Paul Holmbeck '83

Durham's Dane
June 1, 2004
Paul Holmbeck '83

 Photo: Jim Wallace


Denmark is no place for a social lobbyist. That was the thought Paul Holmbeck had when he arrived there ten years ago--after marrying a Danish woman--to find that somebody had already come through lobbying and reforming and generally bettering the place, and giving no thought to future generations who would have no streets to clean up or hungry mouths to feed.

"There was no poverty," he recalls. "People's basic needs were all taken care of. They had housing. They had jobs." In short, things were just fine, and Holmbeck, accustomed to an abundance of inequalities and injustices in the United States, found himself, for the first time in his life, without a cause. "I said to myself, 'There's no use for me here.'"

Holmbeck missed Durham. There had been plenty of use for him there. After graduating, he'd spent eight years working with local residents in the neighborhoods bordering Duke on housing issues and health and drug problems.

"It was in those years that we went from being a grassroots advocacy effort to actually trying to build some institutions that could make real change," he recalls, "like the Durham Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that provides permanent, affordable housing for low-income people."

At the time, says Holmbeck, Duke's role in improving the community around it was insignificant. "It just wasn't part of the mission." The attitude echoed in his mind every time he opened a letter asking him for a financial contribution. "I'd never given a penny."

Or a krone. As director of an association of organic farmers, consumers, and food companies, Holmbeck has found his place in Denmark, where he lives in the city of ≈rhus in eastern Jutland, with his wife and two children. Holmbeck lobbies in the Danish parliament and, sometimes, in the European Union, where he once successfully led a fifteen-country effort to ban genetically modified foods in organic farming. "That was exciting," he says.

Equally exciting to him, though, was the news he was hearing from Durham. "I'd been following what Duke was doing with the NPI [Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership Initiative] and I could see the positive steps it was taking."

Holmbeck was moved--not to open his wallet, but to write a letter. "I wrote the president, and I said, 'I really appreciate Duke as an institution. I won't be giving any money to it. But if I could help you develop a way for alumni to support Duke's social mission to be a good neighbor, I'd like to do that. And I will find others.'"

By "others," Holmbeck was referring to a specific subgroup of alumni: those, like him, who historically have not thought of Duke as worthy of their philanthropic support, but who would be only too happy to support the university in helping the less fortunate. To date, they have done so generously, helping to make possible the NPI. The collaborative program, launched in December 1996, seeks to improve the quality of life in the dozen neighborhoods immediately surrounding the university and to strengthen education in the seven public schools that serve them. Over the last six years, Duke has generated more than $10 million from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government to support K-12 education, the creation of several health clinics and local community centers, and partnerships with nonprofit community-based organizations to meet the needs of people living in low-income communities near its campus.

"Community outreach is clearly seen as part of the mission now, as an obligation," says Holmbeck. "In lieu of paying taxes, Duke's playing a constructive role in the neighborhoods around it."

Also shifting in stance is Holmbeck. While Denmark and Durham are worlds apart, he says, a lobbyist sees them as one. "Whether it's a farmer in Denmark or a low-income family in the West End [neighborhood], it's really just about paying attention. What is it that they want and need in order to achieve their dreams? And what is in the way of their getting it? Lobbyism is about alliances. You have to know who your enemies are, but you have to keep in mind that you may not know who all your friends are."