met, or we can point them in the direction to have their needs met.”

Walltown Neighborhood Ministries are an important element of the NPI. Two years ago, the Divinity School joined forces with St. James, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Northside Baptist Church, Watts Street Baptist Church, and Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in a Duke Endowment-funded neighborhood program, the Walltown Families and Children Initiative.

The Ministries’ offices are housed in a small, one-story, cinder-block building on Knox Street—a building that was one of the most notorious sites in Durham for drug dealing and crime, plunked right in the middle of a residential street just a few blocks from Duke. The building was finally purchased and renovated by Self-Help with a $91,500 grant from Duke. The grocery was closed, the dealers scattered, and the Ministries moved in, complete with office space for four student chaplains from the Divinity School who also live in the neighborhood.

“Think of the symbolism there—that’s huge,” says John Burness. “It took a lot of grants from a variety of different places, but it goes beyond affordable housing. It’s trying to build up the neighborhood.” Programs of varying scope have resulted, from summer day camp and after-school programs for scores of neighborhood children to individual services for senior citizens, and even health education and nursing care, with help from Duke’s School of Nursing.

The landscape of the Neighborhood Partnership Initiative shifts, literally and figuratively, as you drive from East Campus toward West Campus, from compact Walltown to the larger, looser assortment of neighborhoods labeled “the West End.” Palmer drives through the Burch Avenue community, where men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has encouraged his parish church, Immaculate Conception, to work to build on a community center, and where the now-defunct Duke laundry affords the possibility of senior-citizen living space. He drives down Chapel Hill Street past Don’s Dogs hot dog stand and the Tabernacle of Joy, past the Durham Co-op community grocery and a storefront Islamic mosque. Nestled in the curve of the road is the Joseph Alston and Juanita McNeil West End Community Center, which grew from McNeil’s individual initiative in taking in children after school. With help from a $193,000 grant from Duke to purchase and renovate a former law office, the center now houses after-school programs, community space, and the wildly successful Partners for Youth mentoring program, which gives West End teenagers long-term educational and job support.

Duke’s main gates are approximately a mile down the road, through a high-traffic neighborhood of low-rent and student apartments. This is the gateway to the West End, whose neighborhoods have a long tradition of grassroots community work, sometimes together, sometimes on their own. The neighborhoods are rich in diversity, Hispanics and blacks and whites and Asians living on the same streets, reflecting the latest census statistics that show that Durham has no single ethnic majority. When people talk about Duke forgetting about its neighbors, these communities are often where they point.

One of Luther Brooks’ counterparts in the West End is the Reverend Fred Davis, executive director of Calvary Ministries of the West End Community, and a longtime community leader with his wife, Mary. Davis is a driving force behind one of the West End’s biggest projects, the reclamation and renovation of the old, abandoned Lyon Park School into a community center of ambitious scope. The project, which began at a grassroots level with Calvary Ministries and others in the neighborhood, is backed by $6.5 million in city bonds, and plans to provide everything from education to arts programming to health care. There have been issues of budget and scheduling along the way, but project leaders like Fred Davis have persisted, neighborhood workers have been employed on the project, and now the building is nearing completion.

“For a neighborhood organization, this is a huge project to take the lead on,” Palmer says, standing on the sidewalk in front of scaffolding and lumber. “But inside this community, this is a symbol of hope and a symbol of change and a symbol of action. In the history of this neighborhood, back in the days of segregation, this was an African-American school, and there’s a lot of pride that emanates from that. There was a lot of pain when it was lying in ruins, but now they’re bringing it back.”

Palmer gestures through the construction fence at the center’s side yard. As the Lyon Park project developed, budget constraints meant that the playground was eliminated from the plan. Once again, the Office of Community Affairs, with associate director Sam Miglarese steering, was able to put together a partnership that not only got a playground in place but a bright, colorful, intricate playground through Home Depot’s “KaBOOM!” project. Miglarese was able to tie in Home Depot with the CIAA basketball tournament, NASCAR, and community volunteers, a process that Palmer sees as emblematic of the work his office does. “They were fishing for a project—we said, ‘Wow, do we have the perfect project for you. The community needs it, you want to do it.’ That’s the result. We’re tapped in to the leaders of the community, and when projects are going on, we can help in those situations.”

