Celebrating the Contributions of Outgoing Adjunct Professor and Associate Director Lalita Kaligotla

Professor Lalita Kaligotla, who joined the Hart Leadership Program (HLP) in January 2019, is departing Duke to join the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta as Professor of the Practice and  Senior Director for Leadership and Engagement. During her tenure at the HLP, Lalita has helped build the program’s focus on community-based research and encouraged students to engage deeply with their leadership practice. We conducted an interview with Lalita to showcase the compassionate and creative approach to leadership development that she brought to Hart.

What is your leadership philosophy?

I would describe my leadership philosophy as democratic and inclusive. I am not a big believer of hierarchical models of leadership. I think leadership is very much a shared endeavor – an active and participatory process. Leadership is not some lofty ideal that only some are capable of. I think each of us has the potential to lead in different ways and that we can accomplish shared goals collectively. 

What classes did you teach as part of HLP? What are some of your teaching philosophies?

During my time at HLP, I primarily taught two classes – the gateway course in the SOL program – “Border Crossing: Leadership, Value Conflicts and Public Life” and a seminar course in the fall semester, “Lead the Way Durham: Civic Engagement, Social Innovation and Community Leadership in the Bull City.” 

I loved teaching both classes, but Lead the Way is special to me, as I believe deeply in the purpose of this course. The mission was to help students think more broadly about democratic participation and leadership – considering their positionality within Duke and Durham as a catalyst for seeking change. I hoped to create a vision of citizenship as going beyond simply participating in the political process to actually engaging in material and meaningful ways with the communities that we are a part of. I found this class particularly exciting and rewarding because it was as much of a learning opportunity for me as I believed it was for the students. 

I would describe my pedagogical philosophy in a similar way to my approach to leadership – I am continually searching for avenues towards co-learning and co-teaching. Who I am as a person, and what I believe in is a big part of how I teach, and similarly, I encourage my students to bring their whole selves – their lived experiences, their passions, aspirations, and skills into the classroom, and make it an integral part of their learning. Teaching and learning are much more enriching and rewarding when there is mutuality. 

How has community-based research impacted your leadership practice?

Community based work – both research and service, is the backbone of my work. Being connected with community is a big part of my personal practice and my professional endeavors. In my personal life, I have always been an active volunteer with organizations in the communities that I have lived in, through neighborhood groups, with the schools my children attended, and through institutions I have worked at. Incorporating community engagement and experiential learning has been a big part of my pedagogical approach as well. I firmly believe that we learn best by doing and it is vitally important for us to connect with a diverse range of people. I have found that organizations and institutions sometimes lead us into becoming siloed within our disciplinary areas and/or our comfort zones and it is important to cross these siloes so we may keep learning and growing – be that at a personal level or in the professional realm. I think that the essence of leadership is to keep seeking opportunities for learning and growth and I have felt this essence most strongly through community engagement.  

Can you describe what it was like to forge relationships with Durham organizations through courses like Lead the Way: Durham and SOL?

Forging relationships with partners in Durham – be it with organizations, or with individual members of the community, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my work at HLP and of my time here in Durham. I have met so many interesting people that are doing such important work to make Durham the incredible city that it is. It has been fascinating to learn about their work and where possible to collaborate and work alongside them as a fellow citizen of this amazing city. It has also been wonderful to bring these members of the community into the classroom so Duke students could hear from them, have opportunities to engage with them and learn from them. From Durham City Council Member, Jillian Johnson to Mayor Schewel to community partners like Syretta Hill of StepUp Durham and other leaders and entrepreneurs in Durham, they have all been generous with their time and gracious in their willingness to share their experiences and expertise with students… I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. I will dearly miss all these amazing people and feel gratified that I was able to play a part during my time here, to help Duke students step beyond the campus bubble and learn about the history of this amazing city and connect with the broader community in Durham that we all are a part of. 

How does leading students in reflective writing practices and community work strengthen their leadership?

As I have said before, trying to fully engage with the communities that I am a part of has been hugely important to me. In reflecting on why this is, I find that it goes back to me being an immigrant. I grew up in India and came to the United States in my early 20s and attended graduate school here. At first it was like being a stranger in a strange land, and when we encounter a new situation or a new experience, it is most comforting for us to fall back towards what is familiar and comfortable, and it was the same as an immigrant. You can stay within groups that offer comfort and familiarity or you can choose to put yourself in places where you are encountering new people, new experiences and learning new things. This can sometimes be a little uncomfortable, because you have an accent, or you are not familiar with local customs and traditions, etc. But then, at the risk of being slightly uncomfortable, you also learn a lot and have lots of fun (or at least I did!). Each time I have moved to a new place, I have tried to do exactly that – learn as much as I could about this new place and tried to integrate into the community. This has helped me become aware of and appreciate diverse perspectives, learn fascinating and important details about the history of different places and how this history shapes the present. It has also helped me become ever more empathetic towards the experiences of others. I think empathy and willingness to learn are a big part of leadership development. Regarding reflective practice, be it writing or some other form of reflection, it is useful for us to intentionally engage in it, so we are able to evaluate and have clarity about our purpose and the actions that we need to take each day to put that purpose into practice. 

What was your favorite part of working with the HLP?

Hands down, the students! I have loved every minute of the time I have spent with students. I always feel energized when I talk to students. As I have shared with my students before, I find that the students that I have had the good fortune to encounter are an incredible combination of strength and vulnerability. They are all idealistic, driven and are committed to making the world a better place. At the same time, they are also still trying to figure things out – things that are important to them, how they fit into the world, and exactly how they can make a difference. It has been amazing to share a small part of their journey with each of them. I will forever be grateful that our paths crossed. I am also grateful for the many colleagues across Sanford and at Duke who have been so collaborative and supportive. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to give a special shout out to my HLP colleagues – they truly made working at HLP fun! 

Do you have a parting message for HLP students going forward?

With apologies in advance to the students who have already heard this from me a million times and borrowing a phrase from the great community organizer, Grace Lee Boggs, my message to students is: “you are the leaders we need!” I am filled with great optimism for our future every time I talk to students – you all inspire me every day and make me excited about going to work! 

If you don’t mind sharing, what role are you transitioning into now as you depart the HLP?

I will be transitioning to the role of Professor of the Practice and Senior Director for Leadership and Engagement at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University. I’m looking forward to the next set of adventures at Emory University and in Atlanta! 

Hart Director Gunther Peck reflected on Lalita’s leadership contributions at a recent farewell party for her. “Lalita has brought the core values within the Hart Leadership Program – leading by listening, forging community-based partnerships, and amplifying the inspiring work of our students – to every part of her work and leadership over the past two and a half years. Duke has become a better institution, and the HLP a more dynamic leadership program, because of Lalita.” We are very excited for her as she moves to Emory and know that the School of Nursing will benefit from the same dedication and energy she brought to the HLP.

To honor Professor Kaligotla, the Hart Leadership Program asked members of the Duke community to share with us how she has impacted their lives. You can check out the video tribute below: