Creating Community

Donnel Baird
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March 31, 2002

 

Donnel Baird

Baird: took a look at what was lacking.

Donnel Baird is hardly one to sit back when he sees something wrong. Whether he's co-chairing Duke's Martin Luther King Jr. Day committee or helping local youth basketball leagues find student coaches through FIELDS (Fundraising Initiatives In Enterprising Leadership in Durham Sports), Baird, a junior, speaks his mind and does while others talk.

Baird first became involved with FIELDS through the organization's co-founder Adam Grossman, a senior. Grossman originally established FIELDS to renovate the Little League fields in Durham. The organization got off to a quick start last year when it received a $15,000 grant from Major League Baseball; FIELDS hopes to raise $300,000 by next April.

After they became friends through a class, Baird learned about FIELDS. He told Grossman he didn't like baseball, but would be interested in coaching basketball. The two created a new basketball wing of FIELDS, with Baird as its coordinator.

Working with leagues set up by the Durham Parks and Recreation Board, he asked fraternity members and other Duke students to be coaches. "I was really overwhelmed and shocked by the responsiveness of Duke students," says Baird, who estimates fifty people replied almost immediately after he sent out letters to e-mail lists soliciting volunteers.

Says Grossman, "Donnel is one of the most thoughtful and analytical people I have met here at Duke. He is a terrific leader who is fully dedicated to enhancing the lives of Durham's children, and he has been a valuable leader for FIELDS."

Last semester, in addition to coordinating the basketball program, Baird coached. "It was great to get off campus, to see the kids. It was real rewarding," he says. His team, made up of eight-year-old girls from St. John's Church in Durham, hadn't won any games during the regular season. "I don't know where all these other coaches found all these little eight-year-old ringers who are going straight to the WNBA," he says. "There were girls [on other teams] shooting threes, and nailing them. I couldn't shoot a three until I was in seventh grade."

Under Baird's charge, the St. John girls improved, winning their first two playoff games before being eliminated by the number-one ranked team.

He has had other successes this year as well, most recently with the undergraduate Martin Luther King Jr. Day committee. After a Duke Student Government official asked him to co-chair the student committee responsible for planning the weekend's events, Baird says he decided to use a different approach.

Before, he says, "the event was de-politicized and really very much the opposite of what Dr. King would have wanted. I wanted to bring back the more radical Dr. King. Not the kind of thing you see in the Cingular cell phone commercials, but the Dr. King who spoke out against Vietnam."

Previous celebrations were filled with "a bunch of singing and dancing--and not even singing relevant music," he says. "We'd have an MLK extravaganza and people would be up there singing N'Sync. What does that have to do with anything?"

In his effort to politicize the weekend, Baird and his committee organized a series of events designed to "take a serious look at Duke and be critical of Duke, as well as to celebrate MLK, because I think the two go hand-in-hand." Among those events was a lecture from a psychologist on the biological effects of racism and how the stress that racism engenders affects physiology.

Other activities included video presentations in Durham elementary schools, community service with local seniors, a community forum with representatives from the Edgemont Community Center, a cultural extravaganza featuring junior Richard McCrae reading King's first speech against Vietnam, and a speech delivered by controversial "Boondocks" cartoonist Aaron McGruder, an outspoken critic of America's "war on terrorism."

Says Baird, "Dr. King's coming out against the Vietnam War was very unpopular. We picked McGruder because of his voice, his voice crying out in the wilderness."

The weekend also featured a panel discussion "on how King's notion of community differed from ours," as Baird puts it.

"I wanted to take a look at our idea of community as it related to Dr. King's idea of community and take a look at how closely Duke was to being a community. I think we're a far cry away from making a true campus community."