Oh, The Irony…

On Sunday night, a flash bang grenade exploded a dozen feet in front of me, sending small pieces towards my chest and the bodies of those around me. The air around my head tensed like a muscle. National guardsmen, heavily armed police, and swat teams marched down the streets of downtown Raleigh in formation, firing tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets at protestors. My eyes burned.

The following morning, I began a position as a research intern at Accountability Counsel, an organization dedicated to expanding corporate accountability frameworks for internationally financed projects. In many ways, such frameworks allow people who have been trampled over and displaced by the World Bank, such as these herders in Mongolia, to address human rights violations and work with international partners to bring about (occasionally sub-par) results.

Yet in other ways, Accountability Counsel’s work solidifies and betters the corporate frameworks that exist today – those which are directly responsible for the oppression of the global South, the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans, and the enslavement of young children around the world – by making corporations more palatable, a little bit more just, and all the more confident.

The irony in this dichotomy between my day time job, what I must do, and my evening activities, what I volunteer to do, is common to my time at Duke. Although at least partially because I’m a stubborn twenty-year-old, the things required of me don’t always sit well. As a first year getting a head start on the Public Policy major requirements, I took Introduction to Policy Analysis (PubPol 155) where I learned about cost-benefit analysis and game theory, both heavily rooted in capitalist, selfish, and individualist assumptions about the nature of humanity.

At the same time, I took a Marxist writing class entitled End(s) of Work. For the first month, this class paralleled the course content in PubPol 155 except from a dissenting point of view. End(s) of Work discussed the misleading implications of such individualist mindsets, the sexist and racist ideologies festering within them, and the blatantly immoral practice of monetizing human life so essential to the widespread application of these economic policy principles. While often seen as a necessary evil of current public policy, the monetization of human life indicated to me that perhaps there was an intrinsic flaw in the way our economic and political systems treat people based upon their financial worth to the empire of capital. By the end of the semester, things were pretty clear – I could not pursue a degree in public policy if this is what it meant.

Of course, I ignored my own advice and continued steadfast in my career as a public policy major, taking up another in History as well. As you can imagine, these dichotomous parallels remained present in my life.

As a second year, this situation appeared once more, but this time, discord struck between Stat 101 and my independent study about the intersection of Mass Incarceration and Disability (one of the few elective classes that gave me hope as a public policy major). Again, the first few weeks of classes appeared in direct conversation with each other. By the time I garnered some statistical basics, I had also started to engage with the rich and jarring history of statistical science.

White, able-bodied Europeans and Americans used and continue to use statistical science to create and expand upon hierarchies of infirmity. The striking overlap between early eugenicists and statisticians, such as Karl Pearson, makes this fact clearer.  These notions of infirmity, often based in a perceived “normality,” have been used to justify slavery, incarceration (including in mental health facilities), and every other kind of oppressive system integral to the capitalist world we live in today.

Unsurprisingly, the public policy major’s core classes had disappointed and confused me once more. Why would I want to learn about a science that has been utilized to help create the world’s oppressive systems? Isn’t it alarming that I was learning concepts with such toxic assumptions and undertones in a major that has direct ties to the creation of laws, institutions, and government? I was again unsure of the path to my degree.

On par with the rest of my questionable decisions, I’ve directed myself to attend law school since I was 14. My justifications continue to change, but I’ve always wanted to help victims of this oppressive society and advocate for lasting change. As the realities of public policy and economics became clearer to me, I began to question law school, or even working with the law. Would improving the law make it more difficult for activists to rip down legal institutions in the future, something that might need to be accomplished to address historic inequalities? Do the legal frameworks pushed by Accountability Counsel make it more difficult to end harmful globalist development?

Despite all these dilemmas bouncing around my head, these first few days with Accountability Counsel taught me something new: we must operate within the present. On a Zoom call with the research team at Accountability Counsel, we discussed what this principle meant for our work during the Summer and beyond. We acknowledged that, in the end, someone might just have to burn the whole system to the ground to achieve a world where Accountability Counsel’s services would not be needed; yet, we also acknowledged that people need help and they’re asking for it now.

Accountability Counsel offers up to 40 hours per year for engaging with local movements denoted as Good Ally time, another one of the many ways that Accountability Counsel seeks to operate within the present, and yet still advocate for lasting institutional change. I am undertaking this method in my own life as I continue to use my privilege to aid in present-oriented work, but also in building a better future through active engagement with communities in need. While the ironies in my life make me unsure of many things impending in the adult, graduate world, I know I am eager to begin the work I will be doing this Summer.