Rooted in History and Activism
Robert Korstad, Professor of Public Policy Studies and History, served as director of the Hart Leadership Program from 1995-2001. He was instrumental in the creation of Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) and the Hart Fellows Program. Bob also played a role in shaping the B.N. Duke Scholars and DukeEngage initiatives.
I knew I couldn’t teach my students what they needed to know in the classroom. They needed to get out and work with people, do things and engage with issues in ways they couldn’t through books, lectures, guest speakers, films, etc. They had to get their hands dirty. Students have the capacity for a lot more than sitting in class. They have the skills and the passion and the drive to work on projects. I did in college, and the professors that gave me a lot of leeway and believed in me made a big difference to me.
Engaging “young, savvy people”: ethics and experiential learning
Right from my first ethics courses, I had students working on projects that got them out of the classroom and engaged in ethical, moral, and political challenges in the community. One of the first things I had students work on was education in Durham County. At that point, the city and county schools were separated and you had a predominantly black city school system and a predominantly white county school system.
So I had Bill Bell, who became the mayor of Durham but was then the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, come and talk to my class. The students prepared, working in teams, and were questioning whether the school systems should be merged and if so, how? Their plans for merging the school systems were actually quite interesting. What was amazing was that, within three years, the County Commissioners and the General Assembly in fact merged the school systems. The proposals and everything they did mirrored almost exactly the work my students had done.
That was very encouraging for me, that you could get young, savvy people to use the research skills, talents and resources they had at Duke to really engage with public policy issues. That project-based class is the foundation for the way I teach, and I still do very similar things today.
I’m teaching a course on the history of poverty, with the students working in teams and doing reports based on interviews about the ways in which communities are fighting poverty in Orange and Durham counties. So, they’re studying the history, the background, the statistics and all the social science on poverty. Then they have to go out and apply it, and work with it in a way that will broaden their knowledge.
If they’re trying to understand how poor people in these counties get by, then they’ve got to go out and talk to the head of social welfare services and get an appreciation for how food stamps and housing subsidies can help support people who are in poverty. At first, students who grew up in middle- or upper-middle-class families can’t understand poverty policy or the complexity of how it affects people’s lives.
There are some things you can learn from reading a book, or from watching a film, or from manipulating a big data set which shows you correlations between factors. But there are a lot of other things, particularly about public policy issues, that people are actively engaged with and working on in the world. You’re not going to understand much about those if you don’t get your hands dirty somehow.
The best way to do that is to combine it with coursework. So students get an experiential component in my classes. That’s the way I’ve learned, and that’s the way I do research. Doing oral history work and having access to people really informs my work. Their memories and interpretations and understandings become really important to how I do my job as a scholar.
“Where was I going with my life?” Becoming an activist and a scholar
In 1971 when I graduated from college it looked like I was going to get drafted. A lot of my friends were going into the Army and a few of them got killed. I wasn’t a conscientious objector, I didn’t oppose the war for those reasons, but I don’t think I would have gone to the Army, because I was not going to be happy following orders.
The draft board drafted to #125 that December in Guilford County, and I was #127. So I was out. That was quite a relief. Because of the anxiety and uncertainty, I hadn’t planned to go to grad school. So I messed around in New England for a couple of years—I waited tables, I worked in bars, tried to start a couple of little businesses. I was a total failure at that, which was good to find out.
It was anxiety-producing because you know, what was I doing? Where was I going with my life? I couldn’t see a future laid out for me. It created a lot of anxiety but also a sense of freedom and experimentation.
I wouldn’t say it was an easy time, because having thought that I had my whole life planned out—I was going to be a lawyer, and a politician—and then having that fall apart was hard. But now I basically tell my students to take your 20s off. The life expectancy is going to give you those 10 years later in life, but you’re not going to have the energy or the drive or the time that you had in your 20s.
Afterwards, I decided to go to graduate school at the New School in New York. They had a graduate program in economics, with a track in political economy. It was primarily a place for studying Marxism and neo-Marxism. It was full of young people like me, who had come out of the student movement and the anti-war movement. We were looking for answers, we were trying to find better ways of understanding politics and why the world existed and operated in the way it did. It was easily the most intellectually engaging and stimulating place that I had been. I didn’t have any money, so I had to work, so during the day I watered plants in corporate America, and at night I studied Marx at the New School.
