From Cafeteria Food to Community Empowerment: Do[ing] Lunch with Peter Skillern

By Michaela Dwyer

Yesterday a group of 25 or so Duke undergrads (and a postgrad fellow interloper) sat around a long table in West Duke Room 107 and ate sandwiches while Peter Skillern talked to us about community organizing for better elementary school cafeteria food.

Peter Skillern doing lunch with Duke undergraduates this week.

Skillern had taken a moment early into his talk as part of Team Kenan’s “Do Lunch” series to solicit questions from the students. One asked if there was a particular moment or book or influence Skillern could remember, something that shaped his path toward becoming “one of Durham’s most creative nonprofit leaders,” as the Do Lunch flyer described him. Skillern explained that he was in elementary school in the South during the early 1960s’ push toward racial integration. Martin Luther King, Jr. was on his mind when he rallied his lunchroom peers around—and with an intention to reverse— their perceived injustice: low-quality cafeteria offerings. Decades later, Skillern runs Reinvestment Partners out of an old art deco apartment building on East Geer Street, in the Old North Durham neighborhood. It is here, in this local community, where their work starts, and here where their larger-scale policy efforts—on the state and national level—aim to align.

Throughout his talk, Skillern often repeated Reinvestment Partners’ unofficial mantra: “We do what we can, where we can, with whom we can, with what we have to make a difference.” For Skillern, social change happens through a radical orientation toward what already exists—“what already exists” ranging from overlooked unsafe sidewalks in Old North Durham to Skillern’s professional repertoire in economic justice advocacy, policy work, community organizing, and street theater and soap opera. For him, and for Reinvestment Partners, this combinatory approach just makes sense. Connective thought and action is a given: what better way to disseminate information about “zombie foreclosures” than a short video of Skillern and community residents dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? (In May of this year, Skillern and co. organized a live “Zombie Dance” protest in downtown Charlotte, aimed at the bank walkaways regularly practiced by major institutions like Bank of America. An at-large security force, confused by the participants’ zombie make-up, was poised to take charge; Skillern and others danced peacefully, enjoyed refreshments, and ended up in various news images the day after.)

A still from RP’s “Zombie Foreclosure Shake.

The “Zombie Foreclosure Shake” is a paragon of Skillern’s and RP’s creative approach to policy change. At the lunch, Skillern often spoke from a place of personal and professional alignment: the Quaker ideal of the “social witness” as a model for community organizing; the ability to “lean in” to conflict or discomfort, whether in a close relationship or in an economically struggling neighborhood, in order to identify points of contention and leverage those points for positive and widely accessible social change. His philosophies, and thus those of the organization he leads, are grounded in an honesty with the communities in which they, and by extension we, live. He talked about how in honing our attention on multiple levels to our day-to-day, we both empower the richness of our own experience and empower ourselves to speak on our own terms about that experience, and about what could be changed, by powers beyond our immediate control, for the common good. It’s typical for Skillern to run through social change models like this one without pretension, condescension, or presumption—as if it’s common sense to connect in these ways.

The talk ended with Skillern answering a student’s question about how to capitalize on the skills and experiences of university students working within a campus organization to fight homelessness. Skillern recalled a conversation with a student activist group at Duke in the 1990s. A handful of students phoned him, eager to get out into the Durham community and “make change happen” (heard that one before, Dukies?). He told them, frankly, no. “You all are students, and Duke is your community,” Skillern said, to the students both past and current. He advised the activist group to turn inward, not outward, and focus on what power they already had access to within the institution of Duke, power to affect change in the community that houses this university. The project ended with then-president Nan Keohane touring neighborhoods in Durham with RP and attracting sizeable media attention. Doing “what we can, where we can, with whom we can, with what we have to make a difference,” indeed.