Humans of Duke: Protester Edition

Meet some of the individuals participating in the protest

True Blue | Susie Xu | April 6, 2016

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“Truth and Love are the most important things in the universe.” — Reverend Barber, 04.05.2016


Inspired by Humans of New York, The Rival wanted to showcase individuals participating in the Allen protest through a different lens. As readers read through the following project, please be mindful that these people are your peers and be respectful in comments and reactions.

Disclaimer: There are a lot of different folks here with different context. They are all speaking on behalf of their own beliefs. The following does not necessarily represent the movement as a whole.

**Names have been changed for confidentiality reasons



Name: Alice

Home: North Carolina  

Major/Minor/Certificate: Psychology and Global Health Major, Biology Minor

Take away quote: “I’ve been involved with workers’ rights groups throughout my Duke career and to let the passion about these issues fizzle out is an injustice.”


Why are you protesting now, especially after the fact the story has been out for a while?

“I think for me it was how quickly I saw conversation around these topics fading—a good number of students kept conversations about the rights of workers at Duke going but in the general student body, the discussions faded quickly after the initial outrage. I think when people stop talking about workers’ rights, the silence allows further injustices to happen.”

Why do you think people are so angry at / apathetic towards the protestors?

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation circulating about the demands, the protesters, etc. Specifically, the people who seem most adamantly opposed cite the ‘due process’ argument of that some of the allegations cannot be proven. The fact of the matter is, however, that Tallman Trask committed a felony in hitting Shelvia Underwood with his car and fleeing the scene. Yet, the systemic problems in PTS, the Office of Institutional Equity, and other departments that are tasked with handling worker justice disputes allowed him to go unpunished for this crime.

I also feel like there is an inherent desire to see activism as an ‘us vs them’ conflict, where the protesters are standing against the general Duke community and generally become the scapegoat for ‘PC culture.’

As far as apathy, I think it’s easy to be passive in these matters—workers do so much for us in a day (think, if you’ve ever ridden a bus, used a bathroom, thrown out a piece of trash, so on, you’ve benefitted from the labor of a Duke worker) yet many students do not think about how we can give back to them. Because Duke students are not primarily affected by workers’ rights issues, many do not feel it is their responsibility to organize for these topics. However, I think by treating our workers with equity in respect by ensuring them a living wage and protection from institutional discrimination is the most basic way we can thank the workers for all that they do for the Duke community.”

Can you clarify the “wage” situation?

“The popular statistic that administrators and some students have been circulating is that Duke workers are receiving $12, which is a half-truth at best. It’s important to note that this $12/hour wage only applies to SOME Duke workers, and in fact, only 400 Duke workers (a small portion comparatively) are getting paid that much. Only full-time employees of Duke are making that much. Most Duke workers are seasonal, contractual, or part-time. For these people, their standard wage is the statewide minimum of $7.25. However, this has been underplayed in the narrative put forward by administrators.”



Name: Sarah **

Home: Georgia

Major/Minor/Certificate: Evolutionary Anthropology Major, Global Health Minor  

Take away quote: “I’m not denying that administration has an important role in this university, but there’s a huge wage discrepancy and I’m confused as to how someone can look at the Duke workers’ situation today and wonder why they feel this way.”


Why are the Duke Workers not visible / protesting at these events?

“Because there is fear of retaliation. For the workers that spoke out and are part of this collective, it’s inspiring and wonderful of them to do this. However, it doesn’t make sense for people that rely on a minimum wage job to speak out because they themselves cannot take over a building. Students, on the other hand, by putting themselves in the building, are using positions of privilege as the conduit for voices that cannot be heard.”



Name: Duke Workers       

Home: N/A   

Year: N/A

Take away quote: “Ultimately, workers here begin to get frustrated or begin to lose hope.”


How do you feel about the protest as the main stakeholder in this fight for equality?

“The students are fighting for a larger issue at Duke that has gone on for decades. They’re fighting for the masses at this university. Many workers in a variety of departments are faced with discrimination but they can’t use the administration to get their voices addressed. Workers live in a confined bubble and can’t reach out to the public because there is a legitimate fear of retaliation. The environment at this school has held many employees as prisoners for decades. If you’ve worked here for long enough, you’ll see countless people that have taken a chance to stand up for what they believe in disappear with no explanation or some trumped up charge. Duke easily uses words to justify the injustices they’ve done.”