I had really taken a turn towards history by then. I knew so little history and had so little connection to the past as an activist. I felt that was really wrong, and that was a real limitation on our ability as activists to be effective.
At the New School, I got involved with a group called the Union for Radical Political Economics, and we held forums around the city. A lot of it involved going back and understanding the history of the regulation of cities and their relationship with financial structures. It was very cool that history was necessary to make sense of this past and communicate about what was going on in the present. I ended up writing my thesis much more on economic history than economic theory or applied economics.
After graduating, I took a research fellowship at Duke focused on civil rights activism, taught economics at North Carolina Central University, and then enrolled at UNC in the graduate History program. The UNC experience was fabulous because there was a group of young scholars who were thinking about the South. I got involved with the Southern Oral History Program, which my now-wife Jacquelyn created in the early 1970s. We started doing oral history interviews and looking at the history of workers in the South. We started filling in this knowledge void that my generation had about the history of activism in the South before the 1960s, a void created because anti-communism really silenced those people. We worked on recovering that history, those stories, in a way that could be useful.
I ended up writing a book with Jacquelyn and other students, on Southern textile workers. This book was a great collective experience—we were five graduate students, each taking responsibility for writing different parts. We read each other’s things and edited them, and produced a fabulous book that won all these prizes.
At the time, all my professors told me and my graduate school colleagues, “Don’t do something like this. Historians don’t do collaborative work. You do your own work, you go into your carrel and write your own books and put your own name on them. This is not going to get you anywhere.”
Well, all of us are full professors at really good universities and have written multiple prize-winning books since then. That kind of collaborative work certainly has carried over to everything I’ve done since then, especially in the ways in which I teach and the kinds of projects I have for students.
“How disingenuous and disrespectful is that?” Family influences
I run a DukeEngage program in Cape Town, South Africa, and I’m struck by the struggles of some of our students to adapt to being a white privileged person in a country that’s majority black. Most of those black people in Cape Town are poor and disadvantaged and don’t have access to an education. And students feel guilty, they don’t know what to make of it.
It reminds me of times I would talk to my father, a labor organizer, and he would tell me stories and lessons. Here’s one: He had these middle-class leftist friends he was working with, doing labor organizing. They would go live in a house, in the most downtrodden part of town. And they would have work clothes on, trying to get down with the workers.
He would say to them, “How disingenuous and disrespectful is that? When the workers come to a meeting, they might have been working all day but they’ve got a coat and tie on. You don’t come to that meeting looking down on them and trying to be poor yourself when you’re not.”
My parents always taught by their comments about the world around them.
They hardly ever sat me down and had a conversation. But they were always commenting on what that person said, or how that person looked, or something on television, a kind of constant commentary about the world.
I grew up in a South that was deeply segregated and prejudiced in terms of class, race and gender, and that just seemed to me to be a poison. It seemed to be a limitation on what the society, the world and the state could be, and what kind of opportunities the world could have for people.
The first time I started drawing on the political understanding of my parents was in high school when I was on the debate team. The topic that year was foreign aid. It was 1966, we were just getting into the war in Vietnam and foreign aid became a real issue. My partner and I built our whole case around giving foreign aid and supporting the North Vietnamese as the real inheritors of democratic traditions.
We got into the state tournament, and the judges went ballistic. They said, “Well, you were the best debaters, but this is totally un-American, and this is treason.” They just went crazy at us, and my debate coach screamed at them and took us out of the award ceremony.
One of my books, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South, is a look at the Southern union movement and my father’s efforts to save the Local 22 union at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company plant in Winston-Salem. The union experience was the high point of my father’s life in many ways. He talked about it all the time, and he drew lessons from those days that he tried to pass on to my brother and me.
Sending surrogates to work on issues: leadership programs
Leading and working with these Hart Leadership programs satisfied my own desire to be out doing that kind of stuff myself. I couldn’t do that in the way I could before — given the demands of my job and the need to do research, write, and publish. But I could have these “surrogates” going out there and raising hell and working on issues of poverty and homelessness. And, I understood how under-resourced so many nonprofits were, particularly ones that were working on social justice issues. And to be able to send three or four students to an organization for a summer, as bright and as talented as these students were, I knew would make a difference.
And every year, I’ve been proven right.
