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Senior Service Project Shines Light on Value of Common Humanity

Story by Jordan Adair, Upper School English Teacher

I remember sitting at a table on the second floor of the Durham County Main Public Library a couple of days after visiting the Northside neighborhood in Chapel Hill and writing in my journal: 

“The walking tour was fascinating for what I learned about a part of Chapel Hill, a place I’ve been blissfully ignorant of for all of my 26 years living here. I’ve driven by Northside hundreds of times traversing Rosemary Street on my way into and out of Chapel Hill. Not once did I turn down one of those side streets out of curiosity. Had I done that, I would have found a neighborhood rich in history that locals in the community are preserving, one tour at a time.”

This walking tour was just one part of a multi-phase service project that 18 Durham Academy seniors participated in over four days this past August in the runup to the beginning of school (fellow English teacher Jeff Biersach helped me chaperone). To say that the experience was transformative for many of them would be an understatement. For some, like Chaz Strickland, the Senior Service Project “was an experience that I will not soon forget.” For Sophie Goin, “the focus on intergenerational connections was something I hadn’t experienced before, and it gave me the chance to interview someone about their life that was truly special.” 

But I get ahead of myself. Unbeknownst to many, the Senior Service Project has a long history at DA as an alternative to Senior Challenge, the five-day outdoor education trip that has for many years been a rite of passage for DA seniors. The goal of the Senior Service Project is for students to engage with the local Durham community and build empathy and understanding in the process. Anne McNamara, the Upper School’s community service coordinator, and others have implemented a series of service opportunities over the years that have included traveling to the Appalachian town of Ivanhoe, Virginia, where students worked in the community on a variety of projects, and volunteering with TROSA, the Durham Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity. 

More recently, DA began an association with the Triangle Nonprofit and Volunteer Leadership Center that has resulted in a whole host of experiences, many of them centered on learning about poverty in Durham. In those experiences, DA students observed Durham Civil Court proceedings, planned meals on a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) budget, learned about a proposed misdemeanor diversion program (now in place), financial literacy and the resources available at the public library for homeless teens. It was also at the library that students were tasked with creating an infographic to serve as an awareness builder for the community.

DA partnered with the Triangle Nonprofit and Volunteer Leadership Center again for the fall 2021 Senior Service Project. Over four days in late August, 18 DA seniors embarked on an oral history project that would result in some of the most essential experiences they’ve had in their years at the Upper School and help them make intergenerational connections with members of the local community — all older Americans with fascinating stories to tell. 

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Kim Shaw, the center’s executive director, and Becca Fiely, the center’s development and community outreach manager, introduced the group to the project on our first day. The following two days involved the heavy lifting for the project. Each pair of students was matched with a local resident about whom they knew virtually nothing at the start. Over the following two days and using the training that the center provided, they researched social context clues in order to get some basic information about the era in which their subject had grown up before conducting their interview. 

Becca then took the group through what was essentially “Interviewing 101,” the basics of gathering an oral history. Topics included: preparing for the interview, interviewing do’s and don’ts, active listening and interviewing tips, virtual etiquette, sample oral history questions, and a sample interview. After this introduction, each pair scheduled the time for their interview and conducted it remotely in one of the classrooms in the STEM & Humanities Center. Once they had finished the initial interview, the seniors read back through the answers to their questions and began to organize the short memoir they would write, edit and polish. The finished product was then bound and delivered to the person they’d interviewed. 

Voices of the Past

Two other experiences bookended this wonderful oral history project, both of which broadened our students’ understanding of the local communities of Durham and Chapel Hill. The aforementioned Northside neighborhood “soundwalk” took place on Monday after Becca’s introductory lessons. Though it was a typically warm and muggy August North Carolina day, that didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the students or dent the impact of the lessons they learned. 

Our walk began and ended at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, an organization dedicated to preserving historically Black neighborhoods in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Using their smartphones, students streamed audio recordings that accompanied their walk through the neighborhood. We stopped along the way as our leader, Jackson Center education coordinator Aisha Booze-hall, pointed out historic landmarks and identified some of Northside’s most notable residents. This “soundwalk” brought to life some of the voices of the past, highlighting often the role some of them played in the larger civil rights movement or in local political activities that sought to call attention to the systemic injustices African American residents had to routinely endure. One young generation now had a rich connection to an older one.

A New Home for Stories

On our last day together, we all traveled to North Roxboro Street and the Durham County Main Library. This stunning structure, a $44.3 million newly renovated building, sits on the site of the old library and has 100,000 feet of glass-infused, light-rich open space across four floors. The history of public libraries in Durham goes back to 1898 when the first library opened, and it has been a going concern ever since. Its mission is “to encourage discovery, connect the community, lead in literacy” and strive “to empower and enrich the Durham community through a wide and diverse range of library services, programming, and collections.”

The purpose of this trip for our students was to give them a direct introduction to some of the services the city of Durham provides to its residents and to highlight the importance of libraries as centers for education, outreach and literacy. Our students were given an extensive tour of the library and had the chance to see the capabilities of a state-of-the art facility. I was awestruck by its beauty and serenity, and I think our students were as well. 

Upon our return to DA that afternoon, students were given a chance to finish editing their memoirs before gathering together one final time to debrief the four days of this service project. I know from my conversations with a number of those who participated that they took away both subtle and more obvious lessons from the experience. Chief among those lessons was a greater appreciation for the lives of those in the communities that surround DA. In addition, they got a first-hand opportunity to conduct an oral history interview, craft the story of that person’s life and make a connection that they otherwise would not have been able to make.

Both Jeff and I also gained an appreciation for what he characterized as the “maturity, composure and sense of purpose” our students demonstrated over the four days of this Senior Service Project. We all came to understand the challenges those of an older generation have had to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic — the isolation, disconnection and disorientation that inevitably accompanies such a moment. And yet, this project brought together in these divisive times a diverse group of young and old to celebrate what ties us all together: our common humanity.  

Photography Courtesy of Jordan Adair // Illustration by Sarah Jane Tart