By Hua Wang • September 12, 2011•Writers in Residence
Donna Lisker is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at Duke University. A proud Philadelphian, Donna received her BA from Williams College and her MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She teaches a freshman seminar on gender and sports, is a pre-major adviser and is the founder and co-director of the Baldwin Scholars, a four-year women’s leadership program. Donna has been a competitive rower since college and currently rows with the Carolina Masters in Chapel Hill.
Hua Wang: How do you define an activist?
Donna Lisker: An activist is someone who moves from passively supporting an issue with his or her mind to actively supporting the issue with his or her time, labor, or money. An activist takes the next step in translating his or her ideals into action.
HW: What is your academic focus?
DL: My doctorate is in English but my focus is in women’s writing and feminist theory. I am interested in gender issues because I have always been aware, even as a young child, of the ways in which girls and women were treated differently. I grew up in a traditional household where my sister and I were expected to do the housework while my brothers were given a free pass on all the household chores. I knew that it wasn’t fair and I would complain. I had the privilege of going to an all-girls high school, and this increased my interest in the ways women interact in a male society.
HW: What is your most rewarding public service experience?
DL: The work itself is very satisfying. I work with individuals who have been negatively affected by sexual violence. It is so rewarding to see people who were fragile and scared, and over time, who learn to integrate their experiences into their lives and to emerge stronger and more powerful.
HW: When did you become an activist?
DL: In college, I was on the crew team and did not have time to volunteer. During graduate school, however, I volunteered at a rape crisis center and ran a support group for many years. After graduate school, I was lucky to find jobs that combined academics with activism.
HW: Is it difficult to find jobs that combine academics with activism?
DL: In the feminist community, you are either involved in academic feminism or in activist work—the two are rarely integrated. The Baldwin Scholars program, on the other hand, offers me the perfect combination of academic community and grassroots work with students. It is the ideal job for me.
HW: What are you passionate about?
DL: I am still angry that things are not fair and that women have to think about their safety all the time. A guy can wake up at 2 am and decide to take a walk, while a woman in her right mind would never do such a thing. There is a certain amount of freedom that we extend to males and not to females. So much needs to be done to change the hearts of people and to create a more equal world.
HW: How can Duke play a better role in linking academics with activism?
DL: The Duke administration does not want a big gap between what you learn in the classroom and what you do in your extracurricular activities. In Women’s Studies, African and African American Studies, and other interdisciplinary programs, students are encouraged to link what they learn in the classroom with their life experiences. Many alumni of these departments become involved in social action. The real challenge is that some departments need to do a better job of linking academics with activism. If you are a chemistry or history major, for example, you have a more difficult time of using what you learned in the classroom to help other people.
HW: How do you think Duke students can play a more active role in the world?
DL: Many people at Duke do not understand their privileged upbringing. Generally speaking, Duke students are a wealthy population (60% of Duke students get no financial aid because they don’t need it). We need to give these students enough experiences to understand the responsibilities that come with the privileges, and to instill a sense that life is not just about getting the investment banking or consulting job or making big bucks. Before a person can become an activist, he or she needs to feel strongly about something and identify his or her interests, values, and passions.
HW: How do you break the Duke bubble?
DL: Duke students work very hard to present a certain image that they are doing well academically, that they come from good homes, and that they are on the track to a profitable job. Students who are struggling often keep their problems hidden because there is too much discomfort and they are afraid to share their stories.
The Counseling Center has a long waiting list each semester. 30% of students enter Duke already on anti-depressant medicine such as Prozac. This is the flip side of the Duke culture. Duke students need to realize that not everyone goes from a smooth path of high school achievement to Duke to a high paying job.
We need to profile alumni who are running crisis centers or contributing to the public good. We need to celebrate not just Grant Hill or Carlos Boozer but also those who are fabulous activists. Maybe after 9/11 there will be greater recognition of those who influence society in positive ways.
HW: Describe the role of mentors in your life.
DL: My high school English teacher, my rowing coach, and my colleagues have served as my mentors. I have an interesting career projection in that I have worked mostly with female bosses.
HW: How do you get mentors?
DL: I did not go looking for mentors. There were people in my life who I decided to cultivate and they decided to cultivate me. For me, mentoring relationships were always spontaneous and developed naturally.
HW: Do you plan out your life?
DL: In college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. In grad school, I wanted to be an English professor. After volunteer work, I applied (on a lark) for a job at the women’s center. When I got the job, my life took an unexpected and wonderful turn.
My husband has a student who has a ten-year plan. He’s a lovely boy, but a part of me hopes that his plan doesn’t work out the way he expects. It would be a boring life if everything happened according to plan. There is nothing wrong with planning but too much planning can become a problem because it doesn’t allow you to follow your passions. Instead of planning, it would be more beneficial to examine your own motives. What would you do for free? Would you paint, read, or play sports? I know tons of people in their 30s who are ex-lawyers and who are not passionate about the law. Law school is an expensive mistake, so it pays to take the time to figure out who you are.
HW: How can a student take a more active role?
DL: Tell us what you are interested in. We can point you to existing programs, including Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Women in Science and Engineering, or a Sexual Assault Support Group. We can also help students make ideas happen by offering seed money and support. We are interested in projects that match our general mission and goals—if you want to start a Playboy Bunnies Club, for example, we are definitely not going to support you.