Service-Learning hosts discussion on ‘our shared humanity’ with Dean Valerie Ashby

valerie ashby talk

What is the role of a university in creating equitable and inclusive communities? How do you engage with individuals who don’t share your worldview or principles? What is the right balance between managing urgent issues with addressing root causes?

These are just some of the questions posed by undergraduates at a community-building event hosted by Duke Service-Learning on March 24. Part of the program’s ongoing “Opportunity of Now” series, this session focused on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s goal of creating a “beloved community,” and drew more than 120 attendees including students, faculty, and staff.

Service-Learning Director David Malone set the tone for the gathering and introduced Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Dean Valerie Ashby, referencing her recent talk at the Association of American Universities.

“The hard work of culture change – this isn’t easy work, and this isn’t an easy conversation today,” he said. “Our hope is to stay as close as we can to our heart space, in our feelings. Listen deeply and speak your truth. Engage with wonder.”

Ashby briefly shared her approach to leadership and walked attendees through the framework her team has adopted for leading with CARE, which stands for courage, authenticity, responsibility and empathy.

“We often say on my team that what we do is important but how we do it is even more important,” she said. “Leadership is not doing, it’s being.”

She then reflected on the progress Trinity is making, but also the hard work that remains.

“If we have had any forward movement toward creating a ‘beloved community’ – and I believe we have – it comes first out of pure authenticity and second, starting with the truth. And whether that’s the truth of what the situation is or the truth of the pain some people are carrying, it’s whatever that truth is.”

“Once you have a beloved community, kindness is a beautiful thing to maintain that community,” she added. “But without truth, kindness alone can make you seem unaware of what’s happening in people’s lives. You have to start with truth and sometimes that truth is tough.”

After those remarks, Malone and Ashby encouraged students to raise whatever questions they had about Duke, their experiences, and this moment in history. Malone noted that many attendees might have the recent violence in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, on their hearts and minds.

They were first met with inquiries about the role of a college or school in advancing diversity and inclusion. Ashby turned immediately to the mission of Trinity College: To deliver a world-class liberal arts education to every Duke student.

“We need to create a climate and a culture where everyone can thrive,” she said, and noted that sometimes that means confronting systems and structures that get in the way.

Another student asked whether they should engage in difficult conversations with people who harbor different views, even when they are discriminatory or based in things that are not true. It’s “hard to love your enemy when they’re invalidating your humanity,” someone remarked.

Malone had shared earlier at the event that he finds himself wondering if kindness is enough.

“Do I wait for people to acknowledge truth? Do I expect my students to tolerate and navigate imperfect systems? I no longer feel comfortable doing that.”

When asked by students if his course is left-leaning, he said that he shares that “all views that honor human beings are accepted here.”

“I believe in love leadership,” Ashby said. “But love does not mean I’m not courageous. And love does not mean that I don’t speak the truth. Telling people the truth is an honor because it means you trust people to handle that truth.”

Throughout the discussion, Ashby noted several times that she can only share her own experience and approach to these issues; she can’t speak for anyone else. But she expressed hope that everyone in the room receives the same opportunity for authenticity and acceptance in their work.

“I have the pleasure and the privilege of coming to work every day and all people ask me to do is be myself,” she said. “I wish that for every single student – that you get to be who you are and call that your job.”