Why are the students including people like Cavanaugh and DePinto in their list of demands?

“Particularly for the people in Duke Parking and Transportation Services (PTS), in the chain of command, Human Resources is where workers should go to address their concerns. However, Cavanaugh is in charge of Human Resources and when you ask them to consider a worker’s problem, you’re essentially asking them to investigate themselves — this is a losing situation for the workers.”

How can Duke students help on a daily basis?

“Duke students can use their social media contacts to spread the word. If they have friends that are activists or have connections in powerful positions — these will be instrumental in supporting what we are trying to support here. We also have a GoFundMe page and that money is being used to support occupiers and legal fees for those who have exercised their right for legal action (Ms. Underwood). Any money left over is to donate to charity such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. And I know this sounds cliche, but Duke students can help us by just praying.”



Name: Kari  

Home: Maryland

Year: Senior

Major/Minor/Certificate: Theatre and Political Science Major

Take away quote: “The university is blaming the occupiers for closing the building in an attempt to discredit the movement.”


Why Duke Plantation?

“The hash tag is actually #dismantleDukePlantation and we gave it that name because the workers themselves have often referred to the university as plantation—not publically but among themselves. The name also comes from Mark Anthony Neal—a professor here who wrote a brilliant article diagnosing ‘plantation culture’ here at Duke in terms of racial inequality and working conditions.”

Do you think you’re setting a precedent here for future contentious issues?

“As with any social movement, it’s important to build networks and communities in which we can work in future scenarios. I see this protest itself as a building upon past protests. All those networks inspire what we’re doing now and, of course, we’re building on the legacy of the original Allen building takeover in 1969 where students were also asking for workers’ rights, demanding greater student diversity, and creating African & African American Studies Department. On setting precedent, a lot of people are denouncing our tactics and using that to discount what we are fighting for. But really, what we’re doing is non-violent, based on a very specific legacy of activism, and is not disruptive to classes—contrary to what the university says.”



Name: Savannah

Home: North Carolina

Year: Sophomore

Major/Minor/Certificate: Psychology and Women’s Studies Major, Education Minor  

Take away quote: “This is what community looks like. It’s also very cold.”


Why are you protesting?

“I’m protesting because Duke as institution has a history of injustice towards its marginalized populations, and students have a unique privilege to attempt to address that situation without fear of losing jobs. They have an ability to start conversations for the institution as a whole. The way the administration has handled this situation has been absurd and very protective of its own. It hasn’t been open to growth and meaningful change. I believe it is important to show radical love and compassion for students that are fighting to make a difference. This is not a space purely for anger, though anger is certainly a valuable part of why we’re here.”



Name: Danica    

Home: Ohio

Year: Graduated Duke in December, taking post-bacc classes at Duke

Major/Minor/Certificate: Neuroscience Major, Chemistry Minor

Take away quote: “The master’s curriculum could dismantle the master’s oppressive institutions.” (A play on the original quote by Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”)


What is your reaction to people saying “if you don’t like the way the school is run just leave”?

“The reason that I chose to attend Duke in the first place isn’t just to take classes. It’s not just the information, it’s the way you engage with it. The students at the protest are here to engage in an active way. These are the things that draw people to Duke—not just sitting in classes or doing homework. The idea that ‘if you don’t like something just leave it’ is very defeatist. Just because there’s one aspect you don’t like doesn’t mean the entire thing should be scrapped. The reason I’m protesting is that I want Duke to be better and I think it has the potential to be better. If I wasn’t optimistic about this school becoming a more just and equitable institution, I wouldn’t have bothered putting labor into it—I would have left. I think we owe this much to this university. We are part of it when we’re here and hopefully we will leave a positive legacy behind once we’re gone.”



Name: Danielle    

Home: North Carolina  

Year: 4th Year Doctoral Candidate in Environmental Politics and African American Studies with a law background

Major/Minor/Certificate: Neuroscience Major, Chemistry Minor

Take away quote: “Who is above the law?”


Did the Duke workers ask for this?