A lot of the things I’ve done have been a response to my own limited opportunities when I was in school. I spent my summers not on DukeEngage but working in Greensboro. It wasn’t very stimulating, it wasn’t good for me, and in fact it was really bad for me in a lot of ways. When I lead a DukeEngage in Cape Town, and see the work these students do in eight weeks, and the friendships they make and the exposure they get — I think, that would’ve made me a different person. Man, I wish I’d had something like that when I graduated.
Interns in Conscience was started back in the late 1980s with HLP professor Bruce Payne. It was all self-funded, and when I took over as head of the Hart Leadership Program, people were having a hard time continuing to do that. It was a tremendous amount of work to raise enough money each year. At the same time, Scott Cooper, one of my former students, worked in the office with me and helped create the SOL program. At that point it was called Summer Opportunities in Leadership.
We knew that students needed some preparation, and they weren’t getting it through their formal classes. They also wanted to work on social issues or more political issues than the internships that were offered by the Public Policy department. Right before HLP Professor Neil Boothby left to work for Save the Children, he was involved in creating the Refugee Action Project, which organized humanitarian aid trips abroad.
Eventually Alma came and started teaching here. We needed a model of preparation through traditional coursework, and the model she created was exactly what we wanted to happen. Then those two programs merged together—the Refugee Action Project and Summer Opportunities in Leadership— to become Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL).
In addition to having the SOL program come together, colleague Kirk Felsman and I created the Hart Fellows Program to put post-graduates in the field for a year to work on humanitarian issues, particularly centered on children and refugees. There were two things that motivated us. First, appreciating just how under-resourced NGOs were, especially those working on refugee and children’s issues, and recognizing that having students there for a short period of time could really benefit them. Second, we realized how difficult it was for students who were interested in working on these issues internationally to get their foot in the door. They needed either advanced degrees or field training — you couldn’t just graduate with a B.A. and then go work for Save the Children.
I stay in touch with these initial Hart Fellows today. They are high-flying people, in the State Department and in the UN—it’s just amazing. All of them will tell you, “Having that one-year experience got me into a great graduate program that eventually got me this job.”
The model we created in 1995, right here in Sanford, informed the development of the SOL program, the B.N. Duke Scholars, and the Robertson Scholars, and eventually became one germ that helped create DukeEngage. Each is built on a foundation of student engagement—what students can take from these experiences, and what they can contribute to organizations, individuals and communities around the world.
“I like to see other people succeed”—reflections
I’m comfortable and happy with what I’ve done. Teaching is pretty satisfying. It’s incredible to see former students like Katie Higgins Hood, who taught the Women as Leaders course, and Amy Hepburn who led the Felsman Program on Children in Adversity. I like to see other people succeed.
There’s a seriousness about those students that I think was developed and nourished here. We took them seriously and expected them to take themselves seriously.
I try to push students to think critically about issues and to look at things from many different perspectives, not taking the easy way out. There’s rarely an easy answer to any of these issues.
Teaching ethics makes me think of wisdom as a value that’s really important to leadership. Because you’re sitting there reading these wise old men and women, and thinking about the complicated ways in which they tried to understand the world, and what’s right and wrong. It makes you realize how self-reflective and thoughtful you have to be to understand the world and understand how to impact it. And it’s not something you can teach outright. It’s something people gain over time.
When I get students in my ethics class, I ask them, “Where do your values come from?” I push students to find out where in the process they are of forming their own value systems. Even though students might profess pretty liberal or progressive views on things, most students share many of the traditional stereotypes that they think they don’t have. When they realize this discrepancy, they’re a little shocked. They have to think hard about what their values are and where their perspectives come from. How have they evolved, how did they develop, how have their own family and experiences influenced them?
If you want to be a good policy person or public servant, you have to always be looking critically at yourself and the way you understand the world, before you go out and try to shape it.
What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?
A core concept I communicate with my students is an appreciation for determination. It’s a commitment. Making the world a better place becomes a life mission. It’s not something ephemeral that you can dabble in here and there. If you are serious about being a leader, then being engaged in the society you live in requires a commitment, and your determination to honor that commitment becomes a core value. A belief in democracy, or equity—there are a lot of values that people can espouse—that they might believe in strongly—but those don’t resonate with people unless they have a real commitment to see them realized.READ MORE