Two weeks before a new President took the oath of office in Washington, on a day known to Christians as epiphany, I was driving west out of Savannah Georgia on Interstate 15, having spent the previous day helping citizens who needed rides vote in the Georgia runoff election. When I received a text from my best friend, a Congressman from Maryland, who told me that he was OK but was still locked down at the U.S. Capitol, then still under siege, I realized just how perilously fragile life and democracy are in this pandemic moment. The previous day I had worn, along with fifteen Durham voting rights activists, KN-95 masks all day when providing citizens rides to the polls. But no mask could save us from the virus of white supremacy or the violence committed by its adherents in the name of democracy.
As a student of democracy and history, I take comfort from knowing that, however unprecedented the attacks on the U.S. Capitol may feel, the conflicts that have brought us to this moment are not new but as old as this thing we call democracy. Political violence enacted in the name of democracy may be un-American, but it has been part of this nation’s history with consistent regularity. Fortunately, unlike the rioters in Wilmington, NC in 1898 who stole an election and forced black citizens out of their homes and the offices they had fairly earned, the rioters at the US Capitol were unsuccessful in overturning the results of our hard-fought election. But the violence raises vexing questions about the future of democracy as we know it. What will leadership look like in 2021? What is required of us as citizens at this perilous moment?
We are fortunate to have the opportunity to forge answers to those important questions collaboratively at the Hart Leadership Program with an extraordinary cohort of Duke students, dedicated teachers, and community partners committed to tackling systemic injustices. This spring we look forward first to launching a new cohort of SOL students under the leadership of Associate Director Lalita Kaligotla, students whose aspirations, passions, and willingness to learn by listening to community partners will continue to set an example of what transformative leadership looks like in practice. They will be joined by a new cohort of PEP (Political Engagement Project) fellows, who like their SOL counterparts will embark on a leadership mission that puts deep canvassing, “learning by doing,” reflection, and innovation at the heart of their story. They will be collaborating with a larger Bass Teams cohort studying “Elections in a Pandemic” under Director Gunther Peck’s leadership to create and publish a “How to Citizen” guide for young citizens this coming spring, researching and reflecting upon how inspiring young people have learned to listen, lead, and organize one another in this recent election.
Relationship-based learning, reflection, and innovation – these three practices form the backbone to a new initiative we are leading at HLP known as The Democracy Lab. More than a capstone course for PPS majors, the Democracy Lab seeks to use project-based learning and community-based research to help students and partners learn, together, what enduring change and leadership look like. In all of these endeavors, we are also excited to be able to hire two new endowed Professors of the Practice within the HLP this spring, an opportunity created by the remarkable generosity and leadership of our benefactors Mitch and Linda Hart. We have many reasons to be engaged, inspired, and hopeful as we look forward in 2021. We urge you to join us and become involved with the exciting work of the Hart Leadership Program
Gunther Peck, Director of The Hart Leadership Program