Ethics of Engagement

By Rachel Revelle

DukeEngage Dublin, Summer 2008By Rachel RevelleBy Rachel Revelle

Summer at Duke means that many students are participating in DukeEngage programs all over the world. The Kenan Institute’s DukeEngage Dublin program will begin shortly, with eight students grappling with migrant and refugee issues in an increasingly multicultural Ireland. They will be writing about their experiences and sharing on our website throughout the summer.

For now, though, I want to highlight a particular page on our website that may often get overlooked. We have a tab under Publications and Multimedia for various case studies, including several that were developed for DukeEngage training workshops on the ethics of engagement.

 DukeEngage has become a ubiquitous part of the Duke brand.  It’s certainly a remarkable endeavor institutionally, and I myself am one of countless students who mark it as a formative part of their Duke path. Because it is such a popular program, it gets a lot of hype on campus, and critique both good and bad (most recently, the Chronicle did a three part series assessing DukeEngage at the end of the year). I won’t go into too much debate, but I do think that it remains critical for students to be properly prepared, and have a sense of the ethical landscape they are navigating in any civic engagement project.

In an overview at the end of these case studies, we explain that civic engagement experiences like DukeEngage have at least three key goals: “to gain self-knowledge, to deepen students’ commitment to life-long civic engagement, and to help the communities in which they lived and worked for the summer.” As these goals interplay, complications will arise – as students learn about their new environments they may enthusiastically come up with solutions, but find they are not gaining traction applying them; the communities may have varying needs that pull students in different directions; students will have to deal with “wrong-wrong dilemmas” in which both community and individual goods are compromised, or short-term and long-term benefits do not coalesce; the whole process of making these decisions may become exasperating and turn students away from the idea of civic engagement.

The frustration of muddling through these dilemmas, however, is well worth the added thoughtfulness and attention to ethical engagement. I think it contributes to all three of the goals in substantive ways, even if it takes some time to understand how. Otherwise we are literally trotting all over the globe to “serve” or “give back” on a more superficial level, and come away reinforcing our default setting that we are inspired problem-solvers on a path to greater success for ourselves and our world.  As you’ll see from the case studies, there is not a solution at the end, or an answer key at the bottom of the page. The principles and questions to consider are instead meant to be tools for those embarking on civic engagement experiences that will involve morally serious dilemmas of the real world. Another ubiquitous Duke concept has become “knowledge in the service of society.” This is a great aim, but I think it involves more humility and tough decision-making than we might like to admit.