“Yes—there had been a coalition built about a month ago of workers and students working on this since the very beginning. We’ve just been escalating action ever since.”

Are you simply protesting about Trask or are there bigger things at play?

“Right now, we’re talking about a systemic issue and no one tactic is going to resolve this huge institutional problem. Even these demands are just a start. Basically, the occupiers really wanted a targeted public apology to Ms. Underwood from Dr. Trask about the incident– a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing. (There’s an ongoing lawsuit and the administration has an anxiety that their statements could complicate the lawsuit.)

This protest is connected to larger practice of discrimination within the Parking and Transit Department and with workers at Duke in general. 70% of our staff is African American and most of the rest of the staff is Latino. An overwhelming people of color are the service workers of this university and we don’t want any more people suffering from similar harassment and experiences. When this hit and run incident happened to our staff, there was no acknowledgement on the incident and the administration essentially lied about it for 2 years– to have this happen is egregious.

This circumstance revealed larger systemic issues at Duke and can’t really be resolved with just an apology or lawsuit.”

Does raising the minimum wage affect Duke students in terms of tuition and fees?

“I am very unclear on actually if it would raise the tuition. There’s no necessary connection between the two. Right now, we should be prioritizing the people who work to give them a living wage. Rent and cost of living is rising in this area and it’s really important for wages to keep up with the inflation or you’ll have workers constantly working but still facing homeless and suffering from systemic social ills and injustices. When you raise the question of raising tuition through offering a living wage, it’s a bit bizarre. We should not be pitting these issues against each other.

Of course, this is understandable as to why people would think there would be an impact, but the university operates off of several pools of funding and many are disconnected. It does not mean raising one cost means raising it in another realm. The university cannot function without a working staff—people work better when staff can take better of themselves.This is an ethical problem and a non-negotiable thing. Students certainly should be concerned about tuition but when students are being overly taxed for education and the workers are being under-compensated—these things are not divorced from one another. If you’re concerned about tuition and fees, you should be out here with us.”

What is a big misconception about this protest?

“The people occupying the building never meant to shut the building down. They are only occupying a small administrative wing of the building. They are contained within a room and a hallway that is enclosed with doors. The classrooms, other offices are entirely open and there is no barrier of them going in. But the administration has decided to shut the entire building down and essentially raise animosity and angst with employees, administrators, and students. This is unfair and casts the work the occupiers are doing in a negative light. The idea was to occupy upper administration offices (because that is where Dr. Trask sits) and be a basis of the negotiations. Everything else should have gone on as usual. Duke currently has people guarding the offices as well as around the building. This is completely unnecessary.”



Name: Matt *

Home: Florida

Year: Senior

Major/Minor/Certificate: Engineer

Take away quote: “I’ve been at Duke for four years now and this is the first time that I felt like I was a part of a community that is passionate about the same things I am.”


What is your reaction to those that actively scorn this protest?

“My general reaction is that a lot of what I’m seeing is people are forming opinions without trying to educate themselves on the issues at hand. They use platforms (like Yik Yak) that are disseminating inaccurate information as their main source for their beliefs. A lot of the viewpoints would be different if people understood why we were out here for—it’s not just about Trask and DePinto and Cavanaugh, it’s about institutional racism and the fact that Duke consistently doesn’t seem to care about the lives of the people that keep this place running.”



Name: Danielle and JV      

Home: Georgia ; South Carolina / Brazil   

Year: Public Policy Major, Spanish Minor and Education Minor ; Economics Major, Global Health Minor

Take away quote: “I don’t want to be part of an institution that abuses workers and have that on my conscience.”


How does this protest relate to you?

“I got really involved with this protest because one of my best friends is in this sit in and she really pushed me to hear about these experiences. It’s important for me to support these workers who are facing abuse from administration mainly because I come from a background where my family does housekeeping as well. They are in the same realm as the Duke workers. It’s hard leaving the dorm every morning to watch people taking care of these buildings because I can relate. I honestly feel really strongly about being here right now simply because I know this experience and I understand how difficult this can be for the workers. As Duke students, we should try our best to make this a better environment to work at.”

Do you think this protest isolates others that may not understand or agree with the situation?

