Learning to Listen

Danielle Potter PPS ’11 didn’t think her research project in Los Angeles would have much in common with her semester abroad in South Africa, where she conducted surveys in townships that lacked the infrastructure to supply basic needs. But the two places had more in common than she had imagined.

“I saw the same Third World conditions in L.A. as in South Africa,” she said. “They didn’t have clean water either. Sometimes the water came out red from the taps.”

A senior from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Potter spent the summer of 2010 with Urban Semillas for the community-based research component of the Service Opportunities in Leadership program (SOL), offered by Hart Leadership. In addition to her public policy major, Potter earned a minor in environmental studies and a Certificate in Arts of the Moving Image.

Urban Semillas seemed a perfect match for her, because it “captures transdisciplinary approaches to the core: mixing inner city youth issues with environmental ones for the state of California. And all three of those aspects are issues I am incredibly passionate about,” she said.

Potter followed two boys and two girls taking part in Agua University, an environmental education and leadership program. Her goal was to evaluate the program’s impact on the students’ attitudes toward their community and future.

”I was developing  a locus-of-control survey, one that identifies whether a subject believes he/she or outside forces controls his/her destiny,” Potter said. A short time in L.A. convinced her it was the wrong approach. One interview was cancelled because a student had to take a neighbor boy to the hospital after a drive-by shooting, and another when a student thought tensions in her neighborhood made it too dangerous for Potter to visit. Realizing she needed a more immediate way to show the impact of the program on the students, she turned to her other passion: film-making.

“The beauty of documentary film is that it empowers people to tell their own stories,” said Potter.

A high point of the summer was when Urban Semillas’ water advocacy bore fruit. Lois Jackson, an administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that the Los Angeles River had gained status as a “traditional navigable water.” This designation means the river, which in many stretches is a concrete gutter for industrial waste, has federal protection and must be clean and available for recreation for urban communities. The work of the Agua University students helped inform the EPA’s final decision on the Los Angeles River.

Potter (far left) and Urban Semillas students camping.
Potter (far left) and students on their camping trip.

The summer program took the students on several field trips to expand their understanding of water in the environment. Potter joined them on a two-week camping trip to explore the sources of L.A.’s water in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Yosemite National Park and Mono Lake. “The thing they enjoyed the most on the trip were the conversations,” she said. Most didn’t have the opportunity for long talks with people outside the neighborhood.

In filming the documentary, Potter drew on the lessons gleaned from her SOL class, “Border Crossing: Leadership, Value Conflicts and Public Life,” taught by Hart Leadership Director Alma Blount.

“That class taught me how to listen,” Potter said. For instance, as one student, Cesar Villareal, spoke about his dreams for the future Potter came to understand how a concept of the future was a new idea for these students, as the demands of their daily life were so pressing. 

She came back to Duke in the fall with hours of video and interview notes, which she edited into the 13-minute film, “Here Comes the Neighborhood”. Miguel Luna, executive director of Urban Semillas, uses the film as a fund-raising tool.

Outside of the program, Potter has become a mentor to the four students: Villareal, Angie Ruiz, Jenni Heraldaz and Irvin Centeno, She helped them figure out state financial aid paperwork. They text each other regularly, discussing plans for the future, such as Irvin’s ambition to be a forest ranger and Cesar’s to be a civil engineer.

Potter appreciates the importance of a well-timed piece of advice. She was pre-med her freshman year at Duke, but it wasn’t a good fit.  Her advisor, Elise Goldwasser, internship coordinator at the Sanford School, suggested she take PPS 55, taught by Elizabeth Vidgor. “Studying public policy taught me how to make decisions during uncertainty, which is important in any job or sector. Social consciousness is implicit in decision-making.”

After graduation, Potter plans to return to the Los Angeles area, but in a completely different role. She hopes to work in a talent agency in LA, with a focus on the business and production side of the industry. She aims to gain the connections that will help her work toward her goal of producing and directing documentaries.