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By Zoë Macomber ’24

woman with long hair, smiling, mountains in distance
Zoë Macomber ’24

Why am I here? What do I do while I am here?

These are questions that have haunted me since a young age… and they are questions that the conference Good Reason: Purpose and Public Policy addressed head on.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Sanford School for Public Policy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, began with Dean Judith Kelly’s rousing opening remarks: “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”

We, Duke students, do work for a reason. We get up for class. We study for a reason. We have 10-year plans. We visualize success. But what is The Reason? Why do we do what we do en route toward our idea of success?

Hopefully, The Reason is good. But that begs the question: What is good? How do I get there if “there” isn’t a destination but a way of being?

Good Reason answered these questions in its title—we live our lives to do good. How that happens is another question.

Themes quickly became apparent as participants grappled with the meaning of their life’s work: “intentional listening,” “find common ground,” “lead with curiosity across lines of difference,” “create trust with the community.” Over and over panelists and speakers concurred: The way of doing good is to listen and work in community.

Interesting differences arose as well. Panelists disagreed about the pace of work—how can slow and thoughtful work address urgent needs?! As much as speakers agreed that listening is an integral aspect of working for the good, they were dispersed across a range of conclusions about what role listening plays.

Keynote speaker Van Jones passionately argued for the value of doing over talking: “95% of the reason why change doesn’t happen is that people talk about doing instead of doing.” Once you’ve identified your form of good, rooted yourself in the community, built trust and communication, DO good. Don’t wait. Don’t talk. Do.

I take Van Jones’ point to heart—we ought not simply to talk—but I think the simple assertion that doing is better than talking misses the nuances of who is talking. Who is listening? Discussing “Working for Good on Purpose,” a panelist emphasized this advice, stating: “If you aren’t intentional about listening, you will just reinforce your own silos.”

Who am I listening to? Who are you? Who’s talking in the spaces we inhabit?

As we work for our own reasons, are we moving blindly ahead with the sense that going somewhere is reason enough…or are we considering The Reason that calls us to work?

Zoë Macomber is a first-year Trinity student anticipating a Program II studying the intersection of environmental policy, economics and behavioral science with an emphasis on urban studies. She is also co-founder and co-director of the Duke Initiative for Urban Studies, which examines the role of urban spaces in human society through research, education and engagement across Duke’s schools.

Good Reason Resources