Let’s Look in the Mirror

A typical Sunday morning as a Duke freshman: I wake up around 10am and text my friends to see who’s ready to go to Marketplace brunch. I head to the bathroom to wash up, where the trash cans are indubitably overflowing onto the counters and floor. I go downstairs to find our common rooms in a truly disgusting state. Trash– food wrappers, empty pizza boxes, papers– litter the floor. Random belongings, perhaps a calculator or a computer charger, lie strewn throughout the room. Maybe some tables or chairs are overturned or in the wrong place.

Duke students are so aware of and engaged with the world around us. We volunteer in Durham. We major in public policy, planning to go out and change the world when we graduate. We choose professions where we hope to be able to have an impact on others’ lives. We are so engaged in a global, big-picture sense. Yet why are we so incapable of thinking about how we can support those within Duke’s community? We skip over the small, simple things we can do to make our housekeepers’ jobs easier – throwing away our trash, pushing in our chairs, putting paper towels in the trash can – assuming that ‘someone else’ will just take care of it later. We implicitly decide that we have better things to do than to worry about our garbage; someone else, someone ‘inferior,’ can deal with that.

I am implicated in this too. I’ve let many a paper towel fall onto the floor in the bathroom; although I see them every day, I have never introduced myself to the housekeepers in my dorm; I criticize the food that the Marketplace employees spend hours each day preparing; I complain about the construction going on outside my dorm. In an environment with so many incredible opportunities, it can certainly be easy to lose perspective, to take all of the great things about Duke for granted and become stuck in the minor inconveniences.

As Duke students, we care deeply about macro-level problems facing Duke workers. I remember visiting campus for Blue Devil Days last April and being struck by the tents I saw set up in front of the Allen Building – it wasn’t basketball season, after all. The students protesting, part of an organization called Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity, had quite a few demands, including a raise of campus minimum wage and the firing of Executive Vice President Tallman Trask for allegedly using a racial slur toward a Duke employee after hitting her with his car in 2014. The group’s actions on university-employee relationships are quite important and have an impact: for example, the university agreed in response to the protests to gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour by July 2019. But I wonder if the organization could also encourage some action on the relationships between students and Duke employees. Perhaps fostering better connections would lead to even greater solidarity between these two groups and, in turn, increased influence of Duke Students & Workers in Solidarity as an organization.

So next time we are tempted to leave that pizza box in the common room after a late night out, let’s take a moment to remember the real people who will have to clean it up the next day. Rather than always being so tied up in broader issues of social justice, let’s all take that extra minute to look at our own lives and interactions – to treat the university employees who play such an integral, yet unrecognized role in our lives at Duke with a little more respect.