Leaders like the Davises, Palmer says, are one of the NPI’s greatest assets. “It’s very refreshing to see people doing things because they care,” he says. “They’re not looking for credit. They’re not looking for a pat on the back. They’re not planning to run for office. They care about their community. So finding the Juanita McNeils and the Fred and Mary Davises and the Luther Brookses is key to our success.”

The NPI efforts in these neighborhoods are not yet as firmly established as in Walltown, but Palmer notes that what works in one place might not work in another, and that again, the point is to work with the communities to determine what is needed and what can be put in place.

Through The Duke Endowment, Mayme Webb was hired by Duke this spring to do exactly that. Despite a long family history of grassroots work in the Lyon Park neighborhood, she shies away from the label “neighborhood activist,” saying that all she does is stay involved in her community. It’s the community she grew up in, the one she returned to after two decades of working at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

Webb’s perspective on the West End neighborhoods and the possibilities for facilitating renewal there is born of history and experience. “Projects should really operate from the need of the community that they’re serving,” she says. “You really have to respect that. You don’t want to come in and act as if you are the know-it-all, because that only alienates people. This process may take longer, but it’s real, it’s more genuine, because you’re talking about looking at what people really think and feel, trying to keep them focused on what they see the community’s needs are, versus what someone thinks from the outside.”

The danger of being perceived as a “know-it-all” is real, going back to many Durham residents’ longtime image of Duke as a place apart and a benevolent dictatorship acting solely out of self-interest. That stereotype, earned though it may have been in past decades, has taken time to change, and it is something that Duke has been struggling with on and off throughout the various phases of the NPI. It accounts for the philosophical shift to community ownership of the programs, and it accounts for the near-religious fervor with which Duke’s representatives insist that the university be able to deliver on every commitment.

Webb says that, slowly, the effort to change perceptions is beginning to work, thanks to the programs themselves and to the commitment demonstrated by the administration and the trustees first in 1996 and then again in “Building on Excellence.” “The mere fact that this office was created, the mere fact that there is support for it at the top level, those things are really good to have,” she says. “It shows that maybe people are not just giving lip service to it. None of this is going to happen overnight, and for some people you will never change their mind. But you have to be willing to look at the future, to keep the bigger picture in mind—and that is what we want to look like as a community.”

What the West End wants to look like remains to be seen, and Webb is determined not to impose the answer on the neighborhoods. “What we would like to look at is helping them identify their particular problems, how successful we’ve been in approaching them, and where they would like to have those problem areas or challenges end up five or ten years from now,” she says. “Each approach is going to be different, dictated by the individuals who live there. We’re giving a considerable amount of thought to how we approach the communities, how we spend time to get them on the same page and to get them to truly understand what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ve got to put the energy into these early planning stages to get buy-in from the communities. Otherwise it will unravel as we go along, and that’s not where we want to be.”

Keeping the strands bound together, earning buy-in, and increasing community understanding has all taken place with a minimum of fanfare -- sometimes even without people realizing Duke's involvement in the partnerships. In his office, Luther Brooks makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses not only St. James Missionary Baptist Church but the whole of Walltown and the rest of Durham. "It's easy for me to say Duke is the good guy for what it's done, but there are a lot of folks who don't even know it was Duke," he says. "On Sunday morning at worship service, Duke's not here -- but our sanctuary is cozy. We have state-of-the-art facilities, like our computer lab. Duke is never in there, but when we're training kids how to become computer literate, Duke is the reason it happened. When our children are reading books from our library, Orange-Durham Junior League is not here, but they're the reason it happened. When we're up here doing all these things, Duke may never be mentioned, but they're an intricate part of all that is happening.

"Big picture: What we've done through Duke's help is we've been able to breathe hope back into an almost hopeless community," he adds, beginning to sound like the veteran of many a Sunday sermon. "The flicker had almost gone out -- the flame was almost gone. And now we're able to tell people, 'You can do it,' and help them make their dreams a reality. That, to me, is what I think the church and the community ought to be about."

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