Hart Fellows in the Field: Continued Community Engagement During COVID-19

The Hart Fellows Program provides recent Duke graduates with the opportunity to partner with community-based organizations for a 10-month immersive experience, where fellows conduct community based participatory research projects in collaboration with their host organizations, while simultaneously developing their own understanding of ethical leadership as they encounter social and political complexities that may arise through the course of their work. The current pandemic has transformed the nature of work and community engagement for all of us. For our current Hart Fellows in the field, it has meant finding novel ways to connect with their organizations and the communities they serve.

Sujal Manohar (T’20) is working with Imagine Art, an arts non-profit based in Austin, Texas that serves all artists, but with a particular emphasis on artists with disabilities. Sujal co-teaches a virtual drawing class three days a week. While the beginning of the year focused on teaching basic skills and art techniques, she has transitioned to helping the artists develop their own artistic style, setting the stage for them to potentially start their own businesses. “I think it’s a really cool mission and the way that [Imagine Art] is using the arts to uplift the artists they serve to help them gain confidence and autonomy and find community through the arts is great!” Whether it’s providing feedback on a current art project or advice on how to plan out future art pieces, Sujal is able to provide one-to-one instruction and mentorship to her students. For her community-based research project, Sujal is conducting interviews with artists to understand barriers to supported employment and starting arts businesses, while helping Imagine Art improve programming.

Prior to beginning her fellowship with Imagine Art, Sujal had the opportunity to visit before they had to close down due to the pandemic. The experience and environment of the studio was very different than the virtual format that they have since adapted to. However, the artists and the instructors that make up the Imagine Art community has been able to persevere through this pandemic and pivot to providing art instruction via Zoom and similar virtual platforms. “Before coming into this year, I had my doubts and concerns about virtual instruction, especially working with people with a different range of cognitive abilities, and for whom accessing technology doesn’t really come naturally” states Sujal, “but I think it’s been going quite well! Drawing and visual art lends itself fairly well to Zoom. Students can hold up their drawings on screen and receive direct feedback.”

For Tyler Kopp (T’20), starting off their internship remotely presented some challenges. Their community organization, Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA) is a Mexico-based grassroots organization that has been around for about five years with the purpose to be a space, mainly by and for the returned and deported community in Mexico. They provide support and mentorship for deported individuals who have been living for long periods of time outside of Mexico. Tyler has been working with one of ODA’s initiatives, Retorno Digno (Dignified Return), which provides recently deported individuals with resources and support services to rebuild their life in Mexico. Part of Tyler’s work is a monthly conversation with individuals in the program, but without ever meeting them in person, it can be difficult to build a relationship and establish trust. “You’re talking and can kind of tell they’re like ‘I don’t really know this person, so why am I talking with them?” states Tyler, “So it’s definitely different to connect with the people you’re working with from a distance.”

Earlier this year, Tyler finally received the opportunity to travel to Mexico City and work with ODA and the communities they serve. “Coming here was such a big change because being in the same time zone and city makes a huge difference” says Tyler, “being here makes me feel much more connected to the things I’m doing and the people I’m working with.” Time and distance have positively impacted Tyler’s experience with ODA. At the beginning of the fellowship, Tyler was working on one specific project. As time progressed, their responsibilities have increased, allowing them to feel more like a dedicated staff member at ODA.

For both our fellows, finding ways to decompress and enjoy their personal time has been very important. Sujal has been experimenting with fun recipes, even learning from her grandma in India via virtual cooking sessions. Tyler has taken full advantage of the amazing cuisine that Mexico has to offer. They often visits Mercado de Medellín, where he scores delicious fruits and vegetables for their recipes.