Organizing Empathy: Learning Durham through the Relational Meeting

Despite the limits of Covid-19, I spent this summer excited about moving to Durham. When I finally arrived, Durham charmed me with her restaurants, growing downtown, and beautiful brick buildings that represent the culture, history, and style of the city. However, shortly after moving to Durham, I noticed certain areas where the buildings did not match the texture of the neighborhood. In between errands, I took note about how certain newer buildings awkwardly pressed against the older brick ones. Slowly, I recognized the pattern of urban renewal in Durham. As I familiarized myself with the city, I recognized my own ignorance about the inequality, economic injustice, and political insensitivity which perpetuate violence on Durham’s residents.

During the Grad Engage orientation, the instructor told us about the “Durham-Duke divide.” She explained how many students never engage the surrounding community, and, when they do, they often forget about their experiences when they return to the “ivory tower.” Similarly, the leaders in Durham CAN tell me, with disbelief, about how people do not believe poverty exists in Durham. Despite being a shining beacon for progressive politics, Durham often leaves its poorest residents in the shadows. And although residents sprinkle downtown with “Black Lives Matter” signs, often Durham residents remain ignorant about the exclusion black lives suffer in Durham. Consequentially, the most valuable thing I’ve learned through the fellowship is the often unnoticed occurrences of injustice happening in Durham, and the people who these injustices injure.

Standing in the legacy of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundations, Durham CAN builds the power necessary for fighting theses injustices through relational meetings; recently, I attended an IAF training on how to conduct them.  Through relational meetings, organizers search for shared interests to connect people and organize them around their self-interest. Now when framed this way, some might be tempted to view relational meetings as utilitarian and exploitative in nature, assuming organizers only practice them in hopes of a later political commitment. However, this is not the case. Ed Chambers writes,

The implication of asking for a relational meeting is the other person’s perspective is f value, that listening to the stories and insights, the memories and struggles, of another is more important than hustling their name for a petition or getting them out to vote. In contrast to pre-structured, carefully controlled and impersonal strategies like opinion surveys and focus groups, the relational meeting is a risky, reciprocal event. (Chambers 2005, 49)

Rather than treating people as a means to political ends, the relational meeting is a strategy to treat people, and their issues, as a mean in themselves. For this reason, Jacques Martian was right when he described Alinsky’s methods as a “good and necessary means to achieve good and necessary ends.” Indeed, as Duke Divinity School professor Dr. Luke Bretherton writes in Resurrecting Democracy, “Alinsky’s approach aims to stimulate the appearance of those who are de-politicized or excluded from the decision-making process, enabling them to appear and act on their own terms” (Bretherton 2015, 45). Relational meetings break through the “Duke-Durham Divide” and create a common life where people can fellowship and empathize with each other.

Through relational meetings, I’ve learned about the experiences of Durham residents living in Durham Housing Authority properties. As one news article says, “Hoover Road, located in East Durham near North Carolina Central University, was built in 1968, making the 54-townhome complex one of the agency’s oldest sites.” Because of this, many of the apartments at Hoover road need maintenance repairs, ranging from leaky roofs to mold removal. Recently, the DHA organized weekly meetings for the CEO of the DHA, Mr. Anthony Scott, to listen directly to the concerns of residents. Despite their initiatives, some residents hesitate to share their experiences because they fear possible retaliation from the DHA.

In response, another DHA resident interviewed other tenants about their thoughts around the repairs and maintenance at Hoover Road, in hopes to share the interviews anonymously. In the process, the resident reached out to Durham CAN to help her with the project. Ultimately, I ended up editing and producing a video with the recorded interviews and the video will be presented at the next meeting to Mr. Scott.  In the video, residents expressed their frustration about their leaky roofs, clogged toilets, unbearable apartments, unresponsive maintenance crews, and unreliable repairs.

In addition to projects like these, I also work with the Affordable Housing and Eviction team where we work on a campaign to change Durham’s eviction policy. Our efforts are in hope of preventing homelessness and securing good and healthy living conditions for the residents of Durham. Projects like these are the weekly tasks organizers must do, working with residents to help them take part in the decisions that influence their lives.

TJ Bryant is a first year Master of Divinity Student at Duke Divinity School where he is in the Thriving Communities Fellowship. He holds a Dual-Degree from Carson-Newman University in Sociology and Religion. He enjoys Theological reflection on various topics including: Race, Social Inequality, Community Development and Community Organizing.

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