“In the beginning I felt pretty uneducated. I knew what was basically happening through media like the Chronicle but was by no means an expert on the issue. I think when people outside of the space see social media and the noise that is coming from the protest, it’s easy to disengage with the entire situation and and say the protesters are shutting out people and being condescending. However, I definitely think there is a space for people who feel like they don’t necessarily have an opinion or disagree. People here are always willing to talk and explain the situation.”



Name: Jose and Jake     

Home: Washington and Pennsylvania

Year: Graduate students

Major/Minor/Certificate: Cultural Anthropology

Take away quote: “Our tax dollars are used for policing injustice.”


Why are you here?

“Duke is bleeding the Triangle dry. We both get paid by the university which is a huge reason why we are here—we have to confront our complicity. This is so much more deeper than Duke. Everyone’s tax is coming to pay the police that come here to block the people that are currently occupying the building in search for justice and are not going to arresting the person that committed the felony.”

What do you think of the critiques of this protest?

“The critiques are not engaging with the workers which what the entire struggle is about. If you have ever eaten or bought food on this campus,  you owe something to the workers. People can get mad at the protesters here, but the point is to get y’all thinking about the workers that help you out. Some students think that by paying for education into Duke, the professors or employees are obligated to do something. They don’t realize that workers are people that are working a job and aren’t actually being paid by tuition. Critics are not treating stakeholders in this issue with the dignity they deserve. A lot of the people have been getting mad that this protest is too delayed- but there is no proper time to alleviate trauma. People don’t just get over being unjustly treated.”



Name: Anastasia    

Home: Latvia

Year: Ph. D student in Literature and African & African American Studies

Take away quote: “I think we don’t realize the power we have to advance change. We have to see ourselves as part of a larger struggle.”


How do you see this protest ending?

“I don’t. When I look around I see the beginning of something and not the ending.

This is not a moment. I think we are building a larger movement that is not only nurturing solidarity between students, workers, faculty, and the larger Durham community—but one that is continuing a history of struggle against anti-black violence and institutional racism. It’s important to contextualize the campaign not only in terms of Duke’s activist history but the larger freedom movement and its history in the south. We should remember that throughout history, people who challenge authority have been cast through the margins. The perception of student protesters here is a manifestation of the usual tactics used to derail the problem—which is the oppression of black and brown service workers. #PowerToThePeople”

Do Duke workers and the Durham community really support your cause?

“Yes. With the Duke workers, we are in communication those who can’t be visible due to threats of termination and general culture of intimidation. We are involved in a conversation about strategy and collective vision. They are a part of all the dialogues, however they don’t have privilege that students have in voicing dissent. As for the Durham community we have had people like Zaina Alsous, Dante Strobino, and Jillian Johnson as representatives of the Durham community—people who are activists, spokespersons of worker unions in NC, and so on.”



Name: Felicia     

Home: North Carolina  

Year: Doctoral Candidate in Sociology

Take away quote: “As privileged people it’s not being ‘too sensitive’ about issues, it is being compassionate and sympathizing with individuals and figuring out how to address what has happened.”


What influenced you to be one of the leaders in this movement?

“I remember as an undergraduate pulling together a peaceful vigil for Trayvon Martin. I think about that as a moment where it was clear that though students on campus do care a lot of these issues, sometimes we reply a lot on group culture of ‘let’s get groups to sign on.’ However, how can you motivate as an individual? The things that are happening on campus is bigger than just this university and the workers that work here. We need to have this intentional conversation around what does it mean to be in this space both physically and emotionally. This is a student issue.”

People accused protesters of playing victim and being too easily offended.

I was in a state of shock when I read what happened in The Chronicle. How can one person do this, not feel responsibility for it, and even more, not be sanctioned for it? There’s always a place for people to be angry because these are injustices. There’s also a clear difference in this case between being easily offended and criminal offenses. What happened here was a felony and has shown that the laws aren’t protecting every person. Though you may not come from a high income family, by going to Duke, it allows students to operate with a lot of different privileges that workers don’t have. Our definitions of justice may be different than others and that’s okay—but at the same time, the workers are putting their own lives at risk in ways that we would never know. For them, to be able to stand up for this means they are in jeopardy of losing their jobs whereas students don’t have that issue.”



Thank you to all of the individuals who agreed to speak with us.